How Music and Service Led Jazz Legend Mary Lou Williams to a Life of Faith

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The late jazz composer, pianist, and Catholic convert Mary Lou Williams isn’t as well known as some of her musical contemporaries – people such as Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk – but Deanna Witkowski is trying to change that. A professional jazz musician herself, Deanna has been influenced not just by Mary Lou’s music but also her Catholic faith. Deanna has now written a biography called “Mary Lou Williams: Music for the Soul,” and we discussed it recently on “Christopher Closeup” (podcast below).

Though Deanna’s schedule is busy, she jumped at the chance to write about a figure with whom she feels such a close connection. She said, “When Liturgical Press, the book publisher, approached me about possibly writing a biography on Mary Lou Williams, I had already been playing her music for about 17 or 18 years….[and] spending time in her archives at Rutgers University. She has been someone who I consider to be my lifelong mentor, someone who’s like a companion to me because I have all these parallels with her. I first found out about her sacred music before I ever heard her instrumental music. She wrote several jazz Masses, and that’s something I’ve also done. So that got me into her story.”

Born in Atlanta but raised in Pittsburgh, Mary Lou Williams revealed herself to be a child prodigy around age three when, after hearing her mother play a song on the organ, she played the same composition herself on a keyboard. Deanna explained, “She learned a lot from traveling musicians and musicians in Pittsburgh who would come to her home and teach her informally because her mother felt that if she took formal piano lessons and learned to read music, that she might lose her ability to improvise.”

When Mary Lou became a young adult, she toured with a big band called Andy Kirk and His Twelve Clouds of Joy, serving as their pianist and principal arranger. After leaving that group in 1942, she moved to Harlem, New York, and became a popular pianist at Cafe Society, as well as a band leader. The work was difficult, however, because it didn’t just deal with making music, but also the business side of the industry, such as ” procuring work for yourself, dealing with things like getting your copyrights secured, getting your royalties.”

Over time, Mary Lou felt herself drawn to helping her fellow musicians who were struggling with heroin addiction. Deanna notes that Mary Lou had a longstanding impulse to “save people,” and she questioned whether her music career was accomplishing anything worthwhile in that regard. Those feelings came to a head when she was traveling through Europe and one of her closest friends, pianist Garland Wilson, died in Paris, resulting in a dark night of the soul for Mary Lou.

Though Mary Lou was born into a Baptist family, they weren’t weekly churchgoers, so she didn’t have much of a foundation in the areas of faith and prayer. But in Paris, a friend of hers recommended she read the Psalms in the Bible.

Deanna notes that when Mary Lou did that, “she felt that cooled her, which was her term for feeling more at peace. And then another one of her friends, an American expatriate named Colonel Edward Brennan, introduced her to a garden where there was a statue of the Virgin Mary and she started praying there. And she, again, felt this sense of calm. When she comes back to the States, after being in Europe for two years…she comes back to her old home in Harlem and starts consciously looking for a church…She actually finds the church in her neighborhood that’s three blocks from her apartment that’s open during the day is a Catholic church called Our Lady of Lourdes. So she goes in there and just on her own starts praying before she even attends Mass or a liturgy or anything. And that’s just the beginning of her conversion.”

Religious mentors soon entered Mary Lou’s life in a roundabout way. For instance, trumpeter and band leader Dizzy Gillespie was on tour in Latin America when a Redemptorist priest named Father John Crowley, who was a big jazz fan, came to see him perform. Father Crowley and Dizzy had a conversation afterwards, during which the priest asked him, “What ever happened to Mary Lou Williams?”

Deanna said, “That question started them talking. And Dizzy’s wife, Lorraine, was in the process of converting to Catholicism at the time as well. When Father Crowley comes back to the States for a visit, it’s Dizzy’s wife, Lorraine, who asked Father Crowley to please visit Mary in her apartment. He’s the first priest Mary meets who understands both her vocation as a jazz musician…and her attraction to the Church. That’s the first priest she meets who guides her towards the Church. And he tells her that playing music can be a form of prayer for her and that’s where God has gifted her and she should not be giving that up. This is in a period where she basically had stopped performing publicly for a couple of years.”

During those non-performing years, Mary Lou became focused on helping others, turning her apartment into a sort of halfway house for those struggling with addiction. Her conversion allowed her to integrate both music and service into her life. Deanna explained, “I always think of Mary Lou as someone who was a very compassionate person and had a heart for others. [She] was doing works of mercy before she was Catholic. She might’ve not termed that the same way. It’s just that when she did convert to Catholicism, she had a new framework and a new relationship with God that deepened her work.”

In addition, a Jesuit named Father Anthony Woods became Mary Lou’s spiritual advisor – and another Jesuit, Father Peter O’Brien, actually became her manager for 20 years through a special arrangement with his superiors.

There are many more aspects of Mary Lou’s life and faith chronicled in “Music for the Soul,” but Deanna ultimately has two hopes for readers. She concludes, “One is that people be directed back to listen to Mary Lou’s music so they experience it for themselves. And the other is to see an example of someone who was so faithful and discerning to what God had given them for a vision – and a way to execute that vision and to keep going and following that.”

(To listen to my full interview with Deanna Witkowski, click on the podcast link):

1) Deanna Witkowski, and 2) Kelly Starling Lyons and Torrey Maldonado, part 2 – Christopher Closeup