Mary Lou Williams, Missionary Of Jazz In 1954, after several draining decades as a jazz composer, performer and mentor, Mary Lou Williams quit. When she returned, she claimed her true power as one of jazz's fiercest advocates.
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Mary Lou Williams, Missionary Of Jazz

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Mary Lou Williams, Missionary Of Jazz

Mary Lou Williams, Missionary Of Jazz

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Mary Lou Williams was at the forefront of jazz in the 1950s. She was a celebrated pianist, composer and arranger. Then she gave it all up to pray and help the poor. But her faith helped her return to music with a new purpose.

For our series Turning The Tables, NPR's Jenny Gathright explains how music and spirituality were Williams' ways to cope.

JENNY GATHRIGHT, BYLINE: Mary Lou Williams' piano career started early, and it was born partially out of a need to survive. Her family was living in Pittsburgh between two white families who did not want them there.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARY LOU WILLIAMS: They were throwing bricks in the house trying to get us out. And so as a child, 6-years-old, I began going to the neighbors' houses playing piano for them. And my mother never knew until I broke my arm. And after that, they came to the house asking for me. My mother wondered why the bricks had stopped.

JOHN WILSON: (Laughter).

WILLIAMS: That's because I had taken the neighborhood on, you know?

GATHRIGHT: That's Williams speaking to journalist John Wilson for the Jazz Oral History project at the Rutgers Institute of Jazz Studies. She was born in 1910, started touring around the country on vaudeville circuits when she was 12 and, just a few years later, was a professional musician.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANDY KIRK & HIS TWELVE CLOUDS OF JOY'S "WALKIN' AND SWINGIN'")

TAMMY KERNODLE: This is a woman who, in 1925, is working, is a full-time working musician. She's 15 years old.

GATHRIGHT: Tammy Kernodle is a professor at Miami University in Ohio and one of Williams' biographers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANDY KIRK & HIS TWELVE CLOUDS OF JOY'S "WALKIN' AND SWINGIN'")

GATHRIGHT: By her early 20s, Williams was writing for and playing with one of the leading Kansas City swing bands. By the 1940s, Williams made the switch from swing to bop. She mentored some of the genre's most famous innovators - Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk.

KERNODLE: Who else experimented with all of these different stylistic shifts and sounds that were happening around, and not for commercial gain but a part of their own personal experimentation and growth?

(SOUNDBITE OF MARY LOU WILLIAMS' "ARIES")

GATHRIGHT: In 1978, Williams was a guest on Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MARIAN MCPARTLAND, BYLINE: You've always gone your own way. But yet, you've always been contemporary.

WILLIAMS: Well, see, you kind of missed it there. I'm the only living musician that has played all the eras. Other musicians lived through the eras, and they never changed their style.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARY LOU WILLIAMS' "ARIES")

GATHRIGHT: Williams did change her style. Then in 1954, she quit. She didn't perform for three years.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WILLIAMS: I didn't really stop on my own. I just - something carried me away. I began praying. And I never thought about playing anymore.

GATHRIGHT: Biographer Tammy Kernodle thinks Williams had to take a break.

KERNODLE: I think that Mary Lou Williams knew that if she didn't stop that she could physically die.

GATHRIGHT: Williams had seen her friend Charlie Parker die after a battle with addiction. And the world outside of jazz was changing too. Williams was watching black Americans organize for civil rights and seeing the violence of white backlash. During her hiatus, she converted to Catholicism. She prayed hours a day and opened up her New York City home to struggling neighbors.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WILLIAMS: I go to mass, sit through all the mass. I come home and fix breakfast for all the poor people I had in the house I was feeding. I'd go right back and meditate a couple hours, and then I'd come home after that. I was from the house to the store to the church.

GATHRIGHT: Williams eked out her living with the help of friends and royalty checks that came in here and there. She said prayer helped.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WILLIAMS: I need the strength. The world can just destroy me - not really. I'm a strong woman through being around men. But I could really be bit badly, you know? And I think what it does is it strengthened me to do further work for God.

GATHRIGHT: That work, Williams realized, was her music.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WILLIAMS: You can offer it up, you know, every note you play to help some souls.

GATHRIGHT: She met some jazz-loving Catholic priests who pushed her to start performing again.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARY LOU WILLIAMS' "A FUNGUS AMUNGUS")

GATHRIGHT: The first piece she wrote after her hiatus was called "Black Christ Of The Andes," a haunting choral work in honor of a Peruvian saint.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLACK CHRIST OF THE ANDES")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) St. Martin de Porres, his shepherd's staff, a dusty broom.

GATHRIGHT: Williams composed a series of religious works. She performed the first jazz mass at New York City's St. Patrick's Cathedral to a crowd of thousands. And she still played regular gigs in the city's jazz clubs.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARY LOU WILLIAMS' "CREDO")

GATHRIGHT: Williams was combining classical music, hymns, blues and jazz into something new. It brought her success, but it was about more for her.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WILLIAMS: Because I want to go as high as I can now for the sake of others - not for Mary Lou - because I cannot help the poor if I haven't got any strength myself. And the talent is much stronger for helping people.

GATHRIGHT: Mary Lou Williams often spoke about wanting to make sure jazz survived. But first, she had to ensure her own survival.

Jenny Gathright, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARY LOU WILLIAMS' "CREDO")

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