She was known as “the Little Piano Girl” from East Liberty, Pittsburgh, and grew up to be one of the first ladies of jazz. But the story of Mary Lou Williams, from child prodigy to world-class artist, is not just about jazz.
Born in Atlanta in 1910, Mary Lou’s family suffered from poverty and discrimination, and, like many black Americans at the time, moved north in hopes of a better life. But in Pittsburgh, they faced similar hardshipsincluding strangers who threw bricks at their windows. Then Mary Lou’s talent was discovered.
As a child, Mary Lou revealed an amazing ability to play back music she had just heard, note for note, on the pump organ in the family home. She parlayed that gift into replaying the hit music of the day and creating her own melodies, without formal training. Her reputation spread, and soon wealthy neighbors began inviting Mary Lou to entertain guests, being paid to do what she loved.
While still a teenager, Mary Lou was invited to perform with traveling bands and eagerly accepted. After marrying saxophonist John Williams, they joined Andy Kirk and his Clouds of Joy, touring with a string of hits. Mary Lou became the band’s main composer and arranger, as well its star pianist. Her recordings “Drag-Em” and “Nite Life” garnered national recognition and critical praise.
Success did not come easily. Even among more tolerant musicians, Mary Lou faced sexist discrimination: Women were usually welcomed as vocalists, not as players, composers, or arrangers. But her talent could not be ignored. She became a master of every style of jazzthe blues, stride, swing, boogie-woogie and bebop. Legends like Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington began commissioning her works; and Louis Armstrong even asked her to join his tour.
Moving to New York in the 1940’s, Mary Lou became the lead act at the Café Society Downtown and was given her own radio show. Her apartment, in the Sugar Hill section of Harlem, became a meeting place for rising stars like Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, and Dizzy Gillespie, all of whom Mary mentored. It was during this creative period that Mary Lou produced her first extended composition, Zodiac Suite, which premiered at Town Hall to enormous acclaim.
Combining her dynamic music with a deep social conscience, Mary Lou actively pursued civil rights and social justice, which brought conflict and even danger, as Farah Jasmine Griffin recounts in Harlem Nocturne. Mary Lou’s circle was suspected of subversive activities, and became a target during the McCarthy era. But all Mary Lou wanted, as Griffin shows, was what America promisedtrue freedom and opportunity for all.
In 1952, although her professional career had reached a peak with a two-year tour across Europe, Mary Lou’s private life was moving in the opposite direction. She had survived two failed marriages, a gambling addiction, andthough reticent about itserious abuse. Physically and emotionally drained, she decided to stop performing and turned, slowly but surely, toward God.
Mary Lou had always been spiritual, but her life on the road had made any disciplined faith impossible. Now, given a second chance, she seized it. Returning to New York, she began attending numerous churches, finding peace at Our Lady of Lourdes in Harlem. She immersed herself in prayer, gave away her luxuries, set up charitable organizations, and began personally nursing drug-addicted musicians back to health.
Under the instruction of Fr. Anthony Woods, SJ, she was received in the Catholic faith and was baptized in 1957. For a time, she considered giving up music altogether, but Fr. Woods and her supporters convinced her she could serve God and the Church through her music.
In 1963, she fulfilled that promise, recording Black Christ of the Andes, dedicated to St. Martin de Porres, the first black saint from the Americas, beloved for his ministry to the poor. It was a work of astonishing beauty, and coincided with Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speechboth demonstrating that Christianity at its best was about upholding human dignity.
When Time magazine profiled Mary Lou, it caught the attention of Peter O’Brien, then a young Jesuit seminarian. “What floored me about the article most,” Fr. O’Brien told me recently, “was not just the tribute to her superlative music, but the image of the great pianist kneeling at the communion rail at the Church of St. Francis Xavier,” the same church attached to the high school O’Brien had attended. Her words struck him as well: “I am praying through my fingers when I play,” she told Time, “and I try to touch people’s spirits.”
O’Brien went to see her perform, and the two became great friendsso much so that O’Brien became her manager and helped guide her work over the next two decades. During that time, Mary Lou’s career flourished, producing three sacred Masses, one of which, Mary Lou’s Mass, was adopted by the great choreographer Alvin Ailey.
But news of a “jazz Mass” by Mary Lou, met with resistance. In 1973, when she performed Mary Lou’s Mass at a Kansas City Church, protestors held up placards that read, “NO JAZZ!” But inside the packed Church, a different spirit prevailed, as hundreds welcomed Mary Lou’s beautiful and reverent production.
As Fr. O’Brien points out, one of the keys to Mary Lou’s success was her humility: She always worked closely with Church authorities and accepted their counsel. As a result, her work was heard not just in small parishes but St. Patrick’s Cathedral, on Vatican Radio, and at a seminary chapel in Romefollowing a private audience with Pope Paul VI.
Today, Mary Lou’s influence continues to grow, as festivals and concerts devoted to her music reach new audiences and artists, both inside and outside the Church. To encourage her work, Fr. O’Brien heads the Mary Lou Williams Foundation, which preserves and promotes her music through education, concerts, and re-issues of her classic compositions.
When she died in 1981, her stature and faith were recognized throughout the world. “At her funeral, in New York,” writes Fr. O’Brien, “at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola (where she had been baptized) the musical world gathered. Dizzy Gillespie played, and Benny Goodman and Andy Kirk attended. Excerpts from Mary Lou’s Mass were sung.”
Her body was then taken to Pittsburgh where another Mass was celebrated, with friends and relatives in attendance, at the Jesuit Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, just as Mary Lou requested.
Her life of seventy years was like a great jazz melody itselfsomber and joyful, delicate and strong, full of surprises, with an ending both elegant and triumphant.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII. His previous articles can be found here.