Mary Lou Williams: An Evening of Sacred Jazz

Mary Lou Williams (Photo courtesy of William P. Gotlieb/Library of Congress)

In recognition of Black History Month, we are highlighting the liturgical work and faith journey of Mary Lou Williams, a pioneering jazz pianist and composer. Williams, who died in 1981 at age 71, was a prolific artist, writing and arranging hundreds of compositions and released dozens of recordings, including A Keyboard History and the Mass for Peace. Along the way, she worked with jazz giants such as Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman and served as a mentor to other seminal figures, including Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk.

This Wednesday, Deanna Witkowski, an UrbanFaith contributor, will lead a quartet and 12-voice choir of professional jazz vocalists in a performance of works by the trailblazing artist at The Park Avenue Christian Church, 1010 Park Avenue at 85th Street in Manhattan. Witkowski will also facilitate a pre-concert talk starting at 7:15 pm on the importance and influence of Williams on current jazz musicians.

The featured work on the program is Williams’ 1967 “Music for Peace,” a monumental work of sacred jazz informed by the Civil Rights movement and the liturgical reforms of the Roman Catholic Church’s Vatican II Council, as well as Williams’ own deep personal faith. Her remarkably original settings of traditional liturgical texts embrace a compendium of jazz styles, from blues to bossa nova. Music for Peace, received with great acclaim, was later choreographed and performed by the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater as “Mary Lou’s Mass.”

For those of you who live or work in the greater New York City area, we hope that you will be able to attend this faith-filled encomium to Williams’ work.


For additional information on Mary Lou Williams, check out Deanna Witkowski’s UrbanFaith article, Mary Lou’s Sacred Jazz