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Mary Lou Williams events this week in Chicago to be led by Deanna Witkowski

The scholar and musician from the University of Pittsburgh will give a lecture and concert on consecutive dates at Loyola University Chicago.

(The Hank Center for the Catholic Intellectual Heritage)

The 20th-century pianist Mary Lou Williams, one of jazz music’s best-known female musicians, will be remembered with two events this week at Loyola University Chicago. Both are sponsored by the Hank Center for the Catholic Intellectual Heritage and will be led by music scholar and jazz pianist Deanna Witkowski of the University of Pittsburgh.

Witkowski will give a lecture on Williams at the school’s Information Commons on Thursday, March 21, followed by a performance gala on Wednesday evening at Skowronski Music Hall. With bassist Larry Kohut, drummer Tom Hipskind, and Loyola’s own Ignatian Voices chamber choir, Witkowski will play the music of Williams and share portions of her unique story as a jazzwoman extraordinaire and Black Catholic philanthropist.

Witkowski says the events were the result of a previous engagement at the school that led to a continued connection with Hank Center director Michael Murphy.

“He asked me a few years ago when they hosted the Christian Imagination Conference, to do something on a small scale. I played for a private event, talking about Mary Lou and playing,” she said. 

“I got a grant from the Hank Center last summer for my dissertation and he's stayed in touch with me. He wanted to do a big Mary Lou event this year.”

The Mary Lou events this week come during Women’s History Month, which often brings mention of Williams’ impact on the development of American and Catholic music. She is perhaps known for her 1945 secular composition “Zodiac Suite,” which marked the height of her career before her conversion to Catholicism a little under a decade later.

She ceased playing for a number of years after joining the Church, dedicating herself to philanthropy through her Bel Canto Foundation, which housed the poor as well as musicians struggling with drug addiction. 

Williams was encouraged by various confidantes, including several Catholic priests, to return to the piano bench, which she did in 1957. For the next two decades, she helped pioneer the Jazz Mass and sacred jazz idioms, while also serving as an educator for children and university students. Her notable compositions during this period include “Black Christ of the Andes (St. Martin de Porres),” “Praise the Lord,” and a cover of the popular Gershwin tune “It Ain’t Necessarily So.”

“Williams’s sanctity is getting better known—especially in her corporal works of mercy for fellow musicians and loving care for all who crossed her path,” LUC said in an announcement for Witkowski’s events at the school this week. 

“Williams expressed her faith in her music—innovatively composing and situating jazz in liturgical settings and demonstrating the sacral range of jazz music in new registers. A virtuoso pianist, in her early career, Williams was part of the 1940s Kansas City jazz scene—inspiring and mentoring such artists as Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and Charlie Parker.”

She died of bladder cancer in 1981 but Witkowski, whose award-winning book on Williams was released in 2021 with Liturgical Press, has contributed widely to the continued interest in her life and music. Covers of several Williams compositions comprise her 2022 album “Force of Nature,” and she regularly gives lectures and performances promoting her enduring legacy.

Witkowski, who will soon defend her dissertation on jazz worship, recently taught a six-week online course on Williams for Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City. Her events at Loyola this week—focusing on “Mary Lou’s Mass” from 1975—will be followed by student workshops, a live radio performance on Wednesday, April 3, at Pianoforte in Chicago, as well as a Jazz Vespers service and liturgical seminar at Valparaiso University in Indiana on April 10.

The events are free and open to the public and no registration is required. Thursday’s lecture at LUC will begin at 4pm CT and the concert gala the following day will begin at 7pm.

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger.

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