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 Yorklast 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 destinydivinely 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.