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PITTSBURGH JAZZ

 

From Blakey to Brown, Como to Costa, Eckstine to Eldridge, Galbraith to Garner, Harris to Hines, Horne to Hyman, Jamal to Jefferson, Kelly to Klook; Mancini to Marmarosa, May to Mitchell, Negri to Nestico, Parlan to Ponder, Reed to Ruther, Strayhorn to Sullivan, Turk to Turrentine, Wade to Williams… the forthcoming publication Treasury of Pittsburgh Jazz Connections by Dr. Nelson Harrison and Dr. Ralph Proctor, Jr. will document the legacy of one of the world’s greatest jazz capitals.

 

Do you want to know who Dizzy Gillespie  idolized? Did you ever wonder who inspired Kenny Clarke and Art Blakey? Who was the pianist that mentored Monk, Bud Powell, Tad Dameron, Elmo Hope, Sarah Vaughan and Mel Torme? Who was Art Tatum’s idol and Nat Cole’s mentor? What musical quartet pioneered the concept adopted later by the Modern Jazz Quartet? Were you ever curious to know who taught saxophone to Stanley Turrentine or who taught piano to Ahmad Jamal? What community music school trained Robert McFerrin, Sr. for his history-making debut with the Metropolitan Opera? What virtually unknown pianist was a significant influence on young John Coltrane, Shirley Scott, McCoy Tyner, Bobby Timmons and Ray Bryant when he moved to Philadelphia from Pittsburgh in the 1940s?  Would you be surprised to know that Erroll Garner attended classes at the Julliard School of Music in New York and was at the top of his class in writing and arranging proficiency?

 

Some answers  can be gleaned from the postings on the Pittsburgh Jazz Network.

 

For almost 100 years the Pittsburgh region has been a metacenter of jazz originality that is second to no other in the history of jazz.  One of the best kept secrets in jazz folklore, the Pittsburgh Jazz Legacy has heretofore remained mythical.  We have dubbed it “the greatest story never told” since it has not been represented in writing before now in such a way as to be accessible to anyone seeking to know more about it.  When it was happening, little did we know how priceless the memories would become when the times were gone.

 

Today jazz is still king in Pittsburgh, with events, performances and activities happening all the time. The Pittsburgh Jazz Network is dedicated to celebrating and showcasing the places, artists and fans that carry on the legacy of Pittsburgh's jazz heritage.

 

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Duke Ellington is first African-American and the first musician to solo on U.S. circulating coin

    MARY LOU WILLIAMS     

            INTERVIEW

       In Her Own Words

A forgotten story: Jazz finds religion in Pittsburgh - Mary Lou Williams, May 8, 1910

Black Catholic Spotlight ~ { Print Version }
The National Black Catholic Congress
www.nbccongress.org

A forgotten story: Jazz finds religion in Pittsburgh
Renowned pianist Mary Lou Williams and her ties to Bishop John Wright

Mary Lou WilliamsBorn 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.

Teacher of jazz

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.

Concert or Mass?

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.

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Comment by Roberta Jean Windle on April 28, 2013 at 7:20pm

What an interesting life Mary Lou led. Thank you for sharing such a wonderful story. Ms Williams' love of Jazz and Life certainly meshed beautifully.

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