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Philip Bannister

Music for the Soul: Telling the Story of Mary Lou Williams’ Spiritual Journey

Mary Lou Williams (1910-1981) was a pioneering pianist and composer who rose to fame in the 1930’s and 40’s working with Andy Kirk and His Twelve Clouds of Joy, a Kansas City territory band. In her twelve years with the group, she crafted sophisticated arrangements and contributed brilliant improvised solos. Her compositions were also recorded by Duke Ellington, Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman. As swing evolved into bop, Williams’ absorbed the innovations of the new music and even became an unofficial mentor for many of the young modernists.

A decade after striking out on her own, Williams took a three-year hiatus from public performing. During this time, she experienced a spiritual awakening and converted to Catholicism. With the encouragement of her musician friends and members of her religious community, she embarked on writing music for the church that drew on her jazz aesthetic, including three jazz masses.

Pianist Deanna Witkowski has written a biography called Music for the Soul that sheds new light on William’s musical and spiritual journey. Her new album, Force of Nature, compliments the book with a program of Williams’ compositions and arrangements. In this segment, she speaks with WESM producer Peter Solomon about this musical giant.

Peter Solomon is WESM's Music Director and host of Morning Jazz Unlimited, weekdays from 9 am to noon on WESM. He joined Delmarva Public Media in August 2021 after 22 years as a jazz host for an NPR affiliate in Richmond, Virginia.