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  • Medomfo Owusu

Praising and Bopping: The Story Behind Mary Lou Williams’ Black Christ of the Andes

Written by Medomfo Owusu

Mary Lou Williams (1910-1981), US jazz pianist, playing the piano at a dinner club, the audience seated at tables in the background, circa 1945. (Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images)

When the name Mary Lou Williams is mentioned in jazz circles, many descriptions come to mind. She was a virtuosic composer, arranger and pianist. What is not always considered is her spirituality as a woman who devoted herself to the Catholic faith after battling severe mental health issues that nearly ended her musical career.

Her spiritual practice was an aid to her expression when she began composing sacred jazz music. Her album, Mary Lou Williams presents Black Christ of the Andes, covers various themes of Williams’ identity. The album is a consideration of many issues, from her spiritual journey to asserting herself as a Black female jazz musician in the United States of America.

What is the story behind the album?

The pieces on Black Christ of the Andes were written in tribute to St. Martin de Porres. St. Martin de Porres is the patron saint of racial harmony in the Catholic Church. de Porres was a mixed-heritage Puerto Rican.

San Martin de Porres, 1600s. Public domain image

There are many styles on the project. Williams' inspiration stems from her bebop, blues, choral music, and gospel expertise.

Jazz was often deemed ‘the devil’s music’ in many Christian religious circles (both European-American and African-American). Many prominent scholars and preachers considered religious music a more 'authentic' and respectable representation of the race in contrast to ‘caricature’ music, i.e the blues.

Williams grappled with this. When she became a Catholic in 1954, she didn't believe she could return to jazz music, having been on a hiatus following a severe breakdown. With her new faith, she was hesitant to return to the jazz bars where her colleagues engaged in alcohol, and drugs, which were off-limits to her. Encouraged by her spiritual mentors (Fr John Crawley and Fr Anthony), Williams recognised that she could use her music to serve God in the Catholic Church. She even convinced Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell and Dizzy Gilespie to attend a church service with her. Williams also began helping her musician friends who were using alcohol and drugs to cope with burnout.

In 1962, two important events took place that would affect Williams’ expression of her faith in jazz. In May, Pope John XXII canonised St Martin de Porres as the patron saint for racial harmony, innkeepers, barbers, public health workers and mixed-heritage people. Though it was not a complete solution, the Catholic Church had institutionalised a figure who could become a 'representative face' amidst the Civil Rights movement in the United States and racial discord around the world. Secondly, the Second Vatican Council (which began in 1962 and ended in 1965) began to diversify Catholic worship linguistically and stylistically.

These two monumental moments spurred Williams to write a mass titled Black Christ of the Andes (a nickname for St Martin de Porres) in 1962. The song, St Martin de Porres, is particularly striking on the album. The call-and-response structure and choral texture are a blend of European-influenced stylisation and African musical expression. Mixing vocal and instrumental movements in the mass, she effectively connects jazz expression and Catholic contemplation. The project also celebrates St Martin de Porres' canonisation, inviting different ethnicities within the Catholic Church to unify through divine worship.

Williams used 'sacred jazz' to express her perspective on African American spirituality. The excellence in her music was also a reminder to her colleagues of her virtuosity and creativity in the field, and she began again to headline performances and produce jazz albums.

Spending her time teaching in schools and performing brought more publicity to her musings on the utility and power of jazz music. To address misconceptions concerning the history of jazz, she produced a diagram often called the ‘Tree of Life’. It illustrates the interweaving of African-American religious and nonreligious music history. For Williams, this was an educational tool that linked genres on the Black Christ of the Andes project. This innovative form of activism continued the strong tradition of deep intellectual thought in jazz music.

As a Catholic woman and musician, Williams is in the line of female musicians and composers, such as Saint Hildegard and Juanita Ines de La Cruz. As an African American woman, she asserted her position in the male-dominated jazz industry and in the Eurocentric environment of the Catholic Church. She broke barriers with her Sacred Jazz compositions and encouraged the circles around her to reconsider their conceptions of divine worship.


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