Memories of Mary Lou

AAJ Staff BY

Sign in to view read count
The emotional experience of the music, and of Mary Lou herself, was so strong that my life at once took on a permanent new direction.
By Rev. Peter F. O'Brien, S.J.

I met Mary Lou Williams in the pages of Time Magazine. It was early 1964. She was 53 years old and I was 23. The article, under MUSIC, was in two parts -each about a different woman. The first concerned itself with Sarah Caldwell. Ms. Caldwell directed and produced operas and was the inventor of The Boston Opera Company. The sub-heading over her section of the story read: "The Persistent One . The second half dealt with Mary Lou Williams, the somewhat reclusive (at that time) jazz pianist, composer and arranger, who had emerged to play at The Hickory House in New York—last of the places presenting jazz on 52nd Street. The sub-heading above the narrative concerning Ms. Williams dubbed her: "The Prayerful One .

What absolutely transfixed me about Mary Lou Williams were the two photographs which accompanied her section of the Time Magazine article. The first showed her on the stand inside the large oval bar of The Hickory House. Seated at the piano and playing, she looked straight to her right, smiling into the camera. She was raised above the eye level of the customers who sat on tall bar stools. The photographer had a clear shot.

It was the second photograph that nailed me. Mary Lou was shown (this time in profile from the left side of her face) kneeling in prayer at the communion rail of The Church of St. Francis Xavier on West 16th Street in New York. I was floored. I had attended Xavier High School, a private Catholic military school no less, and had graduated in 1958. I entered the Novitiate of St. Andrew-on-Hudson immediately that summer. And here I was six years later studying in an "enclosure" about an hour's distance north of New York City.

I say 'enclosure' because we were not allowed to leave the building or grounds without the specific permission of the Rector. We were "cloistered"'—set apart. I was a seminarian, a member of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) and studying philosophy at Loyola Seminary in Shrub Oak, NY. But my "face was set like flint toward meeting this woman who drew me to herself as I read about her conversion to Catholicism and her writing a short cantata in honor of the newly canonized black 17th century Dominican monk: St. Martin de Porres. The article went on to explain that the lyrics had been written by Father Anthony Woods, S.J. He was a parish priest at Xavier and devoted to the arts. I had known him well when I was a student there. This was more than coincidence or serendipity. This seemed like destiny—divinely inspired.

I was concurrently pursuing a Master's Degree in English literature at Fordham University. This involved a weekly trip by bus from Shrub Oak to the Bronx where I went to classes in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Though "trapped" in Shrub Oak, I had a method for going AWOL because of these weekly trips. I would go down by bus and get back "by hook or by crook" under cover of night.

I was 23 years old, looked 18, and wearing my black suit and clerical collar on that night when I first walked into The Hickory House. It was a large, wide, high-ceilinged, oblong room which had become largely a place to present piano trios. They served good steaks. These were cooked over smoking hickory logs. Duke Ellington was a frequent visitor. He liked the steaks. Sometimes he liked the piano players.

Nervous but determined, I slid up onto one of those high bar stools immediately to the right of the keyboard.

The music poured from the piano. An authoritative African-American woman in early middle age was playing, eyes mostly closed, her face registering every nuance of the music she was creating, back straight, her hands lying flat as they moved over the keys. She was wearing a royal blue chiffon gown of cocktail length, gathered at the shoulders. Her arms were bare. She had a beautiful throat and neck, good collarbones and a dark brown face rising up from a strong chin to high cheekbones. Her mouth was well shaped and soft and at times broke into a brief radiant smile when she achieved a particular musical passage. The smile never interfered with the concentration. There was nothing theatrical about her. I simply knew that I was in the presence of someone of the highest magnitude.

The emotional experience of the music, and of Mary Lou herself, was so strong that my life at once took on a permanent new direction. There was no confusion or doubt in me and although I could not know the full consequences of that night's depth of feeling, I had found my purpose.

17 years of deep friendship followed—and of hard work. I became Mary Lou's personal manager and helped her to re-emerge fully during the last decade of her life. This involved the composition of three full masses on her part and of many other pieces as well. We traveled together. She toured, did long residencies in New York, recorded, worried about musicians and young people and their well-being, cared for her family traveling back and forth to Pittsburgh, PA—where many of them lived—went to church, prayed, played cards, cooked, talked to her friends on the telephone and composed music.

She also had the habit of carefully listening to people. She listened attentively to me. Above all, she cared. There was nothing frivolous or selfish about her—not in her music—not in how she carried herself or handled life. Her prayer life spilled over into active charity and deeds of kindness. Some might say I was very lucky to have found her and to have been such a big part of her life during those 17 years we were together. I would say that I was "blessed."

When she died on May 28th, 1981, I thought everything was over. In time I realized, of course, that that was not true. There were, first of all, the recordings. Almost all of these have now been re-issued on CD -four alone on Smithsonian Folkways which keeps its inventory in perennial availability. She was also a composer and this will insure a measure of "immortality." A large collection of music manuscripts and other memorabilia are preserved in The Mary Lou Williams Collection at The Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University in Newark, NJ. A good amount of Mary Lou's music has been performed in the last 15 to 18 years. And now we even have new recording projects.

I was again blessed to begin to know the great pianist Geri Allen beginning in 1982, just a year after Mary Lou's death. Our close friendship has developed into musical collaboration and together, with myself as producer and Ms. Allen as musical director, we have formed The Mary Lou Williams Collective. Our first recording project is called Zodiac Suite: Revisited where Mary Lou's first (1945) extended composition is preserved and expanded by Geri on piano with Buster Williams on bass and Billy Hart on drums.

The Dutch Jazz Orchestra has just released an album of 13 of Mary Lou's big band compositions—10 of them world premieres and The United States Army Field Band—Jazz Ambassadors plans a release within a year and a half of a CD devoted to Mary Lou and her music. That this will not be on sale in stores but offered free of charge to any teacher, school or library making a request would please Mary Lou very much. She was desperate that her beloved music "jazz" survive. I am doing what I can to have Mary Lou's own music heard and survive into the future.

Post a comment


View events near New York City
Jazz Near New York City
Events Guide | Venue Guide | Local Businesses | More...

Shop Amazon



Read Giving Thanks & Sharing the Jazz Love
Read Pat Martino: In the Moment
Read Meet Kenneth Cobb
Out and About: The Super Fans
Meet Kenneth Cobb

Get more of a good thing

Our weekly newsletter highlights our top stories and includes your local jazz events calendar.