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    Improvising a Path

    The music of Mary Lou Williams illustrates how the richness and beauty of jazz can deepen sacred texts.

    By Deanna Witkowski

    April 23, 2022
    • Ana Hernandez

      Seeing all of her music as prayer! Yes! Thanks for this article and keep spreading yours and Mary Lou's Gospels. Deep bow.

    • Charis Varnadore

      I hope, no, I am sure that you are familiar with the work of Les McCann in the late 60's. I first heard him when , as an 18 year old young whit kid from South Carolina on my way to Vandenberg AFB in Calif. in Jan. of 63, found myself alone in a friend's house in LA and turned on the TV and there he was. I knew nothing about Jazz at the time aside from Mancini's "Peter Gunn" albums, but when I heard les McCann that afternoon, not only did he bring tears to my eyes but turned my direction-less life around forever.

    My uprooting began sixteen months ago. Five months into the pandemic, I broke my longtime bond with the crowded island of Manhattan, where I had lived for twenty-three years as a jazz pianist and composer, and moved to the overly hilly, much smaller city of Pittsburgh. Ostensibly, my decision to relocate was propelled by my acceptance into a doctoral program at the University of Pittsburgh. But what led me to apply to Pitt in the first place and come to the place I call “the city where jazz is love” had to do with another jazz musician. Mary Lou Williams (1910–81) grew up in the Steel City almost a century earlier. Over the last twenty years, Williams (whom I never had the privilege of meeting or hearing in person) has become my soul companion and my chosen mentor. I began listening to her music in 2000, when the late pianist and educator Dr. Billy Taylor invited me to perform with my quintet at the Kennedy Center’s Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival. At that time, I only knew of Williams’s reputation as a pioneering early big-band-era arranger and pianist and as a mentor for bebop musicians in the 1940s, including Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker. I decided that if I were to play at a festival dedicated to Williams I needed to learn more about her, and more than anything, to listen to her music.

    Supplementing my listening by reading the then-new Williams biography Morning Glory by Linda Dahl, I learned that Williams was not only a breathtakingly original composer whose work spanned six decades and multiple eras of jazz, but that she had composed three jazz Masses after converting to Catholicism at the age of forty-seven. I gasped in recognition – I had just composed a jazz Mass for a congregation on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Ten years later, I also converted to Catholicism through the influence of Jesuits at the very same parishes Williams had attended.

    While visiting Pittsburgh for seven weeks in 2019 to conduct research, perform, and become better acquainted with Williams’s hometown, I was warmly embraced by the local jazz community. I began to wonder what it might feel like to live here on a more permanent basis, and made the plunge the following year. Renting a house in the fall of 2020, I realized that I was living on the same street in the East Liberty neighborhood as one of Williams’s childhood homes. While she was born in Atlanta, Williams moved north with her family to Pittsburgh at the age of four. By the age of nine she was known as “the little piano girl of East Liberty” due to her pianistic efforts to spread love in her community by playing in neighbors’ homes. Her love had now brought me to the very same street where she grew up.

    Williams continues to stay close to me: several months after buying my own home in Pittsburgh last winter, I realized that the cemetery where Williams is buried is located just one mile from my house. I know that Williams is part of the “great cloud of witnesses” and I feel her very real presence in my life. Even more than this, I view Williams as my teacher both in music and in my daily life.

    While Mary Lou Williams did not hold a permanent teaching position until the last four years of her life, she was always teaching through her music, her charitable work, and her willingness to follow God’s call. Part of what made Williams an effective teacher was her willingness to experiment and to sound like no one but herself. In response to a reviewer in the 1950s who stated, disparagingly, that no one could “pin a style” on her playing, Williams proudly identified herself as an experimenter. In the 1940s, musicians gathered at her apartment in after-hours salons to receive feedback on their new compositions. These musicians included John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and Charlie Parker – all three recognized as pioneers of bebop, a revolutionary new style of jazz that Williams helped to shape.

    As a great improviser, Williams allowed herself to change direction when she recognized that change was required. In 1954, after two years performing in England and France on her first European trip, she suddenly chose to stop performing – for almost three years. During this retreat, Williams began her spiritual search in earnest. She converted to Catholicism in 1957, and through the help of priests and fellow musicians, came to see all of her music as prayer. She knew that this prayer was powerful not just for herself, but for her listeners. Williams received many letters from fans who told her how their lives had been changed simply by hearing her music or by receiving a kind word from her after a performance.

    Mary Lou Williams posing at a piano

    Mary Lou Williams, April 1947 Photograph by William P Gottlieb

    Beginning in the late 1960s, believing that the future of jazz was in jeopardy, Williams educated audiences via “history of jazz” performances, demonstrating what she defined as the four eras of jazz: ragtime, spirituals, Kansas City swing, and bebop, often accompanied by her manager, the Jesuit priest Fr. Peter O’Brien, SJ. An early concert version of her musical teaching appears on the live recording, Praise the Lord in Many Voices. The album documents a Carnegie Hall concert of the same name that was sponsored by the New York Jesuits in 1967. Emerging out of Vatican II–fueled debates regarding what types of music were suitable for liturgical use, the Jesuits took the bold step of commissioning six composers – including Williams – to write new religious works for the Carnegie premiere. Williams began her portion of the program with a mini trio set where she demonstrated her “eras of jazz” at the piano while Fr. Clement McNaspy, SJ, verbally outlined each era with a script written by Mary. Continuing with her three new choral works, especially her exquisite setting of the Lord’s Prayer, Williams illustrated how the richness and beauty of jazz could deepen sacred texts.

    Soon after the Carnegie Hall concert, Williams continued to show what liturgical jazz could sound like – and how to involve young people in singing this new music. After accepting an invitation from the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh in 1967 to teach at Elizabeth Seton High School, a girls’ school run by the Sisters of Charity, Williams composed her first Mass for her students. She claimed to have written the Mass out of practicality: realizing that her students were struggling to understand music theory, Williams decided to teach by composing a new Mass setting for them to sing. In July 1967, Williams’s Pittsburgh Mass was performed at Saint Paul Cathedral with fourteen Seton students and Williams at the piano as part of a public liturgy sponsored by the Catholic Youth Organization.

    One year later, Williams had her first opportunity to present and teach her liturgical music to a congregation over the course of six Sundays in Lent. Accepting an invitation from the Harlem Vicariate, a group of African American Catholic parishes in Harlem that was commissioning a series of seasonal Masses, Williams wrote her Mass for the Lenten Season for the now-closed St. Thomas the Apostle Church on 118th Street in Harlem. Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker, was one of the congregants who sang Williams’s new Mass. Day expressed her delight at the jubilant spirit so apparent in Williams’s Mass in The Catholic Worker newspaper. Williams corresponded with Day via letter in the following months during a trip to Copenhagen and Rome, where she performed her Lenten Mass with a group of seminarians from the Pontifical North American College as a tribute concert to Martin Luther King Jr. Toward the end of her stay in Rome, she received a commission from the Vatican to write her third and most well-known Mass, Music for Peace, which was later rechristened by choreographer Alvin Ailey as Mary Lou’s Mass. In 1975, Mary Lou’s Mass was performed at New York’s Saint Patrick’s Cathedral with Williams’s trio and students from four local Catholic schools. Three thousand people came to be a part of the historic event, the first time a jazz Mass had been celebrated at the cathedral. Beyond Saint Patrick’s, Williams traveled extensively, bringing Mary Lou’s Mass to parishes around the country, where she often taught the music to youth choirs.

    Williams’s willingness to make her music accessible by not insisting that it only be sung or played by professional musicians is part of what made her a great teacher. She was willing to share her knowledge and encouraged others to “keep on keeping on,” no matter whether they were learning one of her pieces or finding the stamina to make it through another day. For years, she took care of neighbors and musicians in need by caring for them in her small apartment in Harlem, offering whatever assistance she could to help them kick a drug habit or get back on their feet financially. She ran a thrift shop to raise money for her non-profit, the Bel Canto Foundation, which aided musicians who struggled with addiction. No matter whether she was performing on stage or caring for others in her home, Williams gave all that she had for the good of others.

    Today, Mary Lou Williams is teaching me how to live. She reminds me that the act of creating one’s path involves determination, improvisation, and incredible courage. I am grateful for her compassionate, generous spirit, her bold, adventurous compositions, and her unflagging determination to bring people together in love through jazz.

    Contributed By

    Pianist-composer-vocalist Deanna Witkowski moves with remarkable ease between Brazilian, jazz, classical, and sacred music. The award-winning bandleader has just released her seventh recording, Force of Nature (MCG Jazz) in January 2022, a companion piece to her biography, Mary Lou Williams: Music For The Soul (Liturgical Press) published in September 2021. The two projects cap a twenty-year deep dive into the ground-breaking impact of Williams’ life and music, making Witkowski one of the few living authorities on the iconic pianist. As a sought after Williams expert, she has presented at the Kennedy Center, Duke University, Fordham University, and performed Williams’ compositions as a featured guest with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Experience her work at

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