Jazz pianist, composer Mary Lou Williams focus of Loyola talk

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, April 3, 2024

Mary Lou Williams in 1946. (William P. Gottlieb/Library of Congress)

Mary Lou Williams isn’t exactly a household name, not like Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonius Monk or Charlie Parker, all of whom she worked with.

The Atlanta-born and Pittsburgh-raised jazz pianist, composer and bandleader isn’t even known as well as she should be among jazz musicians, said Deanna Witkowski, Williams’ biographer and a jazz musician herself.

“When I speak to jazz students or musicians, they say things like, ‘Williams was a really important jazz pianist, right? Didn’t she write a lot of important jazz tunes? I don’t know any of them.’ People know Williams’ name, but they don’t know her music.”

Witkowski offered a lecture based on her book, “Mary Lou Williams: Music for the Soul” (Liturgical Press, 2021) March 21 and a gala performance of selections from “Mary Lou’s Mass” the following day, both hosted by Loyola University Chicago’s Hank Center for the Catholic Intellectual Heritage.

Williams left behind a large body of work, Witkowski said.

“Williams had a 60-year career that was very expansive, genre-wise,” said Witkowski in a lecture that included her performing several of Williams’ compositions on the piano. “She identified as an experimentalist. She was proud that, as she said, ‘No one could pin a style on me.’ … She was also someone who was generous, who always wanted to help other people.”

Witkowski said part of the problem is the tradition of the “great man narrative” in the jazz world, where Williams is often reduced to a supporting role: She played with Ellington and his band the Washingtonians at the age of 13 in 1923. After time in the Kansas City swing scene in the 1940s, she traveled with Ellington’s band and arranged music for him. After she left the band — and her husband — she accepted an engagement at Café Society in New York, where she mentored and taught artists such as Monk, Parker and Gillespie.

In 1952, she accepted an invitation to perform in the United Kingdom, and she stayed in Europe for two years, until she backed away from the piano during a performance in Paris in 1954 and began a years-long musical hiatus.

That hiatus coincided with her 1954 conversion to Catholicism, which she did alongside Dizzy Gillespie’s wife, Lorraine. That led to a series of friendships with priests and nuns, often conducted through letters, that lasted the rest of her life.

During that time, she started the Bel Canto Foundation to raise money for musicians struggling with addiction and other issues and turning her New York apartment into a halfway house for them.

She was, in many ways, imitating the life and work of her friend, Dorothy Day, Witkowski said.

“Williams cared for the poor, and, like Day, lived in voluntary poverty,” she said.

“"Williams's spiritual journey is also commonly reduced to a one-dimensional story emphasizing how her midlife conversion to Catholicism made her into something of a religious fanatic,” she said, quoting from the introduction to her book.

That erases Williams' choice to embrace Catholicism, said Witkowski , who is also an adult convert to the church.

Friends who were priests convinced Williams that her music was a gift from God that would help heal people as well, Witkowski said.

One of them, Father Peter O’Brien, became her manager in the 1960s, a period when she founded the Pittsburgh Jazz Festival with the backing of the Catholic diocese there.

Her first composition of sacred music was the hymn “Black Christ of the Andes (St. Martin de Porres),” written for a 1962 civil rights Mass at St. Francis Xavier Church on 16th Street in Manhattan.

She wrote her first Mass setting in Pittsburgh, where she taught at a Catholic high school, as a way to help her students learn. Her second Mass, a Lenten Mass, was written for a Harlem church. Her final Mass, which she called “Mass for Peace,” was completed in 1975. Alvin Ailey dubbed it “Mary Lou’s Mass,” and choreographed dance for the music.

In the last years of her life, Williams taught at Duke University. Among her students was John Dear, who went on to become a priest, a peace activist and a prolific writer. He got to know her better when he volunteered to bring the Eucharist to the sick, and encountered her among the patients in the hospital before her death in 1981.

For Witkowski’s book, Dear described his first class with Williams. She arrived late, he said, dressed all in black, and sauntered across the stage to the piano. She sat and played for an hour, and then got up and said, “Jazz is love, and I’m here to teach you love through jazz.”

Witkowski said she first encountered Williams when she was invited to perform at the Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival at Lincoln Center.

“I felt a responsibility to learn something about this person whose name was on the festival,” she said. “I had just written my second jazz Mass for an Episcopal church in New York, and here was this woman who also wrote jazz Masses.”

Witkowski, who recently finished her dissertation on jazz Masses at the University of Pittsburgh, said she sees images of Williams around the city, on murals and in photographs at a club Williams played at. Since she moved to the city in 2020 during COVID-19 shutdowns, Witkowski said, when she was writing Williams’ biography, she got into the habit of talking to Williams, and feels her presence there.

“In Mary, I had found a soul companion,” Witkowski said. “Mary has become more and more a part of my life. Mary gives me courage. Sometimes I speak with her before I play. I hope that her story will bring you to what, for her, was the most important thing: her music.”


  • loyola university
  • music

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