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

I began building up a defense against prejudice and hatred . . . by taking my aching heart away from bad sounds and working hard at music.
Mary Lou Williams, Newsweek, December 20, 1971
" Mary Lou Williams' lifelong spiritual search peaked in the mid 1950s. Returning from Europe in December 1954, she was financially unable to leave music, especially nightclub work. Her intermittent recorded output-six recording sessions between 1957 and 1962-suggests the difficulty in balancing her newfound calling and her music

Mary first turned briefly to the Abyssinian Baptist Church in 1955 and even took to preaching in the streets of Harlem. But it was in the Roman Catholic Church, specifically Our Lady of Lourdes on 142nd Street in Harlem, that she found her lasting spiritual home. Two priests proved particularly influential. Dizzy Gillespie introduced Rev. John Crowley, a jazz-loving priest the trumpeter had met in South America in 1956. Crowley urged Williams to, in her words, "offer (my playing)


up as a prayer for others" rather than leaving music. Fr. Anthony S. Woods became Williams' first spiritual mentor in the church. Williams was baptized on May 7, 1957 by Fr. Woods and confirmed a month later alongside her dear friend, Lorraine, Dizzy's wife.

Williams' appearance with Gillespie and his big band at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival signaled her re-emergence in jazz. She accepted dates in the U.S. and Canada, most notably an extended engagement at The Composer's Room in New York.

She responded to her new calling in both artistic and practical ways. In 1958, she founded the Bel Canto Foundation. She assisted troubled musicians by establishing thrift stores in Harlem to raise money to help musicians return to their art and contributing 10 percent of her own earnings.

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Williams' bracelet, seen in this 1960s-era publicity photo, contains evidence of her conversion to Roman Catholicism. The circular charm contains a photograph of Rev. Anthony S. Woods, an early and influential spiritual adviser, the emerald (Williams' birthstone) was a gift of Sidney Bechet, and the fish (a symbol of Christianity) was given Williams by Lorraine Gillespie, the trumpeter's wife.

Rev. Anthony S. Woods, S.J., gave Williams instructions in the Roman Catholic faith during 1956 and 1957. He proved particularly adept in assisting Williams to reconcile her musical and spiritual lives. In later years, Woods wrote the text for her first sacred composition, Black Christ of the Andes (Hymn in Honor of St. Martin de Porres) in 1962.

Williams' Baptism Certificate, dated May 9, 1957, certifies her entrance into the Roman Catholic Church. Note that her godfather was fellow convert Barry Ulanov, the former Metronome editor, then professor at Barnard College, who had written first biography of Duke Ellington.

Williams' conversion led her to compose sacred music in the jazz idiom. Mary Lou Williams Presents St. Martin de Porres was the first recording on her label, Mary Records. The album featured four sacred pieces for chorus and vocal soloists, in addition to six piano performances. The record received the Grand Prix Académie du Disque Français and the Prix Mondial du Disque de Jazz from the Hot Club of France in 1968.

Williams issued an extended play version of "Black Christ of the Andes" on Mary Records in 1963. She had vowed to donate 10 percent of the proceeds from the recording to aid the poor, although low sales failed to generate the profits she had hoped for.

Her religious activism led her to other efforts, especially to help musicians, in distress. To this end, she formed the Bel Canto Foundation in 1960, supporting it by donating 10 percent of her earnings and operating a thrift shop in Harlem.

Among the artifacts in the Mary Lou Williams Collection was this sketch of a coupon advertising the release of Jazz for the Soul. In addition to sales of her recordings, Williams hoped to raise additional funds for her projects by retrieving lost copyrights-a project she undertook mostly on her own.

Williams ran the thrift shop herself. She solicited materials from musicians, wealthy friends and from other stores. The store engendered such a loss that she closed it in 1963; a second storefront operation foundered three years later.

To support the Bel Canto Foundation Williams threw occasional fund-raising parties at the thrift shop. Among frequent musical guests was her friend, the pianist, singer and wife of Adam Clayton Powell, Hazel Scott, seen with Williams in this photograph made around 1966.
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dot.gif Collection at IJS

dot.gif Early Roots

dot.gif Kansas City & the Clouds of Joy

dot.gif Modern Jazz & Cafe Society

dot.gif William Gottlieb Photo Essay, 1947

dot.gif Europe & Travels in the 50's

dot.gif Chuck Stewart Photo Essay, 1957

dot.gif Religious Conversion

dot.gif Lioness in Winter

dot.gif Discography & Related Links