When you read the biographies of great musicians, there is always a certain apprehension. Making immortal music doesn’t make you a good person, and some legendary musicians treated others terribly (Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, James Brown, etc.)
So it’s a relief to read Deanna Witkowski’s new book about Mary Lou Williams, arguably the greatest jazz pianist and songwriter (and really, you don’t need that term “feminine”) of all time. .
“Mary Lou Williams: Music for the Soul” shows that Williams was not only a fiercely original musician, but as close to a saint as in modern music. Plus, she literally made saints music.
“I think of Mary Lou – although I’ve never met her – as a mentor to me, because she’s someone who really knew how to integrate her spirituality, her Catholicism, with her music. She was also an experimenter and she always defined herself like that, ”says Witkowski.
Williams was born in 1910 in Atlanta with a “veil,” a thin membrane of the placenta over her eyes. “In African American culture, it was believed that children born with such a veil had the gift of second sight, an ability to see visions that were not apparent to others,” writes Witkowski.
Her family soon moved to Pittsburgh, and her intuitive mastery of music made Williams the “little piano girl” of East Liberty, playing for her neighbors, her school, and her stepfather’s poker games.
At the time, Pittsburgh was producing more great pianists than any place on Earth; Williams High School Westinghouse also has alumni such as Earl “Fatha” Hines, Billy Strayhorn and Erroll Garner. Williams quickly discovered that she could make money for her family and performed everywhere from late-night jam sessions in the Hill District to touring with Andy Kirk’s Twelve Clouds of Joy.
Williams mastered a range of styles, from earthy boogie-woogie to big band swing arrangements to proto-bebop. She wrote tunes for Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington and mentored bebop revolutionaries from Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie to mercurial Thelonious Monk.
“His music was always a bit ahead of its time,” says Witkowksi. “So if you listen to it now, you might hear some music that sounds like Kansas City in the 30s, and sounds like the early funk influences of the 70s, all on the same tune.”
Williams was also a low-key charity who looked after many jazz musicians, drug addicts and the like when their money was running out – often opening his house to them at great personal expense.
A deep spiritual desire led to a forties conversion to Catholicism and Williams turned his innovative instincts to liturgical music, combining it with jazz in masterpieces such as “Black Christ of the Andes” (1964) on the Peruvian black St. Martín de Porres Velázquez. Williams opened thrift stores in Harlem to benefit impoverished and addicted musicians and hosted giant benefit concerts, such as the first Pittsburgh Jazz Festival in 1964 at the Civic Arena.
Williams did not necessarily see the sacred and the secular as separate when it came to his music; she was able to improvise on a movement from one of her jazz masses during a club meeting, notes Witkowski.
Witkowski’s research brought her to Pittsburgh from New York and she stayed. She now lives in Greenfield.
“I knew Mary Lou was from here, but I knew like a person in Pittsburgh. I started meeting as many people as possible in the jazz community and then ended up coming back here for performances that were usually Mary Lou related. I played with the (Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra) as a guest doing a lot of their music, ”says Witkowski.
“I really continued to have that very strong sense of community that I didn’t feel so much in New York. And I think Mary Lou drove me there.
Witkowski is hosting a 6 p.m. book launch and performance on Thursday, September 16 at Con Alma in downtown Pittsburgh. She is also hosting a 7:30 p.m. book reading on September 23 at Riverstone Books in Squirrel Hill.
Witkowski made a recording of Mary Lou Williams’ music at Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild titled “Force of Nature” which will be released on October 22nd. The album features his regular band, who came from New York and Austin to record, with legendary local musicians Dwayne Dolphin and Roger Humphries. On October 24, she will perform “Mary Lou’s Mass” with 12 singers and an instrumental quartet at Sacred Heart Church in Shadyside.