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Faint Sounds of Jazz in the Catholic church

Mary Lou Williams is one of the few women in the pantheon of great jazz instrumentalists and a great Catholic artist. Duke Ellington once said, “She is like soul on soul.”

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Mary Lou Williams (1910-1981) is one of the few women in the pantheon of great jazz instrumentalists and a great Catholic artist. "Her music maintains a quality that is timeless," Duke Ellington once said. "She is like soul on soul."

In 1957, following a half-decade of self-taught ascetic religious practice, she was baptized into the Roman Catholic Church along with her friend Lorraine Gillespie, wife of the trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, and became a sort of apostle to jazz musicians, many of whom were wracked with addiction to drugs. Jazz, Williams believed, was fundamentally a music of healing.

Central to her new sense of mission was the composition of a jazz Mass, and in the coming years she would complete three of them. One, composed in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. after his 1968 assassination, was scheduled in Rome but was cancelled at the last minute when the vicariate realized that she had included bongo drums. But Williams persevered, and later that year she received a commission from a Vatican group to compose “Music for Peace,” now commonly known as "Mary Lou's Mass."

As the 1970s began, Williams turned her energy to the task of seeing this Mass celebrated in a symbolic center of Catholicism like St. Patrick's Cathedral. Williams says she chased New York's Cardinal Terrence Cooke across the campus of Fordham University. Cooke relented to her dogged pursuit.  In February 1975, "Mary Lou's Mass" was finally played in St. Patrick’s.

Her breakthrough did not, however, mark the dawn of a new era. Thirty-seven years later, jazz remains a faint sound in Catholic masses in America. So why hasn't jazz found a more central place in the liturgical life of the Catholic Church in America?


Mary Lou Williams interview:


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A Jazz Mass?


Ian Marcus Corbin

Pope Benedict might not be enthusiastic about a jazz mass but his writings on beauty, often inspired by Hans Urs von Balthasar--one of the greatest theologians of beauty, are often well worth reading. Here is a link to his "The Feeling of Things, the Contemplation of Beauty."

First Things, a magazine that inclines toward Catholicism, is hosting an art show by Brooklynite Wayne Adams called "The (Sacred) Void" and reception on 6pm, Thursday, November 29 at their offices: 35 East 21st Street, Sixth Floor (between Broadway and Park) . Click here to RSVP.

Tomorrow: Mary Lou Williams' Mass

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