Some thoughts on Mary Lou Williams

This week NPR is shining a light on pianist-composer Mary Lou Williams in their Turning the Tables series (here’s one great article by Natalie Weiner on how Williams’s arranging work shaped the sound of the big band era).

I’m knee deep in my book manuscript, Mary Lou Williams: Music for the Soul, that will be published by Liturgical Press in early 2021. Here’s a journal entry that I wrote on Williams last spring.

Mary Lou Williams is often reduced. Reduced to sentences that seem to hold meaning but that, in reality, become glib summaries that we as listeners, as readers, as jazz musicians, can gloss over. For those not involved with the jazz world, hearing that Williams was one of the only musicians to “play through” and “transcend” and play fluently in all the eras of jazz leads to questions: what are the “eras of jazz”? And: who cares? And if this woman was such a great musician, why don’t jazz musicians play her music? Of course, this latter question leads to, “why don’t we know about her if she was so great?”, which can in part be answered by racial, sexist systems. But the fact remains that to this day, most jazz musicians know Williams’s name and almost none of her music. Her compositions are not played in piano trios (piano, bass, and drums). And while some of her big band music is available and is starting to receive more programming, it’s not yet in the regular repertoire of collegiate or professional jazz orchestras.

Williams is also reduced when it comes to her spirituality. Some tellings of her life story emphasize how her conversion to Catholicism at the age of 47 ostracized her from other musicians. How she became a religious fanatic. How her retreat to Catholicism provided a place where she felt safe and where she could stay because “everyone treated her so bad,” as her first husband John Williams said. Her faith is dismissed or glossed over as a general “faith in God and faith in jazz.” Yet as her friend Dorothy Day knew all too well, turning to Christianity is not simply an interior, personal faith. It requires seeing God in all things- in all people- and demands that we care for the poor in our midst. Mary Lou Williams cared for the poor and, like Day, chose voluntary poverty in order to rehabilitate the sick in her community, especially jazz musicians. She performed these works of mercy even prior to her religious conversation. A 1950 cover of a Bud Powell recording shows Williams- partially hidden- and Powell at an upright piano (perhaps at Mary’s piano in her Harlem apartment). Mary was a behind-the-scenes one woman support system for Powell, not only coaching him musically and recommending him for gigs but calming him when his mental exhaustion turned into explosions that led to several stays at mental institutions.

What kept this African-American genius musician in the Catholic church? Why did she stay in this patriarchial, overly white religion? Mary’s decade-long relationships with priests and women religious (nuns) in specific religious orders did more than help to bring her into the Church and to liturgical music in the 1960s. These relationships did more than encourage her: they kept her alive. And like many letter writers, Williams’s correspondence- both with priests, brothers, and women religious, and with fans who found healing in both her music and her words of encouragement, especially in the last two decades of her life, sustained her no matter what physical circumstances she was facing.

Williams’s generosity is not just in her two thrift shop ventures and her founding of the Bel Canto Foundation. It is in her handwritten notes on torn envelopes that contained letters from fans who told her that their lives were transformed after they followed her admonitions to go back to church or after she spoke a kind word to them after a performance. Her scribbled notes often simply said, “send record [her recordings].” And send she did. Mary gave away everything she had- her scant physical possessions, her apartment, her music, her time- to save the world.

As Dorothy Day said, quoting Dostoevsky, “beauty will save the world.” Mary believed and showed that the discipline, freedom, and beauty inherent in the practice of being a jazz musician and a person of faith has the power to heal the troubled soul.

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