Mary Lou Williams
Jazz for the Soul
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By Father Peter O'Brien, S. J.¹
The music poured from the piano. On a large platform inside the oval mahogany bar at New York’s Hickory House, the last surviving establishment offering jazz on West 52nd Street, “Swing Street,” an authoritative African-American woman in early middle age sat at the piano, eyes mostly closed, her face registering every nuance in the music she was creating, back straight, her hands lying flat as they moved on the keys. She was wearing a royal blue chiffon gown of cocktail length, softly gathered at the shoulders. Her arms were bare. She had a beautiful throat and neck, good collarbones, and a dark brown face rising up from a strong chin to high cheekbones. Her mouth was well shaped and soft, and at times broke into a brief radiant smile when she achieved a particular musical passage. The smile never interfered with the concentration. There was nothing theatrical about her. You simply knew that you were in the presence of someone of the highest magnitude. Her name was Mary Lou Williams.
The emotional experience of the music and the woman herself was so strong that my life at once took on a permanent new direction. There was no confusion or doubt in me, and although I could not possibly have known the full consequences of that night’s depth of feeling, I had found my purpose. I was finally at home.
At the end of her set, she descended from the platform and exited as the bartender raised the flap to let her through. Her two accompanists repaired to a booth along the back wall of the room, and she sat at a small square table set at an angle slightly back from the traffic around the bar.
I slid off the bar stool and walked nervously toward her and told her my name. She asked me, “Are you a priest?” I told her, “No, I’m a Jesuit seminarian and I will be a priest.” She was subdued—almost mute. I had been especially moved by one piece she played and asked her what her third-to-last number was. She replied, “Oh, that was just a blues.”
When I asked about her record, she gave me a large square manila envelope. I removed the contents. It contained her LP, which had a pen and ink drawing of praying hands on a pink background and large black letters proclaiming MARY LOU WILLIAMS presents. A second, much smaller recording, showing a chiaroscuro black-and-white photograph of Mary Lou Williams was called Music for the Soul and contained selections from the LP.
I was too shy to ask her to sign the records, but I did ask her how I might reach her. She gave me a tiny card. On one side was her name, address, and telephone number; on the other, the address of the Bel Canto Thrift Shop. Though Loyola Seminary was north of New York City, we had a tie-line, making all calls to Harlem local. From then on, I was on the phone to her every day.
Mary Lou Williams lived and played through all the eras in the history of jazz: the spirituals, ragtime, the blues, Kansas City swing, boogie-woogie, bop or modern, and musics beyond—playing the new music of each era, a claim that is difficult to dispute. She had perfect pitch, was entirely self-taught (her mother had never allowed a teacher to interfere with her), and often as a child spent twelve hours at a stretch at the piano.
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