Mary Lou Williams' Jazz Is for the Masses | Sojourners

Mary Lou Williams' Jazz Is for the Masses

Deanna Witkowski is spreading the word.
A portrait of Mary Lou Williams playing the piano and smiling.
Portrait of Mary Lou Williams (1946) / W.P. Gottlieb

FROM THE 1920s until her death in 1981, Black jazz pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams injected energy and innovation into the genre and, via three jazz Masses composed after her conversion to Catholicism in the 1950s, into the church. Still, her music is sometimes overlooked, while the popularity of male jazz musicians’ work—including her mentees Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker—persists.

In this century, Deanna Witkowski is amplifying Williams’ works of music and faith. Witkowski is a jazz pianist herself, inspired by Williams, and a doctoral student in the jazz studies program at the University of Pittsburgh. She is restoring and recording general and liturgical compositions by Williams, some of which haven’t been recorded since 1944. And she has written a biography of the pioneer, Mary Lou Williams: Music for the Soul (Liturgical Press). Witkowski spoke with Sojourners associate editor Da’Shawn Mosley about the book and its namesake.

Da’Shawn Mosley: How did you become interested enough in Mary Lou Williams to write a biography of her?

Deanna Witkowski: In 2000, Dr. Billy Taylor, a jazz musician himself and the judge from a jazz piano competition I had played the year before, contacted me and said, “Come bring your quintet to play at the Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival at the Kennedy Center in the spring.” And so of course I said, “Yes, I would love to do this.” And then thought, “I really don’t know Mary Lou Williams’ music.” That’s a very common thing, even among jazz musicians or aficionados. She has this reputation [as] this great pianist and composer who wrote big-band music for Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman and mentored all these famous jazz musicians—so we know Thelonious Monk. But her compositions aren’t very well known.

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