Mary Lou Williams and the music of salvation

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On July 7, 1957, Dizzy Gillespie performed at the Newport Jazz Festival with his big band. On piano was Wynton Kelly, one of the finest accompanists in the business, but he gave up his seat at one point as Dizzy introduced a woman who, he said, he coaxed out of “semi-retirement” — with the help of two Roman Catholic priests — to perform some of her own compositions.

Mary Lou Williams plays piano with Andy Kirk’s Twelve Clouds of Joy in this undated photo. Widely considered the first great jazz instrumentalist who was a woman, Williams became a convert to Catholicism and began to compose and perform sacred as well as secular music. —- Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Paxton and Rachel Baker

The great Dizzy Gillespie, a trumpet virtuoso and a pivotal figure in the world of jazz, described his guest as “a truly, truly, truly great artist.” Her name was Mary Lou Williams, and great she was.

An extraordinary musician, composer and arranger, Williams was equally accomplished at playing ragtime, swing, be-bop and free jazz. She worked with musicians as different as Fats Waller, Art Tatum, Benny Goodman, Count Basie and Cecil Taylor, among many others. (And she used to cook for the likes of Charlie Parker, Thelonius Monk and Miles Davis. She would make a pot of food and leave the door to her Harlem apartment open for them if she wasn’t home.)

“She is like soul on soul,” Duke Elllington once said.

Why, then — at the young age of 44 — had she abandoned the stage and gone into semi-retirement? In truth, the “semi-retirement” was more like an extended religious retreat. She had spent most of the previous three years in prayer.

While performing in Paris during a tour of Europe in 1954, she abruptly got from the piano and left the club.

“I got a sign that everybody should pray every day,” the New York Times reported her saying years later. “I had never felt a conscious desire to get close to God. But it seemed that night that it all came to a head. I couldn’t take it any longer. So I just left — the piano — the money — all of it.”

Raised a Baptist, she spent long periods of time at Our Lady of Lourdes near her home, a Catholic church whose doors were often open. She converted to Catholicism; was baptized, along with her friend, Lorraine Gillespie, Dizzy’s wife; and became a daily communicant.

She established the Bel Canto Foundation to help musicians who had fallen on hard times and she started a thrift shop to fund it, also contributing her own earnings to the cause.

She also began composing religious music, beginning in 1962 with a hymn in honor of Saint Martin de Porres, the patron of racial harmony, which she performed at New York’s Philharmonic Hall. She next composed music for three Masses, the third of which was commissioned by Msgr. Joseph Gremillion, an American priest working at the Vatican, after she had had a private audience with Pope Paul VI in 1969. Titled “Music for Peace,” it was performed at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. Alvin Ailey later choreographed a dance to it, and it became commonly known as “Mary Lou’s Mass.”

Williams spent the last years of her life as artist in-residence at Duke University in Durham, N.C. “It was a deeply fulfilling period for her,” her friend, Jesuit Father Peter O’Brien, wrote in an article about her for the Smithsonian. “She loved the students, and they loved her. She received the Trinity Award, given directly by vote of the students.”

She died of cancer, at the age of 72, in 1981.

Both the United States and Christianity have often fallen far short of the ideals and beliefs on which they were founded. But the histories of both the country and the church are also filled with stories of individuals of exemplary faith, resilience and courage. All Americans and all Catholics can take inspiration from Mary Lou Williams.

She is believed to be a survivor of rape. She was a black woman who grew up in a racially segregated society, and she was a woman who distinguished herself in a male-dominated field. She was also an artist who, despite many personal and professional challenges, believed her life and her work were valued by God.

As one critic observed, “Music, for Mary Lou, is really a documentation of the triumph over the trauma.”

Carl Peters is managing editor of the Catholic Star Herald.