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I was still looking for peace of mind, and I was determined to give up music, nightlife and all else that was sinful in the eyes of God. After that, I wouldn't play anymore.
Mary Lou Williams, diary entry, c. 1954
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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Mary Lou Williams during a concert at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina in 1978. Williams' residency at Duke (from 1977 to 1981) provided her with the first real financial security she had ever known despite her long career in music.


Williams receives one of her six honorary degrees, from Fordham University in New York in 1973. She also received the Trinity Award, a teaching award voted upon by Duke University students. She was also awarded two Guggenheim Fellowships and received other financially helpful awards.


Whenever Williams received an honorary degree, she would not respond in words, but by playing the piano. Williams was viewed as an demanding teacher, but one who gained the affection and regard of her students. She was an artist who continued to expand her horizon in later years.


Joining Williams after she received an honorary degree from Loyola University of New Orleans were (l-r) Rev. Clemens J. McNaspy, S.J., a musicologist and Bach expert; Rev. Peter O'Brien, S.J.; Rev. William Byron, S.J., president of Loyola. McNaspy narrated Williams' History of Jazz at Carnegie Hall in 1966.


Williams shows great joy as children from Queen of Peace Church in Newark sing her Mass in the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola in New York on April 9, 1973. This was the same church where she was baptized in 1957 and where her funeral service took place in 1981. (Accompanying her on flute is Roger Glenn, son of jazz trombonist, Tyree Glenn.)


Publicity photo for Williams and Cecil Taylor's two-piano concert at Carnegie Hall on April 17, 1977. Recordings from the concert were later released on Pablo Records as Embraced. The concert received mixed reviews, but showed Williams to be one of the few musicians in jazz capable of making such a leap across decades and styles.


This flier for the Williams/Taylor appearance, billed as "a concert of new music," was designed and created by artist Richard Banks.


Williams greets admirers after her inaugural concert at Duke University on December 10, 1977. She taught the history of jazz as well as working with students on their musical and performance skills. "If you keep listening to rock," she once told them, "you're going to end up with cramps. Jazz is love. You have to lay into it and let it flow."


Williams at reception in the music building after inaugural concert at Duke with Marian W. Turner, executive assistant in the Music Department, who first suggested that the pianist be named artist-in-residence. Turner is also a long-time director of the Mary Lou Williams Foundation. "She's the nicest person I've met in 30 years," Williams said of Turner.
 
 
Home

Introduction

Collection at IJS

Early Roots

Kansas City & the Clouds of Joy

Modern Jazz & Cafe Society

William Gottlieb Photo Essay, 1947

Europe & Travels in the 50's

Chuck Stewart Photo Essay, 1957

Religious Conversion

Lioness in Winter

Discography & Related Links


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