Michael Scott AlexanderJanuary 21, 2021
Mary Lou Williams, third from left, with friends in her New York apartment (photo: Alamy).Mary Lou Williams, third from left, with friends in her New York apartment (photo: Alamy).

In 1954 in Paris, the pianist Mary Lou Williams walked off the jazz bandstand at age 44, suddenly and at the very height of her fame. She had finally succumbed to her midlife panic and bouts of self-loathing that were enough to make just about anyone want simply to exit the stage. Thus began a chain of events leading to her conversion to Catholicism and to a new life’s purpose in composing jazz Masses worthy of performance at the Vatican. More than this, Williams came to write “Mary Lou’s Mass” to capture her feeling of suffering—and its apotheosis. She was helped in this mission by a young Jesuit priest and jazz devotee, Peter O’Brien, who became her manager, confidant, lifelong friend and eventually her archivist.

Central to her story is the swing rhythm itself. When locked into this rhythm, one’s whole body follows the pattern of a wave—over a curve, crest after crest, building up and letting go, and always propelling forward. Mary Lou Williams was recognized even in her youth to be among the greatest masters of this rhythm. In her maturity she decided to harness the power of that group feeling for a higher purpose—to remind people to take care of each other. But first she had to find her own way out of major depression.

•••

Following her breakdown in Paris, Mary Lou Williams spent several years recovering in Harlem, a time she later explained guardedly: “I just stayed in the house for two years; I turned the radio on once, heard Art Tatum had died, and turned it off again.” 

Williams came to write “Mary Lou’s Mass” to capture her feeling of suffering—and its apotheosis. 

Art Tatum had been Mary Lou’s contemporary at the piano, and the loss certainly struck her. Yet her first years back in Harlem, nursing what appears to have been major depression, hadn’t ensued quite so simply. In fact, it had taken a good deal just to get Mary Lou back to the States at all. When she walked off the stage of Le Boeuf sur le Toit in Paris, she did so without a clue about her future. She no longer had any vision, no basic daily plan, let alone a purpose for her life. In fact, in her mind she had certainty of just one thing: Music had failed her. Surely she had pursued the art to the very precipice of her considerable talent, intellect and human energy. What had it achieved? Apparently it had led to an alcoholic breakdown, while similar musical energies were leading a preponderance of her colleagues and friends to early deaths, including the recent death of Garland Wilson, her colleague and best friend in Paris. And she had premonitions about the death of her heroin-addicted young friend Charlie Parker that would all too soon come true. The music they had all so adored and served to the point of veneration had failed Mary Lou as it seemed to have failed most everyone around her. 

She had only gotten back to Harlem at all through the considerable support of her closest friends. The pianist Hazel Scott, visiting Paris that summer in 1954, after months of searching finally located Mary Lou holed up in the suburban home of a young Parisian boyfriend who still lived with his grandmother. There Hazel Scott accomplished two things that saved her friend’s life. First, she arranged Mary Lou’s fare home to Harlem from a wealthy European jazz patron. Second, Hazel Scott told Mary Lou to start praying. Specifically she told her to start reading Psalms.

“This great and wonderful talent introduced me to what really saved me—God—that is what I was searching for,” Mary Lou wrote of Hazel in her diary.

Hazel Scott told Mary Lou to start praying. Specifically she told her to start reading Psalms.

“Had always kept a Bible around,” she explained in these initial notes of her realization, “but obviously could not reach Him—allow me to say He is the greatest and in pure musician’s language the grooviest.” 

“Just think,” she had concluded, “one can still have as much fun—yet observe 10 commandments, etc. By all means try to love, even love your enemies for ‘God is Love.’ Just think He sent me a messenger and I tried to turn my back on Him—but the guy was patient.” 

That had been Mary Lou’s immediate report of her awakening. It had happened suddenly. Before this there had been just inklings brought on by tourist visits to cathedrals throughout Paris as well as some private investigations into occult books. But Hazel Scott’s visit and counsel to pray launched an abrupt beginning for Mary Lou, a veritable new life. 

Of course, sudden inspiration was not the final realization of her new spiritual composition. It could only offer a few notes and phrases toward a beginning. Mary Lou would soon come to consider this initial inspiration as the right first step down a long and still difficult path. “It was torture as I groped there in the dark trying to make contact with God,” she explained to readers of the African-American magazine Sepia in April of 1958. 

Slowly, however, the deep spell of despondency that had held me in its grasp for days began to lift and I saw things I have never seen before in my mind’s eye. 

Bright things, clean and pure...beautiful things, people—not ugly, drab and sinful as I knew them, but people who were living and acting as they should—as children of God. 

In my efforts to get through to God, I felt great relief. For the first time in days, the cloud lifted and I began to feel like living again. I asked God which way I should go. 

Now Mary Lou could hope with some confidence that her path might be long, that she need not necessarily suffer the same miserable demise of so many friends and colleagues, and that finally she might still do something significant with her life. Although no longer trusting her music, she still didn’t know what her purpose could be. 

She didn’t have people over anymore, not like in the old days. She just stayed at home and meditated and prayed or sometimes walked the neighborhood.

Her divine messenger, Hazel Scott, managed to get Mary Lou back to Harlem and settled in her old apartment. It still held her white rug and beloved Baldwin piano, though Mary Lou now barely acknowledged the instrument. The keys no longer held any attraction for her, still symbolizing as they did the instrument of her demise. So she left the piano there in the living room untouched. She didn’t have people over anymore either, not like in the old days. She just stayed at home and meditated and prayed or sometimes walked about the neighborhood. She later rightly acknowledged these years as a period of retreat and of self-treatment for depression. 

Wandering the Streets

In its earliest days, Hazel Scott came around each Sunday to gather Mary Lou for prayer at the Abyssinian Baptist Church, Harlem’s great Gothic and Tudor revival edifice on 138th Street. There Hazel Scott happened to reign as first lady, the wife to Reverend Adam Clayton Powell Jr., also Harlem’s delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives. Hazel Scott herself was Trinidad born and still Catholic, though she attended her husband’s Baptist ministry most often. Mary Lou participated fervently from the pews, often lingering after services to continue reciting Psalms or to offer her own direct words of prayer. 

Then one weekday, when the Baptist church was closed and the people of Harlem bustled through the business of the day, Mary Lou found herself simply wandering the streets. She did not exactly go about aimlessly, but rather she looked for some meaningful venue in which to perform her life. Then, on 142nd Street and Seventh Avenue, she made a fateful and inspired discovery. She saw the open doors of Our Lady of Lourdes Church and was drawn to peek inside. “The Catholic Church was the only one I could find open anytime of day,” she later said.

On 142nd Street and Seventh Avenue, she made a fateful discovery. She saw the open doors of Our Lady of Lourdes Church and was drawn to peek inside.

There, in the strange Catholic pews, Mary Lou Williams had an insight once shared by one who would become a patron saint of Europe, St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, born Edith Stein. Stein, too, while in Frankfurt on vacation from her philosophical studies at the university, had also walked by a local Catholic cathedral to discover open doors and a curious gravitational pull to look within. There she saw what Mary Lou Williams also observed: people talking to God privately, personally, as though they had just come in for an informal chat in the middle of the busy day. The potential for this kind of intimate relationship with God impressed each of these women so deeply that both observers began feeling the pull to visit the cathedral as often as possible. Each found herself there most every day, remaining for hours of intimate conversation. They had each discovered the special quality of the Catholic cathedral to induce calm and meaning, especially through private prayer.

For both women, the young German Jew of 1916 and the middle-aged African-American of 1955, the feeling of prayer would become the shared arena of their spiritual contribution. It is not at all gratuitous to invoke the saint’s name in comparison to the contributions of Mary Lou Williams herself, which is the amazing spiritual genius observable in the jazz Masses she would soon dedicate her life to composing. 

‘Everybody Should Pray Every Day.’ 

Mary Lou admitted that her early days in the Catholic Church had been enthusiastic and unsubtle, to say the least.

Mary Lou found in New York upon her return an especially warm pair of friends in Dizzy and Lorraine Gillespie. 

To help her in these early Catholic investigations, she located a willing partner, Lorraine Gillespie. Besides Hazel Scott, Mary Lou found in New York upon her return an especially warm pair of friends in the Gillespies, Dizzy and Lorraine. Of all the musicians who had survived the bebop years, Dizzy was perhaps the most professionally and emotionally stable. He and Lorraine both, very early in Mary Lou’s withdrawal and retreat, insisted on visiting their old friend in her apartment, often bearing gifts of food and valuables. While Dizzy himself at that time was not interested in pursuing any formal spiritual interests (he would become Baha’i in 1968), Lorraine was curious. She and Mary Lou became a set for the next several years as they went to Eucharist services at Lourdes Church, attended Jesuit classes at St. Ignatius Loyola Church on Park Avenue, and otherwise stopped by cathedrals and chapels throughout the city for more private rounds of silent prayer and divine conversation. 

Soon enough, each of the women had gained the vigor of their newfound faith, but especially Mary Lou. “I got a sign that everybody should pray every day,” she explained. (She said the sign came to her in the form of “sounds,” but otherwise did not clarify what she meant by this, whether as words or perhaps as music). She rounded up everyone she could possibly bring with her to Lourdes Church services, including Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk (said to have fainted from fright upon entering the cathedral), Dizzy Gillespie when willing to appease his wife Lorraine, and Lucille Armstrong (Louis’s wife). Miles Davis teased her gently by calling her “Reverend Williams.” He kept asking her to record with him, but she still wasn’t going anywhere near the piano.

Miles Davis teased her gently by calling her “Reverend Williams.”

Mary Lou owned a Royal typewriter that saw far more use in those years than her Baldwin upright piano; she constructed and mimeographed elaborate prayer instructions for distribution to friends and even offered these openly on street corners. Her notes included the following: “Prayers to be read every night before retiring”; “Prayers to say at the crucifix everyday”; “Daily Routines for praying.” She constructed lists of dozens of saints and their areas of therapy and inspiration: for “writers”; “musicians, singers, television”; “orator, teachers, scholars”; “skin diseases, hospitals, invalid, headaches, insanity, nervous disease”; “lovers”; “impossible things”; “servants”; “retreats.” She wrote directions for moving effectively about the many altars of the church while meditating. Her recommended cycle of prayer was 36 days, four times the length of the standard Catholic novena retreat period. She also advocated fasting. 

Important,” she warned. “Start All Prayers Between 6 and 7 a.m. Christ arose around that time.” 

Urgent: Read set of Psalms before retiring.”

For herself, Mary Lou constructed her own private liturgy, typing out hundreds of numbered and collated names of family and friends to pray for. Her list covered her first husband John Williams and second husband Shorty Baker; old band leader Andy Kirk; Josh White, Paul Robeson, and Lena Horne from the Café Society nightclub in New York; Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk; the Gillespies; the Armstrongs; Hazel Scott and Adam Clayton Powell Jr.; Billy Strayhorn; Billie Holiday; Tadd Dameron; Mae and Mezz Mezzrow; Teddy Wilson; Duke Ellington; as well as Charlie Parker and Art Tatum while they were alive and then their souls after they passed suddenly in 1955 and 1956 respectively. Also on her list were the individuals and families of Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, Eartha Kitt, Joe Louis, Ida James, Rose Murphy, Nellie Lutcher, Bea Ellis, Nat King Cole, Roy Eldridge, Max Roach, Errol Garner, Oscar Peterson, Oscar Pettiford, Pearl and Bill Bailey, Johnny Hodges, Ben Webster, Billy Taylor, Sarah Vaughan, Stan Kenton, Nipsey Russell, her sister Mamie’s “next door neighbors,” “Joe the drummer,” “the Palace Market guys,” “the Amsterdam Bank messenger and family,” and many more. Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt somehow also made it into Mary Lou’s prayers.

And always she prayed for the soul of Garland Wilson, her friend in Paris whose death had initiated her depression. 

“What were you praying for?” a reporter asked her about those years of retreat and reflection.

“I was praying for people,” she said. “I was praying for the world.” 

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