A Jazz Giant’s Legacy Lives On

Mary Lou Williams in New York City, 1946. Courtesy Library of Congress.
By Mike Aquilina

A stack of Mary Lou Williams LPs by the turntable meant something in the 1950s and ’60s. It indicated the owner was not just a jazz fan, but rather a listener of some refinement.

Williams was known as the “first lady of the piano,” a woman of unparalleled achievement in the macho world of jazz players.

She won fame first in Pittsburgh. A prodigy at age six, she was known locally as “the little piano girl of East Liberty.” At 12 she was touring. A year later, in the early 1920s, she was playing for the legendary Duke Ellington. She later arranged music for Earl Hines, Benny Goodman, and Tommy Dorsey.

She performed with just about every major jazz star of her era, and she led her own trio, quartet, quintet, sextet and orchestra. She gave piano lessons to Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell and mentored many other greats.

It’s arguable, though, that she has never been more famous than now, forty years after her death. The revival of interest in Williams’ music is worldwide, but Pittsburgh is certainly an epicenter.

In the city she’s the subject of several public murals, notably on the East Busway. In a display at the airport her face appears with those of fellow Pittsburgh icons Andy Warhol and Fred Rogers. Her piano is on permanent exhibit at the Heinz History Center.

Mural at Pittsburgh International Airport (Mike Aquilina photo)

And a new biography has appeared this fall. Mary Lou Williams: Music for the Soul is the latest installment in the prestigious People of God series from Liturgical Press. Written by Greenfield resident Deanna Witkowski, herself a jazz composer, Music for the Soul is the third major biography of Williams since 1999. It is the first, however, to emphasize the importance of her spiritual vision — her Catholic faith.

In 1953-54 Williams was living and working in Paris, France, which had become a refuge for African-American artists and writers. Always a seeker, she began to pray in earnest. A Catholic friend introduced her to his favorite place to meditate, a small church with a fenced-in garden. Williams later told friends that she had a vision of the Virgin Mary there.

When she returned to the States in 1954, she took up residence in Manhattan. She started attending daily Mass.

In 1956 she was received into the Catholic Church. At first she thought she would give up performance. It seemed to involve her in a world of vanity, rivalry, and drug use. But she realized, after some time away from the stage, that while at the keyboard she could be “praying through [her] fingertips.”

She sensed that God was calling her to compose sacred music in the jazz idiom. She floated the idea to several churchmen, who strongly discouraged her. Pittsburgh Bishop John Wright was at first skeptical, but gradually won over. Eventually he invited her to return to Pittsburgh and teach music at Seton High School in Brookline.

In time she would release several albums of sacred music: Black Christ of the Andes (1964), a jazz hymn to Saint Martin de Porres, and Music for Peace (1970), a suite of songs inspired by the Catholic liturgy. With the Paul Quinlan Trio she wrote and played for the album Praise the Lord in Many Voices (1966). She would eventually compose several different jazz settings for the Mass.

In weeks to come, locals will have several opportunities to hear Williams’ music performed live.

On Sunday, October 17, at 6 p.m., the Deanna Witkowski Trio will play her music at City of Asylum, 40 W. North Ave on North Side.

On Saturday, October 23, at 7 p.m., Saint Benedict the Moor Church will host a special program, “How to Listen to Mary Lou’s Mass,” again featuring Witkowski’s trio.

The following evening, Sunday, October 24, Sacred Heart Church will be the site for a 7 p.m. performance of music from Music for Peace (also known as “Mary Lou’s Mass”) and other sacred music by Williams. For that show Witkowski will lead a twelve-voice choir and jazz quartet. Reservations are suggested and can be placed online at saintjudepgh.org or by phone at at 412-661-0187. Tickets may also be purchased at the door.