Pittsburgh Catholic and jazz giant enjoys revival

Mary Lou Williams in New York, 1946. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
By Mike Aquilina

A stack of Mary Lou Williams records near the turntable meant something in the 1950s and 1960s. It indicated that the owner was not just a jazz fan, but rather a listener of a certain sophistication.

Williams was known as the “First Lady of the Piano,” a woman of unprecedented achievement in the macho world of jazz players.

She first became famous in Pittsburgh. A prodigy at the age of six, she was known locally as “the little pianist of East Liberty”. At 12, she was on tour. A year later, in the early 1920s, she was playing for the legendary Duke Ellington. She then arranged the music for Earl Hines, Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey.

She has performed with just about every major jazz star of her time and has conducted her own trio, quartet, quintet, sextet and orchestra. She gave piano lessons to Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell and was a mentor to many other greats.

However, it can be argued that she was never as famous as she is today, forty years after her death. Williams’ renewed interest in music is global, but Pittsburgh is certainly an epicenter.

In town, it is the subject of several public murals, notably on the East Busway. In an exhibition at the airport, his face appears alongside those of other Pittsburgh icons, Andy Warhol and Fred Rogers. His piano is on permanent display at the Heinz History Center.

Mural at Pittsburgh International Airport (photo by Mike Aquilina)

And a new biography appeared this fall. Mary Lou Williams: Music for the Soul is the latest installment in Liturgical Press’s prestigious People of God series. Written by Greenfield resident Deanna Witkowski, herself a jazz composer, Music for the soul is Williams’ third major biography since 1999. It is the first, however, to stress the importance of his spiritual vision – his Catholic faith.

By 1953-54, Williams lived and worked in Paris, France, which had become a haven for African-American artists and writers. Still a researcher, she began to pray seriously. A Catholic friend introduced him to his favorite place to meditate, a small church with a fenced garden. Williams later told friends that she had a vision of the Virgin Mary there.

Upon her return to the United States in 1954, she moved to Manhattan. She began to attend daily mass.

In 1956, she was received into the Catholic Church. At first, she thought she would drop the performance. It seemed to involve him in a world of vanity, rivalry, and drug abuse. But she realized, after some time away from the stage, that while she was at the keyboard, she could “pray through. [her] tip of the fingers.

She felt that God was calling her to compose sacred music in the jazz idiom. She pitched the idea to several clergymen, who strongly discouraged her. The Bishop of Pittsburgh, John Wright, was at first skeptical, but gradually won over. Eventually, he invited her to return to Pittsburgh and teach music at Seton High School in Brookline.

Over time, she will release several albums of sacred music: Black Christ of the Andes (1964), a jazz hymn to Saint Martin de Porres, and Music for peace (1970), a series of songs inspired by the Catholic liturgy. With the Paul Quinlan Trio she wrote and performed for the album Praise the Lord in many voices (1966). She ended up composing several different jazz arrangements for mass.

In the coming weeks, residents will have several opportunities to hear Williams’ music performed live.

On Sunday, October 17, at 6 p.m., the Deanna Witkowski Trio will perform their music at City of Asylum, 40 W. North Ave on the North Side.

On Saturday, October 23 at 7:00 p.m., the Church of Saint Benedict the Moor will host a special program, “How to Listen to Mary Lou’s Mass,” again featuring the Witkowski trio.

The following evening, Sunday, October 24, the Church of the Sacred Heart will be the site of a show at 7 p.m. of music by Music for peace (also known as “Mary Lou’s Mass”) and other sacred music by Williams. For this show, Witkowski will conduct a twelve-part choir and a jazz quartet. Reservations are suggested and can be placed online at saintjudepgh.org or by phone at 412-661-0187. Tickets can also be purchased at the door.

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