Mary Lou Williams — Jazz Legend and Catholic Convert

After her baptism in 1957, Williams saw her musical talent as a gift from God and her compositions as prayer.

Mary Lou Williams plays the piano in New York City in 1946.
Mary Lou Williams plays the piano in New York City in 1946. (photo: William P. Gottlieb / Library of Congress)

“It seemed that night that it all came to a head. I couldn’t take it any longer. So I just left — the piano, the money, all of it.”

It was in 1954, in the middle of a performance when the African American jazz composer and performer Mary Lou Williams unexpectedly exited a Paris stage.

It was another episode in an eventful life. A child protégée, from her early teens she was touring with jazz bands. Soon she was the headlining act. However, the professional success that had come so easily stood in stark contrast to the sadness of her personal life. A childhood of neglect had early been transformed into a marriage marked by abuse, followed by a divorce. In 1954, at 44 years old, Williams was performing before appreciative French audiences. But it seemed to make little difference to her. By then, the personal demons that assailed her had long ago drowned out any applause.

“I felt I had absolutely no one to turn to, no one to talk my troubles over with. I grew bitter at life, at people,” she said of this time. “I walked around as though I were in a fog. I met people who spoke but I didn’t see them. … I was searching for something I did not see, and I did not know what it was. But I know I was searching for something.”

In the middle of her performance she left the stage and headed out into the night. That exit proved to be an end point — both personal and professional — to all that had preceded it. It was also the beginning of an emotional collapse.

Looked at it in worldly terms, what followed next was the kind of breakdown artists suffer when they have driven themselves too hard, for too long, leading inevitably to physical exhaustion. Looked at from a spiritual perspective, and from a distance, it could be intimated the Holy Spirit was at work in the collapse; the soul needed to be stilled so that it could hear the Divine Guest. Up until then, Williams’ life had been shot through with noise, on stage and off. Now she was being asked to listen.

While Williams recovered from her breakdown in Paris, an American pianist visiting the city, Hazel Scott, sought out her friend. Finding Williams, Scott helped to arrange for the musician’s return to her former home in Harlem. In so doing Scott also gave Williams some advice — to start praying and to begin reading the Psalms. Of this advice Williams later wrote in her diary: “This great and wonderful talent introduced me to what really saved me — God — that is what I was searching for.”

Scott tried to help her friend to restart her life back in Harlem, an area Williams knew well. Scott noted, however, that although Williams had a piano in her apartment, she didn’t play it. Instead, her days were spent deep in thought, walking the streets of her neighborhood alone, in prayer. It was a period of retreat; it became the time when she faced the depression and feelings of self-loathing that had plagued her for years and which had driven her from the Paris stage.

When Williams did make it back home across the Atlantic to her former haunts in Harlem, initially at least, little changed for the artist. She continued to remain reclusive — elusive even — and distant from her former jazz circles. This time was one of waiting for her. “It was torture as I groped there in the dark trying to make contact with God,” is how she would describe the beginnings of this process. Later, writing in 1958, she described this period of her life as follows: “Slowly … the deep spell of despondency that had held me in its grasp for days began to lift and I saw things I have never seen before in my mind’s eye.

“Bright things, clean and pure ... beautiful things, people — not ugly, drab and sinful as I knew them, but people who were living and acting as they should — as children of God.

“In my efforts to get through to God, I felt great relief. For the first time in days, the cloud lifted and I began to feel like living again. I asked God which way I should go.”

Now, through a dark night, the soul of Mary Lou Williams was led.

Although Scott was Catholic she attended the Abyssinian Baptist Church, on New York’s 138th Street, where her husband was pastor. Although she accompanied Scott there on Sundays Williams felt a still deeper need for more than simply a Sunday service. But, like so many non-Catholic churches, the 138th Street church was closed on weekdays. Eventually, while wandering the streets and looking for a church that was open, Williams found one on 142nd Street and Seventh Avenue: Our Lady of Lourdes Church.

“The Catholic Church was the only one I could find open any time of day,” she later explained.

Upon entering that Catholic church Williams found within it more than just an empty building, one used solely for worship on a Sunday. As in any Catholic church, what is as present as it is real is none other than the True Presence. As the musician sat in one of the pews she began to notice how people seemed to enter the church and pray in informal ways. More than that, however, she felt the quiet calm within the church, the sense of the sacred. Here was a holy place, she thought — one within which she could find a home.

Mary Lou had not really known a home — certainly not one as unconditionally loving as she sensed that day in Our Lady of Lourdes. She was born Mary Elfrieda Scruggs into the segregated South in 1910. When she was only 3 years old, her family moved north to Pittsburgh in search of a better life. Soon the young Mary Lou had taught herself to play piano. By the age of 6, she was performing at local parties. At age 7, she began giving public performances. Quickly she became known throughout Pittsburgh as “The Little Piano Girl.” At just 15 years of age she had become a professional musician; a year later she married jazz saxophonist John Williams.

From the mid-1920s until 1954, professionally at least, Mary Lou Williams’ life appeared a success. She composed, arranged, recorded and played with, and was admired by many of the jazz greats of the day — Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Art Tatum.

But Williams’ private life told a different story. Her marriage ended in divorce in 1940. By 1952, feeling on the verge of some sort of breakdown, Williams headed to Europe to tour, eventually finding herself upon that Paris stage. It was there, she later told a New York Times interviewer, that “I got a sign that everybody should pray every day. I had never felt a conscious desire to get close to God. But it seemed that night that it all came to a head. I couldn’t take it any longer. So I just left — the piano, the money, all of it.”

Her return to Harlem from France had seen her turn her back on her musical gift, but not on her fellow musicians. She knew all too well the dangers of the life of a musician, especially one on the road. Her apartment was there for anyone who needed a place to stay, to rest — a refuge from drugs, somewhere to find a meal. Williams began selling her expensive clothes so as to feed others. But in her spiritual life, it was she who needed to be fed as much as those she sought now to help.

Following one of her trips to Our Lady of Lourdes she had bought a rosary and asked a friend to teach her how to pray it. By 1957 she had become a Catholic. Baptized May 7, she was thereafter a daily communicant.

Eventually, she was befriended by Catholic priests, some of whom also happened to be jazz fans. They helped Williams see that her gift as a musician was not something to be denied but rather another means by which to help others. Soon Williams was composing again. She now saw her musical talent as a gift from God and her compositions as prayer.

Concentrating on sacred music, hymns and Mass settings, Williams started composing again with a hymn to St. Martin de Porres entitled, Black Christ of the Andes (1963), three jazz settings of the Mass were to follow. Inevitably, there was opposition. Sacred music thus far had not been jazz-influenced — a genre often associated with degeneracy rather than the divine. Williams was not blind to the moral ills associated with the jazz scene but pointed out these “ills” were the fruit of people’s actions not of the music itself. She set out to bring Christ into jazz clubs — to sanctify those spaces that were so redolent of sin.

Furthermore, she saw her musical mission as a healing one for some. Speaking no doubt from her own life experience, Williams saw jazz as a balm for “disturbed souls,” as music for those who suffer.

Mary Lou Williams’ sufferings ended on May 28, 1981. After her requiem Mass, attended by many notable jazz musicians, she was buried in the Calvary Catholic Cemetery, Pittsburgh.

Looking back on her life, Mary Lou Williams said: “I did it, didn't I? Through muck and mud.”

Dr. John Garvey, president of The Catholic University of America, discusses religious freedom at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 16, 2013.

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