She Loved the Catholic Faith - and All That Jazz
For a long stretch of her life, Mary Lou Williams’ days and nights were filled with the thrills of making great music for appreciative audiences.
But even the music could not squeeze out the emptiness that fast living was carving into her heart. Gambling, marijuana, love affairs and 30 years’ worth of constant work and travel — all of that finally caught up with the gifted jazz composer in 1954. While in Paris, she experienced such an ache in her soul that she withdrew from the world. And, for the first time in her life, she turned away from her music.
Fortunately, she had someone to turn to: God. Williams’ conversion to the Catholic faith several years later at age 47 led her back to making music. This time, it was with an interior peace she had never known before.
Williams’ conversion will be a big scene in an upcoming docudra-ma, tentatively titled “Soul on Soul,” being made by Carol Bash, a Larchmont, N.Y., filmmaker. Bash hopes to have her film telecast on PBS.
“What really moved me about this woman was her life as a black woman,” says Bash, who needs to raise approximately $550,000 to complete the project. “She always seemed to be striving for something great. It always seemed a struggle for her to get the recognition that was due her, and that moved me. And at the end of her life, coming to terms, getting some recognition — all these elements jelled once she found her faith.”
Williams’ struggles began early in life. She was born illegitimate and poor in Atlanta in 1910 to a mother who became an alcoholic and remained indifferent to her daughter's presence. Yet from an early age, Mary Lou exhibited a natural ability for playing the piano. She picked up the basics by simply watching and listening. After her family moved to Pittsburgh, she earned money playing in the homes of neighbors. She was so good that, as word spread, offers came in to play at dances, parties and church functions.
When she was 14, she was hired to play piano with a vaudeville troupe that was touring the country. The big break was especially notable for such a young person and, even more so, for a woman — especially a woman who didn't sing. Her skills grew beyond playing, into composing and arranging, and she officially joined her first band, Clouds of Joy, in 1931. With that band she wrote such popular songs as “Froggy Bottom” and “What's Your Story, Morning Glory?“
As the years went by, Williams wrote and arranged music for such luminaries as Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman and Ella Fitzgerald.
When she lived in Harlem, her residence became a salon. Many of the jazz greats — Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and others — would stop by to experiment with the “bebop” sound Williams loved and influenced.
In 1952, she went to England for a nine-day tour. She ended up staying in Europe for two years, performing around the continent. This ended with her breakdown in Paris when she was 44.
Her anguish probably came from a variety of factors, according to Bash. Williams had worked and traveled steadily for 30 years, often having money troubles. She gambled. She married twice. She had numerous lovers. She dabbled with drugs. And she hadn't had a big career breakthrough.
So she quit the jobs she had in Europe, came back to New York and withdrew. She stopped playing music. She prayed. She read the Bible. Finally, having been catechized in the Catholic faith, she was baptized and confirmed (along with Lorraine Gillespie, Dizzy's wife) in 1957.
Father Peter O'Brien was a 23-year-old Jesuit seminarian when he met Williams in 1964 at a New York City nightclub. He had previously read about her in Time magazine. The article included a photo of her praying at the Communion rail at St. Francis Xavier Church in New York City. Their friendship blossomed, and he later became her full-time manager from 1970 until her death in 1981.
“The conversion stabilized her,” says Father O'Brien, now a part-time parish priest in Jersey City, N.J., and also executive director of the Mary Lou Williams Foundation. “It added a depth of serenity to what was already extraordinary. It enabled her to reach even more deeply inside herself and produce richer music.”
Some of the sacred music she composed after her conversion includes “Mary Lou's Mass,” which the Vatican commissioned her to write; “Black Christ of the Andes,” which was dedicated to St. Martin de Porres; and “Mass for the Lenten Season.”
Contemporary jazz singer Carmen Lundy has sung “Mary Lou's Mass” many times over the years, including a performance at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., several years ago. Lundy has said Williams was trying to get across that “the essence of life is to do good and to know that good is better … and that there is indeed these two conflicting forces in life. Better to go with what is good and to strive to find ways to always work toward the good of something, because evil is always lurking.”
After her conversion, Williams returned to performing and composing in the secular world, but she made it clear her faith had top billing in her life.
“Many of the musicians would avoid her because she would talk about her conversion and how she found God and how important it is to be good in life,” says Brother Mario Hancock, a Franciscan Friar of the Atonement who met Williams when she stopped to pray at the Graymoor monastery in Garrison, N.Y., in 1960. He adds that he hadn't heard of Williams because he hadn't listened to jazz before — but once he heard it, he understood that “God spoke to her through her music.”
Bash, who says she doesn't “adhere to any specific religion,” agrees.
“I saw what Catholicism did for her in her life,” she says. “I wonder if finding and seeking and being active in that journey of dealing with your spirituality is going to do the same for me in my life.” Stay tuned.
Carlos Briceño writes from Seminole, Florida.
- January 25-31, 2004