The music of Mary Lou Williams

A review

Reviewed by Dale Roberts

When Mary Lou Williams converted to Catholicism in the 1950s she turned away from her career as a jazz musician, thinking that music played in bars had no place in the realm of the spirit. She came to realize that, as her friend Duke Ellington said, “Every man prays in his own language, and there is no language God does not understand.” Williams and Ellington were among the first jazz artists to write sacred music in the jazz idiom and perform jazz in churches.

Mary Lou Williams (born Mary Elfrieda Scruggs, 1910 – May 1981) was an African-American jazz pianist, composer, and arranger whose career spanned the history of jazz from early swing through the big band era, bebop, and beyond. She stood in the first rank of jazz pianists. She wrote and arranged music for Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, and other bandleaders.

After two priests and her friend Dizzy Gillespie persuaded her to return to playing jazz she performed with Gillespie’s band at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival.

Throughout the 1960s and beyond she composed and performed sacred music rooted in jazz. She wrote hymns and jazz settings for the Catholic mass. In 1971 one of the masses, Music for Peace, was choreographed by Alvin Ailey and performed by the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater as Mary Lou's Mass.

Her compositions include "Black Christ of the Andes" (a hymn honoring St. Martin de Porres), "Anima Christi," and "Praise the Lord."

“I am praying through my fingers when I play,” Williams said. “I get that good ‘soul sound’, and I try to touch people's spirits …. When I'm playing, it seems as though someone else takes over. What I play comes from God, and I write it for the benefit of other people.”

You can hear Mary Williams perform her sacred jazz pieces here:
     • Praise the Lord  
     • Animi Christi   
     • St. Martin de Porres   

Dale Roberts is a retired teacher, vocational counsellor, and musician from Asheville, NC.