The Troy Street Observer

Jan 18, 1976: Mary Lou’s Mass at Emmanuel Church

It was a special Sunday at Emmanuel Church, on Newbury Street in the Back Bay, on January 18, 1976. On that evening the esteemed pianist Mary Lou Williams performed her Music for Peace, which came to be known as Mary Lou’s Mass, for the first time in Boston.

Cover of Mary Lou's Mass SFW40815
The Smithsonian Folkways reissue of Mary Lou’s Mass (SFW40815)

Williams performed in a trio with bassist Brian Torff and drummer Tony Racciati, and was accompanied by the chorus from the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts, under the direction of John Andrew Ross. The event was sponsored by the Jazz/Arts Ministry and was part of the Jazz Celebrations series that was staged in the Back Bay churches in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.

Williams converted to Catholicism in 1957, and over the coming decades worked to align her music and her faith, a story recounted by pianist Deanna Witkowski. Music for Peace, Williams’s third mass, was commissioned in 1969 by the Pontifical Commission on Justice and Peace. Witkowski notes the commission was a dream come true for Williams.

Williams performed her mass in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, worked with Alvin Ailey to stage it for dance in 1971, and recorded Music for Peace on her own record label (Mary Records 102) in 1975. The Boston debut was reviewed by Globe correspondent Yvonne Surette on January 20.

Rev. Peter O’Brien, the Jesuit priest who was Mary Lou’s manager, opened the proceedings by tracing a brief history of jazz from spirituals to contemporary work, with Williams illustrating from the piano. At one point, Surette noted, the Rev. Mark Harvey, director of the Jazz/Arts Ministry, advised the audience of 400 to let their hair down: “If you feel like moving in your seat, go ahead.”

Music for Peace opened with the hymn “The Lord Says,” and “the chorus from the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts sang with a fiery intensity which at times upstaged even Miss Williams.”

“Most impressive was a deeply emotional reading of “Lazarus” from the gospel according to St. Luke, done by Wilbur Best in the tradition of a slave worksong.” Nicolette Leader sang the “Act of Contrition,” and other soloists included Mattie Mangurn, Buddy Hughes, and Harriette Kennedy. The last selection, “Praise the Lord,” brought the congregation to its feet. “They remained standing for an ovation which lasted until the chorus left the altar.”

The evening, Surette concluded, was “a swinging, foot-stomping, joyful offering of thanksgiving.”

Williams is a fascinating personality, and the Institute of Jazz Studies has prepared an online exhibit on her life and career that is well worth a visit. As is the Mary Lou Williams Foundation, founded by Williams a year before her death in 1981, and managed today by Rev. O’Brien.

Here’s “Lazarus,” sung by Carline Ray, from the Mary Records recording of 1975. It was reissued in 2005 by Smithsonian Folkways.



  1. Great post, Dick. One addition to the cast of performers–peripatetic storyteller Brother Blue also participated with movement and his own brand of spiritual rap. A memorable evening all around. Mark Harvey

    • Thanks for stopping by, Deanna. I enjoyed your article and learned a lot from it—great to read something about Mary Lou that doesn’t focus on the swing era. Mary Lou’s music covers so much ground…I regret that I never had a chance to hear her live.

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