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Mary Lou Williams thought jazz had the facility to heal. The Catholic Church agreed.

Portrait of musician Mary Lou Williams in New York Metropolis, circa 1946. Picture by William P. Gottlieb/LOC/Artistic Commons

(RNS) — Among the many standard biographies of notable Catholics in Liturgical Press’ collection “Individuals of God” are many family names: Dorothy Day, Flannery O’Connor, Oscar Romero, Thomas Merton, Sister Helen Prejean and, in fact, Pope Francis.

Its newest topic, Mary Lou Williams, is way lesser identified — each as a legendary jazz pianist-composer and a religious Catholic.

Williams, who died in 1981, believed jazz was “therapeutic to the soul” and located a welcome dwelling amongst churchmen and non secular sisters who have been opening as much as the items of latest tradition as a part of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.

“Mary Lou Williams: Music for the Soul" by Deanna Witkowski. Courtesy image

“Mary Lou Williams: Music for the Soul” by Deanna Witkowski. Courtesy picture

The slim quantity was written by Deanna Witkowski, herself a jazz composer, pianist and interpreter of Williams’ work. Like Williams, Witkowski was additionally a Catholic convert and has written liturgical music, together with jazz Lots.

Her topic, Williams, who was born in 1910, was a musical prodigy with excellent pitch. She supported her household by taking part in piano at personal home events from the time she was 7. By 15, she hit the highway as an expert on the membership circuit.

In her 20s, she wrote and organized for Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman and later grew to become a mentor to many others, together with Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell and Dizzy Gillespie.

However she additionally gave up on music for a stretch and tried heroically to turn out to be a saint, feeding the hungry, giving up her possessions, serving to different jazz greats with their addictions to heroin.

It was the Jesuit monks she befriended within the years earlier than and after her baptism in 1957 who satisfied her to see music as her fundamental ministry.

Faith Information Service spoke to Witkowski about her biography of Williams, titled “Mary Lou Williams: Music for the Soul,” and the way the church — and artists themselves — may higher respect their skills as religious items.

Deanna Witkowski. Photo by Erika Kapin

Deanna Witkowski. Picture by Erika Kapin


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How did you come to admire Mary Lou Williams?

In 2000, Billy Taylor, a creative adviser for jazz on the Kennedy Heart, invited me to deliver my quintet to play on the Mary Lou Williams Ladies in Jazz Competition. I accepted the invitation, however I noticed I didn’t know any Mary Lou Williams music. I knew her repute as an incredible, early big-band composer and a pioneering jazz pianist, however I didn’t know any of her works. So, I began educating myself. What struck me initially was that she had written three jazz Lots and I had simply written my first jazz Mass for an Episcopal Church in New York. It was parallel to my very own life. I began trying out her music and was amazed by the breadth of stylistic genres inside jazz. She all the time sounded trendy it doesn’t matter what type of music she was taking part in.

Williams was fully self-educated, proper?

Sure and no. She didn’t have formal piano academics. However there have been touring musicians who got here by Pittsburgh who confirmed her various things. She talks a few pianist named Jack Howard who taught her the significance of an vital left hand as a result of that’s the place the sensation and beat was in jazz. When she toured with Andy Kirk and his Clouds of Pleasure for 12 years, from 1929-1942, she started listening to lots of compositional concepts in her head and needed to attempt them out. Andy Kirk labored along with her to show her musical notation.

Portrait of Mary Lou Williams, left, at her apartment in New York, New York, circa Aug. 1947. Photo by William P. Gottlieb/LOC/Creative Commons

Portrait of Mary Lou Williams, left, at her house in New York Metropolis, circa August 1947. Picture by William P. Gottlieb/LOC/Artistic Commons

She moved to Harlem within the Nineteen Forties whereas there are lots of race riots and a rising heroin epidemic amongst musicians and different artists. How did she escape habit herself?

Mary Lou was all the time somebody who needed to avoid wasting different individuals. When she’s seeing her associates, Bud Powell or Charlie Parker, take care of habit, she would invite them into her dwelling in Harlem. She was working to get them off medicine. Her prescription was prayer and music. She would write music and get them to play it to get their minds off medicine. She was consumed with the concept she wanted to avoid wasting different individuals. She additionally needed to create group. She noticed the drug use impairing the group round her and he or she needed to do one thing about that. There are some latest articles that counsel she had an alcoholic breakdown (later when she lived) in Europe. She didn’t. She generally acquired lumped in with jazz musicians who had drug or alcohol addictions. She didn’t.

She anticipates jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker’s demise and later begins to get these visions. It nearly looks like a sort of breakdown or psychological sickness. Was it?

She had visions from when she was little. Mary Lou isn’t the one one who will get talked about as having extraordinary talents. She was born with the placenta over her eyes. That was seen in African American tradition as having second sight. Her household believed that from the time she was born. She did see issues different individuals didn’t see. I additionally assume pioneering artists are individuals who see potentialities different individuals don’t see. However she had lots of struggles all through her life so there’s agitation there. However I by no means learn something that refers to her visions as psychological sickness.

Pianist Mary Lou Williams plays at Café Society Downtown in New York, New York, circa June 1947. Photo by William P. Gottlieb/LOC/Creative Commons

Pianist Mary Lou Williams performs at Café Society Downtown in New York Metropolis, circa June 1947. Picture by William P. Gottlieb/LOC/Artistic Commons

Did she develop up with faith?

Church wasn’t a daily a part of her rising up.

She was baptized in 1957 simply earlier than the Catholic Church started to confide in the world, and to jazz. Did she sense the church’s embrace of standard tradition?

There have been quite a few monks pushing her to jot down a jazz Mass years earlier than she wrote her first one in 1967. There’s a Paulist priest, Norman O’Connor, who was on the Newport Jazz Competition board, who inspired her to jot down liturgical jazz. In 1963, there’s a letter she wrote to a Franciscan brother, Mario Hancock, and he or she says, “Why ought to I write a jazz Mass? Everybody’s already finished it.” Within the Sixties, document labels did extra non secular jazz labels. The monks asking her to jot down liturgical music knew concerning the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. However she wrote her first jazz Mass when she labored at a Catholic lady’s college and he or she discovered that the way in which she will be able to educate music concept in a method the women can reply is to jot down music for them.

Is her music appreciated at the moment by the church?

I don’t assume it’s identified. She had a chance in 1968 to have her second Mass known as “Mass for the Lenten Season” printed. I couldn’t determine what occurred with that. However publishers have an enormous affect on what music will get into circulation. If Mary Lou isn’t in there, how is the general public going to find out about that?

Do you see her being appreciated extra posthumously?

There’s undoubtedly been a renewal of curiosity in Mary Lou Williams in recent times. I’ve a document popping out of Mary Lou’s compositions, known as “Power of Nature.” In 2020 the Grammys inducted Mary Lou’s 1945 trio recording, “The Zodiac Suite,” in its Corridor of Fame. A few pianists have finished new recordings and preparations of that piece. Most jazz followers would possibly know that work however they could not know a lot about her different music. Or perhaps they know Alvin Ailey’s collaboration with Mary Lou Williams. However they won’t know what the music feels like. The principle motive I wrote the e book is so individuals put it down and hunt down her music.

Deanna Witkowski will carry out Mary Lou’s Mass in concert at Sacred Coronary heart Catholic Church in Pittsburgh on Oct. 24. 


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