Mary Lou Williams: 3 Awesome Jazz-Blues Licks

Would you like to learn how to solo like jazz legend Mary Lou Williams?

You’ve come to the right place.

In this lesson, you’ll learn awesome licks from the missionary of jazz.

These will help you learn how to improvise awesome solos. It’s the stuff of legend that helped mentor legends like Miles Davis, Bud Powell, and Charlie Parker.

Let’s get started.

How To Play A Blues Run Like Mary Lou Williams

One awesome line that Mary Lou Williams plays looks like this:

This is a descending blues scale run in G. Fortunately, you can learn it as well from the transcription below:

mary lou williams

Coincidentally, you can easily apply this lick over any chord in a blues.

To get this lick under your fingers, here are the steps:

  • First, Work on the lick slowly per measure.
  • Second, try playing the lick over various chords in the correct key. In this case, Mary Lou Williams was playing the lick over the V chord in the key of G (D7).
  • Third, apply the lick over various beats of the bar and try playing in different rhythms.
  • Lastly, transpose the lick to other keys.

Next, let’s try and pick up some more of Mary Lou Williams’ soloing vocabulary.

How To Walk Over Green Dolphin St. Like The Mother Of Bebop

Watch how Mary Lou Williams’ right hand walks (or rather runs) over a ii-V-I in Eb:

Can’t seem to figure out how?

Fortunately, we have this transcription of that very lick over Fm7-Bb7-Ebmaj7:

mary lou williams

Interestingly, she uses a lot of these blues tactics in her playing.

Can you see how you can group G-Gb-F, E-Eb-D, and B-Bb-A can be played using fingers 3, 2, & 1?

This is what I can see is a blues piano technique being used in a jazz lick.

As with the first lick, you’ll succeed in making this part of your vocabulary with the practice tips above.

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Let’s take a look at another awesome lick.

More Mary Lou Williams Licks Over Green Dolphin Street

Going further, check out these 12 bars from Mary Lou Williams’ rendition of Green Dolphin Street:

In this instance, we have a couple of amazing phrases you can use over your solos.

1. How To Combine Chord Tones & Chromaticism

The 1st 4 bars of this portion is useful over a I chord and can suit major and dominant chords well.

Check out the highlighted portion and try it over any major chord:

As you can see, these 4 bars start off with chord tones of a C major triad. This is followed by a bluesy use of chromaticism.

Subsequently, the next 4 bars show a great idea that works over a ii-bII-I-VI chord progression.

Since this chord progression is a derivative of the ii-V-I-VI, it will also work for that sequence as well.

2. Adding Blues Elements The Mary Lou Williams Way

Check out this really bluesy idea below:

On the 1st bar, we have the right hand playing a rootless G7 with a blues tab. This happens over a D7 chord of the song.

Here, we can easily learn an important concept for improv.

For any dominant chord, you can use any scale or arpeggio that is a perfect 4th above the root note of the dominant chord.

Coincidentally, the D7 chord works as the V chord of G.

Given this particular pattern, you can use things like G7 arpeggios and many scales in G.

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Now let’s take a look at the last 4 bars:

3. The Arpeggio Plus Blues Lick Pattern

Lastly, we have this interesting ii-V-I lick over 4 bars:

mary lou williams

On the Dm7 chord, we have a simple descending Dm7 arpeggio.

Interestingly, Mary Lou Williams plays an Eb diminished arpeggio over a G7 chord. That’s another pattern you can use too.

This particular passage starts on the root and then goes to a chromatic walkup starting on the minor 3rd up to the perfect 5th. To end, leap back down to the root.

If you look into all of these 12 bars, you’ll notice that Mary Lou Williams starts with arpeggios and then responds with a bluesy lick after. This adds a great deal of variety.

To get these techniques under your fingers, follow the same steps outlined in the first lick.

Now, it’s time to face reality.

These licks are only a sliver of what Mary Lou Williams could do.

How do you really get close to that level?

Why Jazz  Piano Success Is Elusive (And What To Do About It)

If you’ve spent a lot of time listening to Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, and Mary Lou Williams, your jaw just simply drops.

Do you feel like it’s impossible to come even close to what they can do?

If you’re like me, you’ve probably done research on the most obvious social media platform for this sort of thing: YouTube.

However, after watching a ton of videos on the subject, you get less than stellar results.

Feel like giving up?


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I hope you enjoyed that Mary Lou Williams licks lesson.

If you have any questions, comments, or suggestions for new lessons, feel free to leave a comment below.

Have fun practicing.


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Mark A. Galang, OTRP, MAM-MT(c)

Mark Galang is one of our contributors at He loves teaching all styles of music especially jazz, blues, rock, classical, and Christian music. Mark is also a licensed occupational therapist in the Philippines that combines music therapy intervention with occupational therapy.