Fortified by her ten-year devotion to faith,
prayer and religious study, Williams returned to wholehearted performance
and recording of her music in the early 1960s. With the realization
that her music represented her greatest gift to God, Williams began
to “play from my mind, through my heart to my fingertips.” Beginning
with regular appearances at New York City’s Hickory House in 1964,
Williams was welcomed back by old fans and new ones as well – perhaps
most fortuitously Fr. Peter O’Brien. The twenty-three year old Jesuit
became Williams’s ally, spiritual advisor and business manager and
remained so until her death in 1981.
In 1962, Saint Martin de Porres heralded Williams’s renewed inspiration for her writing, and her compositions became increasingly focused on religious themes. Williams now sought solutions to elements in jazz venues such as substance abuse that had previously disturbed her. With the help of Pittsburgh’s Roman Catholic Bishop John Wright and the Catholic Youth Organization, she established the Pittsburgh Jazz Festival in 1964. Although Williams developed a network of friendship and support for her faith and her music through her religion, she did not remain cloistered in that world.
Despite the closure of her thrift stores and the failure of her business the Bel Canto Foundation in 1968, Williams diverted some of her evangelism to spread the word of jazz
||– particularly to young people. She participated in Billy Taylor’s Jazzmobile program in Harlem and her appearances on the children’s television programs Sesame Street and Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood in 1973 spread her music to a wider audience.
Throughout the late 1960s and 1970s, Williams still submitted arrangements to the Duke Ellington, Woody Herman, Benny Goodman and Count Basie orchestras. Frequently performing with old friends such as Ben Webster and John Lewis, she was regarded as a legendary giant of jazz. But Williams’s adventurous spirit brought her to untraditional, challenging collaborations as well including a Carnegie Hall performance with avant-garde pianist Cecil Taylor in 1977 and a ballet choreographed by Alvin Ailey for his American Dance Theatre in 1971.
Her invitation to The Salute To Jazz at the White House, in 1978, represents just one honor in an array of fellowships, awards and honorary doctorates bestowed on this lioness in what became the winter of her life. Still not content to rest on her laurels, Williams accepted a teaching position at Duke University in 1980. Until her death in Durham, North Carolina on May 28, 1981, Mary Lou Williams delivered the full measure of her boundless energy, her loving heart and her exemplary musicianship to God, to her family and friends, and to jazz.
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