The Jazz Age: Catholic Edition

The Ramonat Seminar’s speaker series continued on Wednesday with a visit from Dr. Randal Jelks of the University of Kansas. Dr. Jelks’s intimate yet colorful presentation dismantled his current book project, ‘I Am Free to Be What I Want’. In this fascinating venture he encounters the faith life (mainly Catholic) of four prominent African-American figures in twentieth-century culture: blues singer Ethel Waters, jazz musician Mary Lou Williams, writer and political activist Eldridge Cleaver, and the late Muhammad Ali. Dr. Jelks’s intellect and humor, and frequent referral to the “dead white guys,” added to the ambience of a well-rounded lecture on the coming of faith through personal struggle.

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Dr. Randal Jelks

I was extremely fascinated by Mary Lou Williams, one of the University of Kansas professor’s subjects. Known for her . Jazz sensationalist Duke Ellington described Williams as “soul on soul.” Though she had been involved in the industry since the 1920s, her real claim to fame did not arrive until after her conversion to Catholicism in 1956. “St. Martin de Porres,” the first track on her album Mary Lou Williams Presents Black Christ of the Andes, offers the listener a chilling and enlightening perspective on the first black person canonized by the Roman Curia. This album precedes the dawning of liberation theology in the Americas, a movement that emphasizes the liberation from social, political, and economic restraints. Her self-arranged liturgical music evoked feelings of disapproval and uncertainty from clergyman, both at home and abroad at the Vatican. After the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, Williams wrote music for a mass for peace, and planned to perform it during her visit to the Vatican; however, she was denied this request due to the use of bongo drums in her music. Though she received appraisal from clergyman and the laity, her music could not be officially the setting for a mass’s liturgy. In this case, Williams was invited to lead a sixty-voice choir in a special mass dedicated to her music at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City on February 18, 1975. Her work inspired the choreographer Alvin Ailey to create a performance to her liturgical music, and dubbed it Mary Lou’s Mass.

Portrait of Mary Lou Williams (L); the jazz pianist leading her ‘Mary Lou’s Mass’ at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City in 1975 (R).

Dr. Jelks’s lecture holds a special place for me, especially in terms of my cultural interests and personal life. I really don’t find modern music appealing – besides Adele of course. But I have always been fascinated by the works of Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, and their contemporaries. Their dark and powerful voices along with their cinematic-like sound reminds me of Williams’s liturgical music. I have already found a strong spiritual connection to some of the pieces written by Williams, and I would not be opposed to a jazz band taking over the Madonna della Strada Chapel from time to time. Loyola could certainly use a change of pace! My local parish back home is predominately African-American, and each Sunday mass is brought to life by the seemingly powerful gospel choir. I find similarities between the jazz of Mary Lou Williams and my parish’s choir, each focusing on the struggles of the marginalized while finding ways to be uplifted. Jazz music emerged out of the African-Americans’ sidelined situation in twentieth-century American culture. They developed a new breed of music in the 1920s that eventually caught on to the mainstream, but pushed the boundaries of the artist and the listener. Mary Lou Williams specially endeavored to bring about a new way of participating in mass in the old, much like Dorothy Day’s philosophy of developing a new society within the stringent borders of her world.

Thanks for reading!

Peace,

Matthew

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