Jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams remembered

Photo by Ebuen Clemente Jr on Unsplash
Photo by Ebuen Clemente Jr on Unsplash

BBC Radio 3’s Composer of the Week - Mary Lou Williams - has a fascinating connection to the Society of Jesus. 

Mary Lou Williams was so talented she wrote and arranged music for Duke Ellington and was friend, mentor and teacher to the likes of Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie. In 1952, Williams turned down an invitation from Louis Armstrong to join his ‘All Stars’ on tour and instead went to Europe. The trip was meant to last one week but Williams ended up staying for two years.

While in Paris, she experienced a profound spiritual crisis. She had found God in a little church there and decided that her life must take a new direction. When she returned to America, Williams rejected the jazz scene and the nightlife that went with it. She gave up smoking, gambling and expensive clothes and embraced an ascetic existence.

From her apartment in Harlem, Williams worked tirelessly to help the poor and the sick. This included some of the drug-addicted and ill musicians she knew (including Charlie Parker). This effort later became the Bel Canto Foundation, an initiative to get recovering musicians to return to performing.

Williams was by this time attending a local Roman Catholic church but lacked the guidance she was looking for. Her meeting with Rev. John Crowley, a jazz fan, and Fr Anthony Woods SJ, gave her the instruction she needed.

In 1957, Fr Anthony baptized Williams and became her spiritual adviser. He and Crowley encouraged Williams to return to making music, which she did. From that moment on, Williams was able to fuse jazz and faith into something uniquely beautiful. In 1975, she played her highly-regarded jazz spiritual Mary Lou’s Mass in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York (the first time a jazz musician had played in the church). 

Mary Lou Williams died in 1981. She is buried in the Roman Catholic Calvary Cemetery in Pittsburgh. She is regarded by many in the jazz world as “the first lady of the jazz keyboard.”

To listen to Composer of the Week – Mary Lou Williams, click here.