As a musician, the sensation of being “in the flow” occurs when music is easily moving through me; when group interplay rises to unexpected levels; when everything happens with ease. I experience this on many occasions while playing music, and less often off of the stage or away from the piano bench. So on a recent trip to Pittsburgh which yielded new friendships, introduced me to new colleagues, and opened up a plethora of work opportunities, I kept marveling at how “in the flow” my life felt during my ten day sojourn.
Last spring when Christa Burneff invited me to perform a solo concert in Pittsburgh at the Hillman Center for Performing Arts, I immediately started thinking about making an extended trip to continue my research on Mary Lou Williams. At the time when Christa contacted me, I had recently received an inquiry from the Catholic publisher, Liturgical Press. They approached me with the idea of having me write a book on Williams for their “People of God” biographical series. After the book contract was finalized, I knew that I had to take advantage of the opportunity to spend some time in Williams’ hometown of Pittsburgh.
Leading up to my trip, I started questioning my decision to go to Pittsburgh an entire nine days in advance of my December 8 concert at Hillman. After all, I hadn’t yet made many contacts in Pittsburgh, and I didn’t want to sit around without having meetings set up in advance.
The flurry of events that followed quelled any doubts that I had about the length of my trip.
After arriving at the home of my friends- and hosts- Bryan and Sarah Perry on a Thursday, I sent a Facebook message to my New York friend Paul Snatchko, a former Pittsburgh dweller who had suggested that I connect with Ann Rodgers, director of communications at the Pittsburgh Catholic diocese. My hope was that the diocese might have correspondence between Mary Lou Williams and Cardinal John J. Wright from the mid-1960s when Williams had suggested- and the Catholic Youth Organization had sponsored- the first Pittsburgh Jazz Festival.
Just before emailing Ann, I tuned in to WZUM, the new Pittsburgh jazz station. I’d written to WZUM disc jockey Scott Hanley two days earlier, introducing myself and sending downloads of two of my albums. To my amazement, Scott featured my music that evening on “The Scene, a one-hour show with a focus on upcoming local performances.
On Friday morning, I received a reply from Ann Rodgers. She hipped me to an online archive of The Pittsburgh Catholic and suggested that I contact local author and historian Mike Aquilina about an event on Williams’ sacred music taking place the next day at the University of Pittsburgh!
I wrote to Mike and was surprised to learn that he already knew my work, especially my work on Williams and liturgical jazz. We made plans to meet later in the week, and he suggested that I contact his daughter Grace who had organized the following day’s event at Pitt.
On Friday night, I attended the tail end of a Pittsburgh Girls Choir rehearsal where I met director Kathryn Barnard and played and sang my new Stevie Wonder-esque original setting of “His Eye is On the Sparrow” (soon to be premiered by the South Carolina junior high school choir Palmetto Girls Sing! in February). My friend Bryan and I then ran over to MCG Jazz (Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild) to hear an amazing tribute to Joe Williams as performed by actor/singer Keith David and a big band of local musicians. It was great to see Marty Ashby and Renee Govanucci again and to learn more about the guild’s background.
On Saturday morning my cell phone rang with a call from Grace Aquilina. The keynote presenter for the Mary Lou Williams event that evening at Pitt had just canceled. Could I fill in? Of course I said “yes!”
I knew that I was in the right place while standing at the podium and playing the piano in the theater on the Pitt campus, a space with a jazz lineage that includes the late pianist Geri Allen. The fact that I was here- in Williams’ hometown- in this space where Allen had performed- really hit me as I was introduced to Bobbie Ferguson, Williams’ niece. I am in the right place. I am standing in the center of the river.
Deacon Toby Gaines, who was present at Williams’ funeral Mass in 1981 (and whose family owned the funeral home that embalmed Williams), opened the evening by speaking of Williams’ devotion to St. Martin de Porres, the Dominican lay brother from Peru and the first person of color to be canonized by the Catholic church in the 1960s. (Hear Williams’ piece, St. Martin de Porres, here). Tom Roberts and Chris Capizzi also gave presentations on Williams’ early and later life.
My lecture-performance focused on Williams’ immersion in the Jesuit community in New York City in the late 1950s during and following her conversion to Catholicism. I spoke about the beginnings of her liturgical music, including St. Martin, the Pittsburgh Mass, and Mass for the Lenten Season. I also shared new information (at least for myself, and, I suspect, for many others) of how Eddie Bonnemère, an African-American pianist, composer, and high school choral director in New York City in the 1950s-1970s, was central to Williams’ being invited to write Mass for the Lenten Season for Harlem’s St. Thomas the Apostle church in 1968.
Afterwards I was happy to see my friend Nelson Harrison, a trumpeter and jazz historian who I’d met the previous year at a jam session led by drummer Roger Humphries.
On Sunday morning, I visited the early morning service at East Liberty Presbyterian Church. The guest preacher spoke about the New Testament story where Jesus’ disciples are freaking out on a boat in the middle of rough seas (I can relate to this from my recent time on small boats in Bahia, Brazil). Jesus is calmly sleeping during the chaos. One of the main points- one I’d never heard before- was that there were probably many other boats on that same sea, experiencing the same chaos. We were reminded that we need to look beyond our own boat to see others who are around us. The service appropriately closed with Kirk Franklin’s “I Need You to Survive.” I hadn’t sung this tune in five or six years. It felt good to sing it with this community. I also connected in person with Rev. Randy Bush, who I’d been corresponding with via email. Rev. Bush has a piano performance degree- it’s so great to meet pastors who are also musicians!
Skipping ahead to other highlights, I spent my Monday afternoon at the main Carnegie Library in Oakland where music historian Tim Williams located a file folder on Mary Lou Williams and other clippings on the rich jazz history of Pittsburgh. On a short reading break, I took a photo of the Bakaleinikoff Tablecloth which includes embroidered autographs of over 100 visiting classical musicians who performed in Pittsburgh from 1946-1953.
Thanks to oboist/vocalist Lenny Young- who I hadn’t seen since 1992 at a new music week at Duquesne University- I was able to practice the following morning on a gorgeous Steinway at Third Presbyterian Church. On Tuesday afternoon, I visited the Afro-American Music Institute in Homewood where I spent several hours hanging out with Nelson Harrison and learning more about Pittsburgh’s jazz history. Afterwards, Nelson drove me downtown to hear trombonist Jeff Bush and his quartet at the Backstage Bar. Bassist Tony DePaolis and guitarist Eric Susoeff were on the gig— I’d played with both of them two years prior with Brazilian vocalist Kenia at a showcase in Manhattan.
After their set, Tony introduced me to drummer Thomas Wendt. Not only is Thomas a great drummer: he’s also a jazz historian in his own right. Thomas suggested I connect with Dr. Harry Clark, the co-president of Lighthouse Arts and one of the founders of the Pittsburgh High School for the Creative and Performing Arts.
On Wednesday, I met author/historian Mike Aquilina for a noon Mass at the massive Saint Paul Cathedral. Again, a Williams spot: Williams’ first Mass was performed here with a choir of thirteen girls from Seton High School (now Seton Lasalle Catholic High School) in 1967. Afterwards we went to lunch with Chris Chapman, Director of Catholic Identity and Education for the diocese. Chris invited me to come back to Pittsburgh to present on Williams and jazz/liturgy at a summer institute in June— so I’ll be coming back (and doing more research)!
After lunch, I met with Bobbie Ferguson, Williams’ niece. Bobbie showed me homes where Williams’ relatives had lived and where she would have visited on her trips back to Pittsburgh. Bobbie also gave me a much better understanding of how Williams’ conversion to Catholicism influenced her family.
Running back to my home base at the Perry’s, I had thirty minutes to spare before vocalist Tania Grubbs picked me up for a gig at “The Barn” in Penn Hills. The venue is an actual converted barn! I’d met Tania for all of one hour or so the previous year when I was in Pittsburgh for one night. Tania graciously let me sit in on the whole gig with her bandmates Eric Susoeff and Jeff Grubbs on bass. It was a fun evening.
On Thursday morning, pianist Henry Wiens took me to breakfast where we met up with trombonist Hill Jordan. I spent the rest of the day practicing at Third Presbyterian and visiting the Carnegie Museum of Art.
I met up with Dr. Harry Clark on Friday. This was one of the most fun and inspiring parts of my whole trip. Harry drove me through the Hill District, the “crossroads of the world” where African-American cultural life flourished in the 1930s-1960s. We stopped in front of the former Crawford Grill, a legendary venue that was the center of jazz and the African-American social scene in Pittsburgh for decades (watch a video about the Crawford Grill and the demolition of much of the Hill District here).
Harry also explained more to me about the formerly separate musicians’ unions, local 472 and local 60. He showed me the invisible yet all-too-real boundary line that had separated the Hill District from downtown, past which point African-American musicians were prohibited from performing. Exceptions to this rule were only made for several famous musicians, none of whom accepted these invitations to perform outside of the Hill District.
After lunch with Harry at the Church Brew Works, we headed back to the Perry home where Christa Burneff was waiting to take me to Shady Side Academy in Fox Chapel, home of the Hillman Center. That evening, I led my Justice Choir song, “We Walk in Love” at a benefit event for the Tree of Life Synagogue that Shady Side students had planned and produced on their own.
On my final day- Saturday, December 8- I played my solo concert featuring material from Raindrop: Improvisations with Chopin at the Hillman Center. There were only five unused tickets! I felt completely at home. After a standing ovation and an encore of Fats Waller’s “Jitterbug Waltz,” I greeted friends and new fans. I felt a tinge of sadness that the trip was now over other than a 5 am pickup the next morning to get to the airport in time to play an afternoon gig in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn on Sunday.
I am now carrying a piece of the spirit of Pittsburgh’s jazz history and her welcoming people with me as I work on my Williams biography. I hope that the brightness of this spirit shines through in my writing of Mary Lou Williams: Music for the Soul.