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Williams' sacred music places her in the rarified company of Duke Ellington. Her music combined two important themes of the times. Mary's faith was formed (and complemented) by the post-Vatican II upheaval in the church and the civil rights movement. She prevailed upon Father Woods to write lyrics for her first sacred work, Black Christ of the Andes, in 1962. It celebrated St. Martin de Porres, a seventeenth-century Dominican lay brother and the first black canonized by the Roman Catholic Church.

She was the guiding spirit behind a February 1967 concert at Carnegie Hall, entitled "Praise the Lord in Many Voices." That spring, Mary briefly returned to Pittsburgh, where her sister lived, and composed her first Mass, known as The Pittsburgh Mass. She wrote Mass for the Lenten Season the following year.

Williams returned to Europe in late 1968. Her hopes to perform Mass for the Lenten Season during a Mass at the Vatican in February 1969 in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King were dashed by church officials, who

  objected to use of drums in the composition. In March 1969, Msgr. Joseph Gremillion, secretary of the Pontifical Commission on Justice and Peace, commissioned Mary to write a Mass using texts for the Votive Mass for Peace, known as Music for Peace. In 1971, the great choreographer Alvin Ailey reworked elements of that work to choreograph dances of praise, which he called Mary Lou's Mass. Williams' earlier disappointment in Rome was alleviated to a degree when she performed Mary Lou's Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral, on February 18, 1975. The first jazz played during Mass at the New York cathedral included a 60-voice youth choir and concluded with spontaneous applause that transformed the solemn proceedings.

Since 1996, two Ph.D. dissertations and one master's thesis (all in the collection of the Institute of Jazz Studies) explore this aspect of her work. Mary Lou's Mass was performed in concert in the National Cathedral in Washington in March 1999 and by the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Company, an African-American troupe in Denver, in September 2000.



Williams continued to compose sacred music during the 1960s. In 1967, she wrote her first Mass (simply called Mass) in Pittsburgh. The following year, she wrote Mass for the Lenten Season, and performed it for six Sundays at the Church of St. Thomas the Apostle on West 118th Street, just up from the Cecil Hotel, site of Minton's Playhouse. Here, Williams is seen in an audience with Pope Paul VI at the Vatican in 1969.


While she was in Rome in 1969, Msgr. Joseph Gremillion of the Vatican Institute for Justice and Peace commissioned Williams to compose music based on the texts for the Votive Mass for Peace. The result was her third Mass, Music for Peace, recorded for Mary Records in 1970.


Williams and her manager, Fr. Peter F. O'Brien, at the Monterey Jazz Festival shortly after O'Brien's ordination in 1971. Fr. O'Brien met Williams in 1964 when the pianist was performing at the Hickory House. They became fast friends and Fr. O'Brien began to manage her career a year before this photo was taken.


Dudley Williams portrays Poor Man Lazarus; Kelvin Rotardier is the preacher/narrator; and John Parks is Dives, the rich man, in a production of Mary Lou's Mass choreographed by Alvin Ailey. His setting of Williams' Music for Peace, which he christened Mary Lou's Mass, played for three seasons between 1972 and 1973. Photo by Louis Peres


Some 3,000 attended the celebration of Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York on February 18, 1975 when Williams'Mary Lou's Mass was sung by a 60-voice youth choir. This event was a high point at the intersection of her spiritual and musical lives. Buster Williams is on bass; Jerry Griffin played drums.


Cover art by Berit de Koenigswarter for the reissue of Music for Peace, released in 1975 on Mary Records as Mary Lou's Mass. The recording featured five additional pieces not previously issued.


Williams poses with a youth choir in Chicago in the mid-1970s. Williams' sacred music and the opportunities to influence young people to reach out to jazz were important themes of her later life.


Williams rehearses a church choir for a performance of Mary Lou's Mass at a Corpus Christi, Texas church in the spring of 1980. The performance took place about a year before her death on May 28, 1981.
 
 
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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