AFRO-AMERICAN MUSIC INSTITUTE CELEBRATES 36 YEARS
Pain Relief Beyond Belief
Born in the brothels of New Orleans, Prohibition-era speakeasies and Mafia-run nightclubs, jazz has had to travel a long road to respectability. Few people realize that the road to respectability ran through Pittsburgh — through the diocesan building and the former Elizabeth Ann Seton High School on the city's North Side. More specifically, it was the friendship between the late bishop of Pittsburgh, John Wright, and the late jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams, a Pittsburgh native, who changed the course of jazz history almost single-handedly. Their correspondence, available in the diocesan archives, gives witness to this.
Spiritual crisis/awakening Williams, born in 1910, began her career playing for her white neighbors in Pittsburgh's East Liberty neighborhood as a young girl. The neighbors stopped throwing bricks through her windows once they heard her play. The peak of her popularity came with the Andy Kirk band during the 1940s. Williams wrote and/or arranged most of the band's material.
However, by the mid-1950s, jazz was losing its audience to rock ‘n roll, forcing many jazz artists to work in Europe. While Williams was working in France, she suffered a spiritual crisis/awakening and returned to New York. She gave up performing and devoted her time and energy to helping drug-addicted musicians get clean.
She also devoted herself to prayer and fasting. The Baptist church she was attending wasn't open during the week, but the Catholic church was. Williams spent long hours praying in front of the tabernacle, and eventually converted to Catholicism in 1957. Lorraine Gillespie, wife of trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, was her godmother.
Her spiritual director advised her to give up the dangerous work of drug rehabilitation and return to music. He suggested that she offer up her playing as prayer for others.
Dizzy Gillespie introduced Williams to Bishop Wright, who headed the Diocese of Pittsburgh from 1959 to 1969. The two became friends in the early 1960s — she would return to Pittsburgh to visit her family.
There was something about Williams that made it very hard for the bishop to say “no” to her when she asked him for something. And what she asked for was staggering. She asked him if she could teach the history of jazz in the diocesan Catholic schools.
Bishop Wright didn't like the timing, so he compromised by saying that the diocese would sponsor a jazz festival in Pittsburgh. Despite the number of great jazz musicians that Pittsburgh had produced, it had never had a jazz festival.
Besides the jazz festival, Bishop Wright let her teach at Seton High School on the city's North Side. It was there that she wrote her first Mass, called “The Pittsburgh Mass.” Williams eventually became the first jazz composer commissioned by the church to compose liturgical music in the jazz idiom.
As their final correspondence reveals, Williams never stopped making requests of Bishop Wright.
“Long time, huh? I am now teaching (the history of jazz) at Duke University in Durham, N.C. ... It has brought the music (jazz) back,” begins a letter Williams wrote to then-Cardinal Wright in April 1978. Williams was beginning her tenure as an artist-in-residence at Duke that she would continue until her death in May 1981. This was a first for jazz musicians. Meanwhile, Cardinal Wright was in his ninth year as prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, the third highest position in the Vatican.
“The name jazz has a lot of derogatory meanings, but the title comes under the heading of art. Now the name is becoming more artistic and accepted by many. Please forgive me, but I was hoping this could be explained to our wonderful pope and someday do a jazz Mass in Rome,” Williams wrote.
Was this too bold of a request? Cardinal Wright didn't think so. “I frequently remember the concert we had in the Civic Arena in Pittsburgh, and no one would be more pleased than I to see you present a liturgical concert or even a Mass here in Rome,” Cardinal Wright responded via a letter dated April 26, 1978.
The cardinal couldn't guarantee the personal presence of the Holy Father at such an event, so he tried to set up a sacred concert at St. Susanna's Church, the American parish in Rome. Williams knew the difference between a liturgical concert and a Mass and fired back.
“Certainly would be nice to celebrate the Mass in St. Peter's where the pope is. Dearest cardinal, they have done Masses of African chants ... but never any American artistic music (jazz),” Williams said in a letter dated May 18, 1978.
Unfortunately, Williams never got to perform for the pope. She did have an audience with Pope Paul VI in 1969, however. And “Mary Lou's Mass” was used during a Mass celebrated at St. Paul Cathedral in Pittsburgh as well as at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York. Even though her liturgical music isn't used very often in parishes, it has been the subject of three musicology doctoral theses in the last 10 years.
Sullivan is a member of St. Paul Cathedral Parish.
The Mary Lou Williams Collection, which arrived beginning shortly after her death in 1981, is the largest and most widely referenced collection of personal papers at the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University in Newark. The collection contains every material imaginable for a musician of her stature and career spanning six decades, including original music manuscripts, rare unreleased tapes, photographs and scrapbooks, correspondence and autobiographical writings, and business and performance records, to name a few.
Use of the collection has substantially revived the memory of her illustrious career through books and scholarly articles, documentary films, as well as new recordings of her music and concerts celebrating her work, such as one at Jazz at Lincoln Center a few seasons back. Williams last manager, Fr. Peter F. O'Brien, S.J. of Jersey City, continues to lend his expertise to aid researchers and musicians looking to learn more about the pianist, composer and arranger or perform her music.
For further information about the Mary Lou Williams Collection or to make arrangements to use it, please call Annie Kuebler at the Institute of Jazz Studies at 973/353-5595.