In November 1976, Mary Lou Williams’s calendar was packed. In one week’s time, her manager had scheduled the jazz legend to play New York’s The Cookery club, give a benefit concert at the Waldorf Astoria, and perform at a gala fund-raiser for the famed Town Hall. She also needed to deliver two lectures at New York University. Nevertheless, in the midst of all that, on the afternoon of November 17, 1976, Williams still found time to visit Our Lady of Victory Catholic School in the Bronx and put on an impromptu concert for the children.
Williams loved playing for children. She was only a child herself when she first ventured out of her East Liberty neighborhood in 1917, to play in Pittsburgh’s jazz clubs. An instant sensation, locals called the seven-year-old performer “The Little Piano Girl of East Liberty.”
After that, success came fast, first on the famed Orpheum Circuit at age 14, then with Duke Ellington’s band at age 15. She later moved on to partnering with jazz greats such as Earl Hines, Benny Goodman, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk.
After her 1942 divorce from saxophonist John Williams, Williams moved to New York, where she performed in downtown clubs and hosted a radio show. In the mid-1950s, she began contemplating retirement. That changed when Dizzy Gillespie introduced her to Father John Crowley, a jazz-loving Catholic priest who advised Williams to “offer up her playing for others.” Williams liked the advice. She liked Father Crowley’s Church too, and in 1956, became Catholic.
For the remainder of her career, with an Irish-American priest (Father Peter F. O’Brien, S.J.) as her manager, Williams devoted her talents to the Church. She composed hymns, Masses, and other religious works; organized youth choirs; and regularly played concerts in inner-city Catholic schools. She also set up a private charity for musicians who struggled with substance abuse.
Before her death in 1981, Williams explained her love affair with music and the Church, saying, “I am praying through my fingers when I play.”
Excerpted from the just published The American Catholic Almanac which is a daily reader of Catholics who have made an impact on the United States.
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Excerpted from The American Catholic Almanac by CatholicVote.org Education Fund Copyright © 2014 by CatholicVote.org Education Fund. Excerpted by permission of Image Books, a division of Penguin Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
BRIAN BURCH is the president of CatholicVote.org, a nonprofit political advocacy
group based in Chicago.
EMILY STIMPSON is a Catholic writer based in Steubenville, Ohio, and the
author of The Catholic Girl’s Survival Guide for the Single Years and These Beautiful
Bones: An Everyday Theology of the Body.