Having been very much involved in the performance of Mary Lou Williams’s Mass in Rome in January 1969, I write to express my thanks to Ian Marcus Corbin for his excellent article “A Jazz Mass?” (December 7), and to add a few points from my memory of the occasion.
Not long after Mary Lou came to Rome and began pulling together singers and musicians from the students at the North American College, and various members of religious orders, I received a call from the Office of Worship in the Vatican asking me to help them. She was pushing to perform the Mass at a papal liturgy, and saw such an event as a validation both of jazz and of her role as a Catholic musician. She was, however, totally naïve about how Rome works.
At that time, Pope Paul VI was wrestling with the approval of the Missa Normativa. He had announced his approval in April 1968, but was still hesitating, sending back texts for revision. Complaints from bishops around the world about abuses had started to come in, which upset him even more. But when it came to music, he was tone-deaf. He lacked the musical tastes of Pius XII, John Paul II, or Benedict XVI. Pope Paul thought Gregorian chant and perhaps some polyphony were the only kinds of music appropriate to the liturgy.