Tony Rossi, Director of Communications
January 30, 2022
Music for the Soul
The late jazz composer, pianist, and Catholic convert Mary Lou Williams isn’t as well-known as some of
her contemporaries – people such as Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk – but Deanna Witkowski is
trying to change that. A professional jazz musician herself, Deanna has been influenced not just by
Mary Lou’s music but also her Catholic faith. Deanna has now written a biography called “Mary Lou Williams: Music for the Soul,” and we discussed it recently on “Christopher Closeup.”
Born in Atlanta but raised in Pittsburgh, Mary Lou Williams was a child prodigy when it came to playing music. As a young adult, she toured with a big band before moving to Harlem, New York, in 1942, and becoming a popular pianist and band leader. Over time, Mary Lou felt herself drawn to helping her fellow musicians who were struggling with addiction. Deanna notes that Mary Lou had a longstanding impulse to “save people,” and she questioned whether her music career was accomplishing anything worthwhile in that regard. Those feelings came to a head when she was traveling through Europe and one of her closest friends, pianist Garland Wilson, died in Paris, resulting in a dark night of the soul for Mary Lou.
Though Mary Lou was born into a Baptist family, they weren’t weekly churchgoers, so she didn’t have much of a foundation in the areas of faith and prayer. But in Paris, a friend of hers recommended she read the Psalms in the Bible. Deanna notes that when Mary Lou did that, “she felt that cooled her, which was her term for feeling more at peace. Then another one of her friends…introduced her to a garden where there was a statue of the Virgin Mary, and she started praying there. She, again, felt this sense of calm. When she comes back to the States, after being in Europe for two years…she comes back to her old home in Harlem and starts consciously looking for a church…She finds the church in her neighborhood that’s three blocks from her apartment that’s open during the day is a Catholic church called Our Lady of Lourdes. So she goes in there and starts praying before she even attends Mass or a liturgy or anything. And that’s the beginning of her conversion.”
Religious mentors soon entered Mary Lou’s life in a roundabout way. For instance, trumpeter and band leader Dizzy Gillespie was on tour in Latin America when a Redemptorist priest named Father John Crowley, who was a big jazz fan, came to see him perform. Father Crowley and Dizzy had a conversation afterwards, during which the priest asked him, “What ever happened to Mary Lou Williams?” Dizzy explained that Mary Lou had given up performing. The two men became friends, and when they returned to the U.S., Dizzy’s wife Lorraine, who was converting to Catholicism, introduced Father Crowley to Mary Lou. He helped Mary Lou understand that playing music could be a form of prayer, too, moving her closer to converting to Catholicism.
During those non-performing years, Mary Lou became focused on helping others, turning her apartment into a halfway house for those struggling with addiction. Her conversion allowed her to integrate both music and service into her life. Deanna explained, “[She] was doing works of mercy before she was Catholic. She might’ve not termed that the same way. It’s just that when she did convert to Catholicism, she had a new framework and a new relationship with God that deepened her work.”