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Mary Lou Williams, Jazz, and the Liturgy

Now featured on our home page, Ian Marcus Corbin on the vexing legacy of Catholic jazz composer and pianist Mary Lou Williams, who in 1969 received a commission from the Pontifical Commission on Justice and Peace to compose her third Mass, called Music for Peace:

As the 1970s began, Williams turned her energy to the task of seeing this Mass celebrated in a symbolic center of Catholicismeither St. Peter's Basilica or New York's St. Patrick's Cathedral. To her Catholic friends and boosters, the compositiona bright and exuberant romp through various jazz styles, along with some pop-rock and funk tingesseemed the perfect liturgy for a new postVatican II Catholicism, an ebullient departure from stiff, musty Eurocentrism. But many clerics Williams approached expressed serious reservations. Church leaders in both Rome and New York repeatedly offered to stage recitals of the piece, but declined to accept it as a setting for the Mass. Doggedly undeterred, Williams approached New York's Cardinal Terrence Cooke (she would later recount chasing him across the campus of Fordham University), who assented, hoping such a move could help draw young people back to the church. In February 1975, "Mary Lou's Mass" was finally celebrated, and Williams left St. Patrick's in raptures.This breakthrough did not, however, mark the dawn of a new era. Williams's repeated attempts to have her composition performed as a Mass in the Vatican were unsuccessfuland thirty-seven years later jazz remains, at the very best, on the periphery of liturgical music in America. This fact needs some explaining, because, as Williams always insisted, jazz is the only serious art form created exclusively in America. And it is indeed serious art; the highest achievements of jazz belong to the first tier of great Western music. So why hasn't jazz found a more central place in the liturgical life of the Catholic Church in America?

Read the whole story (which includes video and audio links to performances and interviews) right here.

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Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s digital editor.



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With all due respect to Ms. Williams' artistic skills and accomplishments, I am disinclined to believe that jazz, at least in it's present state of development, has a place in Catholic liturgy. Take the Miles Davis Kind of Blue album: It is to be sure an altogether splendid piece of music, but it's entire esthetic is a complete misfit for a Catholic mass. It is mournful, nostalgic, even seemingly despairing - not celebrating the crucified and resurrected Christ, but the inward-gazing seeker of some alien god. Or John Coltrane's frenetic, galvanizing solo on his Giant Steps piece. It is exhilarating, bombastic, and totally awesome, but...I love jazz, but I don't want to hear it at mass. Just a thought...

Bob: tell that to this man:

I wonder if (1) her gender and/or (2) her race may have had just a bit of influence on her early lack of acceptance in pursuing the performance of her jazz mass.

Dave Brubeck, white, male, Catholic, jazz artist also wrote a Mass that, to the best of my knowledge, hasn't been performed at the Vatican. And I'd probably know because I watch for it. Parts were used at a Mass said by Pope John Paul II in San Francisco. The whole Mass was recorded (as To Hope, on Telarc) by Russell Gloyd and the Cathedral Choral Society and Orchestra, the Brubeck Quartet, the Duke Ellington School of the Arts Show Choir and three soloists in a concert version. The Gloria came at the end, and if you hear it you know why they saved it for last.The recessional is a doozy, too, but it really needs the whole 6 minutes and 33 seconds it got in the concert to make its point. That's a bit long for the average parish's Sunday liturgy. I use the psalm (The Desert and the Parched Land) as meditation preparation in some seasons.

A few miscellaneous thoughts:* Liturgy is ritual, but jazz is marked by spontaneity. How may the spontaneity of jazz serve the ritual needs of liturgy?* Jazz tends to lionize the solo performer, but liturgy is communal in nature. Again, how may the solo performer serve the communal nature of liturgy?* In jazz, instrumental music is primary, but liturgy is verbal; sung music (even and perhaps especially unaccompanied sung music) is primary. How does the instrumental nature of jazz serve the verbal requirements of liturgy?* Jazz seems to be essentially performance music - music for its own sake; but liturgical music is music in service to something else: to the liturgy. How does the performance nature of jazz music serve the liturgy?* Liturgy, at least as understood by the liturgical renewal initiated by Vatican II, is rather democratic: it calls for sung participation by the people, as well as by cantors, choir, celebrant and so on. The democratic nature of post-VII liturgy is evident in a number of ways: the music styles, such as folk music, which composers have chosen to clothe the ritual in music; the simplicity of the musical arrangements; the mass distribution of those arrangements. Jazz is rather undemocratic: it is generally performed by specialists. The liturgical reforms of Vatican may not have been congenial to jazz in this respect.Having said all that: there is jazz, or elements of jazz, to be found in liturgical praxis. You can hear it in our parish, because we have a music director who is comfortable in that idiom. You can certainly hear it in at least some African American parishes. Artistry is irrepressible. It will blossom, sometimes where you least expect it. I listened to some samples of Mary Lou Williams' mass, following the links in the article. How would it work without Mary Lou Williams performing it? How can it be adapted to today's liturgy? How can it be edited and arranged for the average parish musician? Or is it really a performance piece? If so, what is the meaning and importance of performance pieces for liturgy?

Jim P. --It seems to me that the greatest of solo performers manage to express *both* what is common to all and what is unique. And it is possible to express both what is common and what is unique spontaneously.Earlier jazz was quite verbal. Think Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald and even Bing Crosby -- yes, him. He was respected as a jazz singer.Jazz undemocratic? It was born among the slave in Congo Square in New Orleans. True, if you haven't heard much of it it might be strange to you, an elitist sort of hobby, and it's true that the most sophistocated sort of jazz is extremely complex music. But the same can be said of Bach -- he wrote some fine simple hymns and some fabulously intricate music. (Try singing a Toccata :-)I have to admit though, that in the predominantly black Catholic school I taught in that at that time there wasn't any effort to incorporate jazz of any sort into the liturgies. But in those days the interest was in everything purely African, not things American, not even Jazz. Even the spirituals were rarely included in liturgies. But spirituals, though African-American, aren't jazz either.

Friends in Seattle have for many years sung the praises of St. Therese Church which has a terrific jazz-gospel choir---with wonderful liturgies that have full participation by the laity.'ll echo some of the comments from above:*that jazz is America's classical music---Armstrong, Ellington, Basie, Fitzgerald, Davis, Coltrane, Williams, et al are our Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Handel, Ravel, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, etc. *that jazz is a thoroughly democratic (though meritocratic) art form;*that jazz improvisation is an expression of the performer's soul and as such, often fits beautifully and powerfully within Catholic liturgy (just as 18th century European performers of classical music regularly improvised).

I don't think Palestrina composed for "the average parish musician" but seems to have become Holy Musical Writ in certain liturgical circles.I'm not big on jazz, but might find it a welcome change from ritualized liturgical music. Try Misa Luba, Misa Flamenca and Misa Criola and tell us that those deviations from what is being pushed as acceptable liturgical musical styles are not up to acceptable liturgical style for the people in the pews.

Big jazz fan and great article. On Jim's point that "Jazz tends to lionize the solo performer, but liturgy is communal in nature. Again, how may the solo performer serve the communal nature of liturgy?"Corbin discusses the individualistic or even personalistic element of jazz but argues that, as an art, it is compatible with Catholic experience. Although, it is an art whose "final goal is interpersonal communion, not communion with the divine. It is a music of earth, not of heaven", it does speak to a communion at least with the artist and listener. Corbin writes:F

Briefly put, a great jazz performer like Mary Lou Williams is an exemplary specimen of the artist as heroic individual. This individualism is not of the isolating sort bemoaned by all serious observers of Americasince Tocqueville, but rather a more romantic and ultimately communal sort. Joseph Conrad, in his celebrated preface to The Nigger of the Narcissus, put forth a vision of the artist as one who descends to the "lonely region" within himself, in order to study and then speak to our capacity for delight and wonder, to the sense of mystery surrounding our lives; to our sense of pity, and beauty, and pain; to the latent feeling of fellowship with all creationand to the subtle but invincible conviction of solidarity that knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts: to the solidarity in dreams, in joy, in sorrow, in aspirations, in illusions, in hope, in fear, which binds men to each other, which binds together all humanity.

I listened to this interpretation of Animi Christi from her album Black Christ of the Andes.

Jim Pauwels' questions about jazz raise some interesting issues about liturgy.How do spontaneity and repetition interact in liturgy? Is liturgy only about perfect repetition? To what extent should it elicit spontaneous movement within people?Liturgy depends on solo performers, Christ first but also the priest, lector, etc. Each of these does something similar to what a jazz musician does as described above, descending from Heaven into the lower depths of our humanity to raise us up.Is liturgy verbal? The rite can be a set of words, but the ritual is the enacting of those words. They strain toward a meeting of minds and hearts in front of God.To what degree is liturgy a performance? Is it something that needs only to be performed once a week? Or is it something to be experienced, an encounter with God that creates our lives?Is liturgy democratic? It is done by specialists whose intent should be IMO to bring out the contributions of others. Music generally, and jazz in particular, aims for a common experience among the listeners, very much like liturgy. Jazz, by grappling with the above issues, probably has something to say to liturgy. How do individuals become a group? Individual experiences become common property? To what degree are elements repeated, to what degree improvised?

Having been very much involved in the performance of Mary Lou Williams's Mass in Rome in January1969, I want to express my thanks to Ian Marcus Corbin for the excellent article and add add a few points from my memory of the occasion. After Mary Lou was in Rome and involved in pulling together a group of singers and musicians from the students at North American College and various members of Religious Orders, I received a call from the Office of Worship in the Vatican to be of help to them. She was pushing for performing the Mass at a papal liturgy and saw such an event as a validation of both Jazz and her role as a Catholic musician. She was totally naive about how Rome works. Pope Paul at that moment was still wrestling with the approval of the Missa Normativa. He had announced his approval in April of the year before, but was still hesitating and sending back texts for revision. By that time some of the complaints from bishops around the world about abuses started to come in and make him even more upset. As a musician he was tone-deaf -- lacking the musical tastes of Pius XII, John Paul II, or now Benedict XVI and seeing the proper music for liturgy just Gregorian Chant and perhaps some polyphony.After the possibility of performing the Mass for the Pope fell through, we searched for a suitable church. The latin American College Chapel seed best since it was somewhat modern, boasted of good acoustics, and was not too large. The Mass was to be celebrated in honor of the first anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King on late Saturday afternoon. I relayed all this information to the Vicariate talking to the Auxiliary bishop in charge of that area of the diocese. In all the proceedings I never spoke with the Cardinal Vicar, Cardinal dell'Aqua.When I went for the rehearsal on Saturday morning, I noted at once that there were TV cameras everywhere. Four reporters from the four major networks. The piano and the musicians were center-stage and the altar almost hidden. I must honestly say that the musicians were not up to the task, lacking the knowledge and the skills needed. Mary Lou was incredible, but could not immediately make professional out of amateurs. The singing, too, was not free and the style did not come naturally to the young men involved. Mary Lou's idea of a Mass was naturally that of the old traditional form -- Lord have mercy, Glory to God, Holy, holy, holy, and Lamb of God, with a beautiful bluezy song for the Offertory and Communion. I could not have conceived of celebrating Mass under these conditions.Then I went to the Vicariate for the final meeting there with the bishop of the region. I agreed with the decision to celebrate a "quiet" MAss in honor of Martin Luther King's anniversary and the the Mass would be sung afterward as a concert. When I announced that decision most of the cameras lost interest. They wanted to make sure it hit the 11:00 o'clock news in New York and seemed satisfied with the little bit they had already recorded. Mary Lou was truly desolate. At no point did I ever hear Cardinal dell'Aqua say anything about drums! The first time I read that comment was in 1999 in the biography of Mary Lou written by Linda Dahl. I have no idea what the Cardinal may have said to the press as we never talked personally.The event pointed out one fact clearly to me: the liturgical renewal would now be very culturally orientated whether we liked it or not. A type of music that is an instrument of prayer for one congregation might not be for another. Secondly, musicians had to learn that there is a place in every culture for religiously inspired music if it is of quality, but not all such fine and inspired religious music is appropriate for liturgy. I confess that this explanation did not seem to be understood by Mary Lou nor encouraging to her.

Was that REALLY Abp Weakland who posted above?

Thank you, Archbishop. Would you know what Ms. Williams thought of retaining music such as chant and polyphony for some liturgical settings?

Yes, this is Archbishop Weakland, I cannot reply to the question about what Mary Lou would have thought of retaining some chant and polyphony. We never discussed it. She did not seem to be concerned about such questions. In retrospect I would have wished I had asked her about the question of Jazz and the participation of the faithful. Her presentations still seemed to be a performance by choir and musicians, but I never attended any of the Masses she was a part of at St. Thomas Church in Harlem.

Archbishop --How do you feel about having different sorts of music for different sorts of groups and liturgical occasions? As a musician, priest and bishop you must have several different sort of perspectives on the issue. Me, I don't see why it has to be either-or, although given the essentially geographical structuring of Catholic parishes , I can see why it would be difficult to have many styles featured in one parish.

I have no problem with the use of different musical styles provided they are integrated into the liturgical moment and not just set pieces for entertainment purposes. There is, however, a law of association that must be kept in mind. Certain musical pieces and certain musical styles bring to our minds associations that may not bee appropriate. For example, to sing pieces from Fiddler on the Roof during liturgy puts one in the theater or dancehall and not in a worship space. That may have been the underlying meaning of the Cardinal's comments to the press about the use of drums. There were some at that time saying that music with a strong beat or syncopation did not belong in Church since the style was too associated with the dancehall. Associations vary from culture to culture.

If polka masses are acceptable (I come from that part of the country and have, at best, mixed feelings about them!), drums and other forms of liturgical music certainly should fit within the scope of Catholic acceptability. I realize that the Vaticanes can be lathered about them, but I think that the fast-growing African church might have a thing or two to add to the discussion.

Archbishop --I agree that some musical associations just distract us from the liturgy. But what about music that isn't familiar at all? So many people seem to think that unfamiliar music ought to be unwelcome. Unfortunately, I think that's one of the things that happened after Vatican II with "guitar Masses". Guitar music (i.e., rock) was unfamiliar to the old folks, and they didn't want even the instruments used to remind them of the hated music. But there is another problem with guitar music, one that has nothing to do with age. I'm thinking of guitar music in ordinary sized and large churches. There is no way a guitar can be heard well in those churches -- their sound is just too soft, and hitting the strings hard doesn't help much. Guitar accompaniment in a small chapel might be beautiful, but in large old churches they're hopeless, just a lot of jingle-jangle. But people want the forms of music they're familiar with, so the young ones want guitars), and there seems to be a stalemate about what instruments should be used in church these days. We old folks are dying off, or can't hear, so that problem is going to disappear, but I think that the problem of small guitar sounds in ordinary sized churches will persist. And the same thing is sometimes true of pianos.But what about drums, clarinets, saxes, and trumpets typical of jazz? And why not organs? If anything, trumpets and drums might be too loud for ordinary churches, though large organs in large churches do have trumpet stops.So many of these aesthetic issues are dependent on the relationships among the factors == instruments, rhythm, voice, harmony, even acoustics, etc. Little is absolutely so, so much "all depends. . ." I guess it's not really possible to generalize about what is and what isn't appropriate. Though it' easy to say what's bad, it's hard to say what's good. Sigh.

I admit, Jim, I dislike no end Polka Masses. I cannot see how anyone could seriously sing "Lord, have mercy" to a Polka beat. I have heard solo guitar music during Communion, Ann, that I thought was very reverential and edifying What has happened, though, is that it is hard to find truly great guitar players for such uplifting artistic music. Perhaps we have let our Church music become the domain of every amateur and not sought quality. I hope Benedictines are holding to the Rule of Benedict that not everyone should read or chant in public but only those who can edify the listeners.

Archbishop ==Yes, guitar can be edifying. I once hear Segovia in recital in a relatively small auditorium, and it was one of the great musical experiences of my life. Lots of quiet Bach :-) But, as you say, there just aren't that many fine guitar players (not that they'd have to all be Segovias). But I still think that in a cathedral even Segovia would not be heard to advantage. That might not be apparent to a priest on the alter, however. There's one strange thing about most of the young people I know -- most of them think that they were meant to be musicians. Sincerity seems to be the quality they appreciate most. They do have a point, don't they, even when it comes to liturgical music? On the other hand, someone sincerely singing a hymn off-key would be, well, blasphemous. I dunno. What I'm sure of is that more of the available great artists of various sorts should be involved in creating new forms of liturgy. For instance, get Seamus Heaney to help with new Mass translations. Get Paul MacCartney to write some hymns or set some poems to music. I bet they'd do it.

Before getting into my comment, I just want to thank Archbishop Weakland for joining the discussion. His memoir of trying to get the Williams mass performed in the Vatican is great first-hand stuff.My apologies to those who have tried to engage me in conversation; I'm just returning from a Thanksgiving break. Ann, you wrote:"Earlier jazz was quite verbal. Think Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald and even Bing Crosby yes, him. He was respected as a jazz singer."I'd not want to constrain jazz (not that I have the authority to do so) by decreeing what it is and what it isn't. It's impossible to pin down, in no small part because creative geniuses are always pushing the envelope. But here is my point of view: the author used the example of the song, "My Funny Valentine". That is a great song - I'd argue, a masterpiece of its genre. But its genre, properly speaking, isn't jazz: it's a show tune. The jazz isn't when Bing Crosby sings the Rodgers melody and the Hart words; the jazz happens after the song is sung, and the musicians take over for their rounds of improvised solos. Then, if it follows the classic jazz pattern, it all comes together again at the end for a recap of the orginal melody, and a big finish. I've worn the church musician hat at various times in my life, and I can attest that improvisation is a nice skill for a church musician to have. Jim McK rightly notes that liturgy is more than words, it's ritual action, too, and if musicians can improvise some variations, perhaps in order to underscore liturgical action - well, that's aesthetically a lot more satisfying (or it can be a lot more satisfying, if it's well done) than simply repeating a melody over and over again.Another point of view I have about the ethos of jazz is that it tends to be a competitive sport; the jazz musician not only wants to create improvised music that is beautiful; she wants it to be more beautiful than what the other guy can manage to do :-). This competitive streak is one of the things that drives the unbelievable accomplishments of great jazz performers. (And to be sure, it is not all about besting a rival; there is a wonderful tradition of homage to other great players in jazz, too). But topping the other guy is generally a form of self-aggrandizement, and self-aggrandizement in church musicians is to be rigorously eschewed (in my opinion)A couple of folks claim that jazz is democratic. It may be democratic in its roots, but it hasn't evolved into a very democratic art form*. It's a specialist art form that had broad consumer appeal during the first half of the 20th century - but the fickle consumer tastes have evolved in other directions. Of course, Bach and Palestrina are also for specialists and also don't have a ton of consumer appeal these days. The challenge for the parish musician is how to take great music, whehter it is Bach or Palestrina or Mary Lou Williams, and fit it to the liturgy, according to the liturgical norms that prevail today. (In actuality, I daresay most parish musicians don't accept that challenge.)* However, within that orbit of elite specialists, jazz can be very egalitarian; everyone gets their turn to solo, and there is a wonderful interplay between the soloist and the accompanying instruments that strikes me as consonant with good liturgy.

Thanks, Ann, for the good suggestions. Most artists, as we found out right after the Council and were seeking to get some to try their hand at writing for the Liturgy, had never really written for anything other than solo consumption. Here I find Iam Marcus Corbin.s analysis perceptive. Our musical concerts are so strongly centered on the individual performer, or band of performers, that participation of the whole group takes on a different quality than the liturgical demands.I close this participation with an other comment more pertinent to the life and work of Mary Lou Williams and her desire to have that work recognized as part of the liturgical life of the Church. I could think of one incident when I felt that Jazz was the right liturgical response!!! I would love to have a jazz band and jazz singers performing "When the Saints go Marching in" when my body is taken to the grave -- not in the dirge form, but with all the joyous rhythms of the confident, Faith-filled crowd. Peace.

Sorry, that last comment was too long, but let me just add one more thought on democractic music. The ethos of democratic music-making is just about disappeared in the US - except in churches and in ball parks during the 7th inning stretch. It used to be broader. Frank Capra gave us some idealistic illustrations: in "It Happened One Night", when everyone on the bus sings, "The Man on the Flying Trapeze", or the moving final scene of "It's a Wonderful Life". People used to follow the bouncing ball in movie theaters. These days, people don't even know the lyrics to Christmas carols.

Just read an amazing thing at Wikipedia. Organs are an ancient musical instrument. They were first associated with the gladiatorial games of Rome!!! Only later were they acceptable for church music.In the arts, never say never.

Maybe it should also be noted that in its original form jazz incorporated African rhythm, French music hall melodies, and Carribean and South American elements. So can the Church arts incorporate diverse elements from all cultures in some unified form(s)? Why not? It would take a confluence of liturgical geniuses, no doubt, but the Holy Spirit could find and inspire them. Pray that we the Faithful can have the open minds that are required to love all peoples, no matter how different from ourselves. Art is, after all, the melding of what is diverse, even of what is opposed.

JIm P. --ISTM you're right about choral singing in the U. S. In the 19th century in New Orleans there were dozens of choruses of German-Americans who sang together but not in concerts or recitals or anything fancy like that. They just liked to sing. I always suspected that the reason the German peoples have produced so many of the greatest musicians is because their culture supported music from the bottom up in ways other European cultures didn't.Jazz includes groups of instrumentalists, but not choral music, at least I can't think of any. I wonder if that was because the slaves in New Orleans came from different African countries and spoke different native languages. That wouldn't lend itself to choral singing. Maybe it's the huge influence of jazz here that dampened our choral singing instincts. Choral music doesn't lend itself to the improvisation that jazz requires.This brings up a theological question: must Mass be entirely a group practice? Is there no room for solos, whether of music or prayers? The sermons on the Biblical texts of the day are semi-solo practices, aren't they? Your preaching is *your* preaching. Maybe Catholics are so in love with uniformity that we can't tolerate, much less appreciate, any sort of singlarity, especially not at Mass. Hmmm. I wonder if this is a good thing.

Archbishop --Dixieland isn't quite dead in New Orleans, and there are still occasional jazz funerals. I'm sure that, with a couple of days notice, a jazz band could be arranged for your last celebration :-)

Although I had dropped out of this dialogue, I could not help but add a word in the light of the current discussion. About a year before Mary Lou Williams arrived in Rome, that is, in January of 1968, Pope Paul, still very worried about the Missa Normativa decided to experience the new Mass himself in three forms, namely, a very simple form with almost no singing, a form with everything sung, and then a mixed form with the essentials sung but not everything. He was among the parishioners, about twenty-five of us, and someone else celebrated. After the Mass in the chapel, he invited about five of us into his study to discuss how it went. He asked me to be in that smaller group each of the three evenings. He had invited the students of the German College to do the singing for the second evening, that is, the form with everything sung. As we were sitting down in his study the second evening, he turned to me and asked: "Father Abbot, what do two Italians do when they meet abroad?" "I don't know, Your Holiness," was my reply. "They open a barbershop," he said. "What do two Greeks do when they meet abroad?" I don;'t know, Your Holiness." "They open a restaurant." "What do two Germans do when they meet abroad." "I don't know your Holiness." " They sing in four part harmony." That is the only papal joke I know! One final point: yes, the role of the cantor was reintroduced in the liturgical reform of Vatican II. The cantor is by definition a solo role. There is now, thus, a greater variety -- congregation, choir, cantor.

:-) :-) :-) :-)

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