In Mary Lou Williams: Music for the Soul, Deanna Witkowski brings a fresh perspective to the life and music of the legendary jazz pianist-composer Mary Lou Williams (1910-81). As a fellow jazz pianist-composer, adult convert to Catholicism, and liturgical composer, Witkowski offers unique insight gleaned from a twenty-year journey with Williams as her chosen musical and spiritual mentor. Viewing Williams’s musical and corporal acts of mercy as part of a singular effort to create community no matter the context, Witkowski examines how Williams created networks of support and friendship through her decades long letter correspondence with various women religious, her charitable work, and her tireless efforts to perform jazz in churches, community centers, concert halls, and schools. Throughout this fascinating story told with equal amounts of deep love and scholarly research, Witkowski illumines Williams’s passionate mantra that “jazz is healing to the soul.”
Deanna Witkowski is an award-winning jazz pianist and composer who recently relocated to Mary Lou Williams’s hometown of Pittsburgh after spending twenty-three years as a New Yorker. Her seven recordings include the forthcoming Force of Nature (MCG Jazz) featuring all Williams compositions, and Makes the Heart to Sing: Jazz Hymns (Tilapia Records), featuring 14 jazz arrangements of classic hymns alongside a companion sheet music book. As a frequent guest music leader, Witkowski has shared her original liturgical jazz in over one hundred churches throughout the United States. She has lectured and performed the music of Mary Lou Williams at venues including the Kennedy Center, Duke University, Fordham University, and with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. She is currently a PhD student in jazz studies at the University of Pittsburgh. Visit Witkowski online at deannajazz.com.
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"Witkowski’s book presents Mary Lou Williams as both human and saint. Williams’ compassion for the human dilemma and her advocacy for jazz both as musical artform and as the prescription for conveying the love of God to all people is laid bare before the reader. One cannot help but come away from this excursion into the life of Williams with the whole point of the Gospel; love of neighbor. And jazz is the cure. What perhaps is equally as palpable is the role of many in the Catholic Church as patron of the arts. The fact that Mary Lou Williams found spiritual solace in the Catholic faith is not lost on this reader, especially at a time when there is much racial strife in the country and African American Catholics may wonder, “Where is the Church?” Witkowski’s sharing of Williams’ journey reminds us of the potential of a home for Black Catholics."
M. Roger Holland, II, Director of The Spirituals Project, University of Denver
I’m grateful to Deanna Witkowski for telling Mary Lou’s story, and sharing her greatness, her deep faith, and her contagious spirit. When Mary Lou brought jazz to the Mass, she was inviting us to universal love and the joy of the resurrection. May we all become, like the great Saint Mary Lou Williams, people of universal love.
Rev. John Dear, author of Living Peace, The Questions of Jesus, The Beatitudes of Peace, and Lazarus Come Forth, and director of www.beatitudescenter.org
"This is a long-overdue study of an important American artist and unconscionably neglected figure in our particular communion of saints. I am an unabashed fan of Mary Lou Williams, this book, and its author. Deanna Witkowski—a jazz pianist, musicologist, and convert to the Catholic faith—is uniquely qualified for her role in Mary Lou’s revival. Read these pages, and you’ll grow immeasurably richer in history, in music, and in soul."
Mike Aquilina, EWTN host, author of many books, songwriter, executive vice-president of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology
"In this brief biography, Deanna Witkowski retrieves for Catholics, African American Catholics in particular, the life of jazz virtuoso Mary Lou Williams. Witkowski offers readers a glimpse into the inner life of a ‘musical contemplative,’ who was one of the great jazz pianists, arrangers, and composers of the 20th century. Although befriended, encouraged, and counseled by several priests and women religious, Mary Lou Williams remains unknown among most African American Catholics. This contribution to the People of God series provides an opportunity for us to discover and appreciate the musical talent and spiritual commitment of one of our own."
Dr. M. Shawn Copeland, Professor Emerita, Department of Theology, Boston College
"Deanna Witkowski’s Mary Lou Williams: Music for the Soul is a thrilling account of the extraordinary life of a brilliantly successful African American Jazz artist who became a devout Catholic—and it is so much more besides. The reader who accompanies Mary Lou on her journey bears witness to the historical circumstances that shaped her era: the evolution of Jazz music in America, the challenges African American musicians faced as they tried to practice their art, the sexism of the Jazz world, the difficult and often tragic lives of professional musicians, and the powerful appeal of the Catholic Church to artists in search of meaning in life, stability, and a spiritual home. Witkowski, as a Jazz artist herself who converted to Catholicism, is the ideal person to write this biography of Mary Lou, a figure from the great pantheon of Jazz musicians in whom she 'unexpectedly found a soul companion and a life-long mentor.' Her extensive musical knowledge makes her the perfect guide to Williams’s work, and her identity as a fellow Catholic enables her to empathize with Mary Lou’s spiritual journey. A meticulously researched and well-told tale, Mary Lou Williams is rife with cliffhangers, foreshadowing, tragic losses, psychic and religious visions, and unexpected intrusions of grace. It is also, to this reader’s delight, a labor of love."
Angela Alaimo O’Donnell, author of Flannery O’Connor: Fiction Fired by Faith
A beautifully written and expertly researched biography of one of the most fascinating Catholic artists of our time. Deanna Witkowski, a musician herself, brings to life a whole era in this engrossing new book about art, music, love, perseverance and faith.
James Martin, SJ, author of Learning to Pray and In All Seasons, For All Reasons
"I've known Deanna Witkowski as a friend and jazz pianist for more than two decades. I've experienced her compassion, her artistry, her gift for translating the sacred into intricate and gorgeous melodies. I've known her as a musician, but now I'm pleased to also know her as an author. I can think of few people better equipped to bring the story and music of Mary Lou Williams to life. Deanna shines brilliant light on Williams's humanity, faith, and immense influence on jazz music. But she also builds a strong case for why Williams was one of our most important modern composers of sacred works. I suspect the music of Mary Lou Williams will be added to many new playlists as a result of this excellent book."
Edward Gilbreath, author of Reconciliation Blues and Birmingham Revolution
I had the good fortune of meeting Mary Lou Williams one summer day in the seventies when she came to visit her friend, Dorothy Day, at the Catholic Worker Farm in Tivoli, New York. There was a battered grand piano in the main room and Williams gave an unforgettable impromptu concert. I’ve been collecting Williams recordings ever since. Now there is also Deanna Witkowski’s biography. Its author is the pianist who has done so much to introduce a new generation to one of the musical geniuses of the last century.
Jim Forest, Author of Writing Straight with Crooked Lines: A Memoir