On Saturday, March 26 at 7:30 p.m. at Holy Apostles (28th and 9th, NYC), the Stonewall Chorale continues their 45th season with “Music for the Soul,” featuring the U.S. premiere of a concert performance of Mary Lou Williams’s Mass for the Lenten Season.
Led by Artistic Director Cynthia Powell and accompanied by Mary Lou Williams scholar and jazz pianist Deanna Witkowski and her trio, the concert also includes Williams’s “Tell Him Not to Talk Too Long” and “I Have a Dream,” both inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr., and Margaret Bonds’s “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” set to the poetry of Langston Hughes. The concert also features the world premiere of Witkowski’s a cappella setting of the Rabindranath Tagore poem, “Where the Mind is Without Fear.” Witkowski will give a pre-performance talk about the life and work of Mary Lou Williams at 6:30 p.m.
Commissioned by several African American Catholic churches in Harlem in 1968, Mary Lou Williams wrote her Mass for the Lenten Season for St. Thomas the Apostle Church on 118th Street. The work was premiered at the parish over the course of six Sundays in Lent, and was sung by the congregation led by a youth choir, a small instrumental jazz ensemble with Williams at the organ, and vocalist Honi Gordon as cantor. Unlike her third and most well-known Mass, Music for Peace (or Mary Lou’s Mass), Mass for the Lenten Season has never been recorded and was performed in concert on only one occasion in Rome in the spring of 1969. Deanna Witkowski is dedicated to bringing Williams’s generous, soulful legacy to communities across the country, and is continuing this work via her new Williams-centric recording and biography. On Force of Nature, her lovingly conceived and radiantly realized seventh album, Witkowski has created a multi-leveled masterpiece. Just released on MCG Jazz, the album displays her glorious musicianship and encyclopedic command of genres and techniques while also revisiting the compositional genius of Mary Lou Williams. Released right after Witkowski’s first book – Mary Lou Williams: Music for the Soul, her detailed and engaging biography of Williams – Force of Nature caps off twenty years of immersive research into the life and work of the woman known as “The First Lady of Jazz.”
To fans and students of her music, Williams (who died in 1981) stands tall as one of the best-known but still undervalued women in jazz history: a marvelous and harmonically intrepid pianist; a pioneering composer-arranger, admired (and hired) by Duke Ellington; an influential educator and early adopter of bebop; and one of the first jazz artists to infuse her music with her Catholic faith, most notably in three jazz Masses.
To the well-traveled and exhilarating pianist-composer Witkowski, Mary Lou is all those things and something more: an inspiration, certainly, but also a guiding light – and, in absentia, a life coach for the deeply religious Witkowski, whose own resume includes an impressive number of award-winning sacred-music compositions.
“I think of Mary Lou as a mentor, because she’s someone who was able to really integrate her spirituality, her Catholicism, with her music,” says Witkowski.
Over the last two decades, Williams’s music has become an ongoing source of study and interpretation for Witkowski, finally leading her to a new hometown and a side career as a biographer-academic, currently working on her Ph.D. in jazz studies at the University of Pittsburgh.
"I'm thrilled to have Deanna Witkowski with us for this exciting performance of Mary Lou Williams' Mass for the Lenten Season," says Powell. “Deanna is an amazing player and she is the scholar on Mary Lou Williams. We are learning so much from this endeavor, and we can't wait to bring this music to our audiences!"