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Artist Profiles

Mary Lou Williams: Jazz Healing

By Published: May 4, 2006
In 1952, a nine-day job in Europe stretched into two years of performing there. In 1954, however, she left the jazz world for a few years and converted to Catholicism. During this period she composed richly expressive sacred music. A priest, Father Anthony Woods, and Dizzy Gillespie convinced Mary Lou to return to playing jazz. Her reentry into the jazz world took place at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival in a performance with Dizzy's band.

In 1964, Williams wrote a piece called "St. Martin de Porres: Black Christ of the Andes," drawing an enthusiastic notice in Time magazine. In 1969, the Vatican commissioned her to write a mass—her third—which she titled "Music For Peace." The work premiered in 1970 at Columbia University and was later rewritten by Williams for the Alvin Ailey City Center Dance Theater (1971). It became known as "Mary Lou's Mass" and is considered among the most important contributions to the sacred music genre of its century.

The last years of Mary Lou's life were dedicated to bringing jazz to youth. Beginning in 1977, she taught and served as artist-in-residence at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, also giving lectures and conducting workshops and choir-training sessions at other colleges and universities, and playing concert halls and clubs only on her vacations from teaching. Her emphasis was on enabling students to feel the music and she believed strongly that books that teach performance technique were partially responsible for the near death of jazz in her time:

"Pianists can have technique, but that's not enough," she remarks after her demonstration. "We're living in a technical society, and people think that if they go to school and learn it, they'll be able to play it right. Sure, you can play like a typewriter, but it'll make your audience nervous to listen to it. It's nothing that's written down in a book, you know." (Books & Arts, "Swinger With A Mission," Catherine O'Neill, December 7, 1979, pp. 30-31)

Williams' legacy is impressive. By the date of her death, on May 28, 1981, she had written over 350 musical compositions, recorded extensively, lectured in the most prestigious universities, performed for dignitaries in the White House, at Carnegie Hall with Cecil Taylor, and at the top jazz venues in the Unites States and abroad with her most esteemed contemporaries.

I can only offer a few suggestions for listening, viewing, and reading about Mary Lou Williams—a complete listing would be a book unto itself—but I can assure you that all of her work is equally excellent. There are no wrong choices where Mary Lou is concerned. Linda Dahl's biography of Williams, Morning Glory, is a great start reading about her and includes a more extensive, though not exhaustive, discography. To hear Mary Lou play, I'd suggest any of the following reissued CDs: Zodiac Suite, Embraced, Music For Peace (Mary Lou's Mass), Key Moments, Kansas City Bounce, Andy Kirk—Moten Swing and Jazz Piano Anthology: The Magic Touch, volume 4.

Recordings by other artists of Williams' compositions to listen to are: What's Your Story, Morning Glory?—Ella Fitzgerald (Verve 517535-2) or Milt Jackson (Original Jazz Classics 404-2), In The Land of Oo-bla-dee—Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra (RCA/BMG 09026-68499-2), Swingin' Til the Guys Come Home—Lambert, Hendricks and Bavan (Bluebird 6282-2-R11), Black Coffee—Sarah Vaughan (Columbia C2K44165), Walkin' Out the Door—Nat Cole (Capitol Jazz CDP 07777895452), and Marian McPartland Plays The Music of Mary Lou Williams (Concord Jazz 4605).

Two videos well worth watching are I Have A Dream (Edward Flannigan—New York University Motion Picture Workshop 1968) and Music On My Mind (Joanne Burke—1981. Distributed through Women Make Movies, New York.)

Enjoy!


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