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At the Intersection of Jazz and Catholicism: The Sacred Works of Mary Lou Williams

Capizzi, Christopher C (2020) At the Intersection of Jazz and Catholicism: The Sacred Works of Mary Lou Williams. Doctoral Dissertation, University of Pittsburgh. (Unpublished)

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In the 1960s, African American jazz pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams (1910-81) used what was then known as the Negro spiritual, blues, swing, bebop, and even ragtime as inspiration for her settings of the sacred liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church. She deliberately chose jazz, which she called “the only true American art form,” drawing from all the eras of jazz. In doing so, she documented the important achievements in black music history in a way that few have achieved within the confines of single multi-movement works. In this she should be compared to Ellington perhaps, whose multiple movement extended works, like Black, Brown and Beige (1943) had presented the diversity, depth, and variety of the African American experience. In the 1930s Williams was a traditionalist whose musical life centered around the composition and performance of swing dance music for the popular jazz market, presented in a style that was deeply rooted in the blues. In the 1940s, however, she became a modernist experimenter as a mentor to the main figures in bebop, like Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and Bud Powell. In the 1960s, as a newly converted Catholic, she began to write liturgical music influenced by changes in Catholic practice brought on by the reforms of Vatican II, especially the shift away from the Latin Mass, to the vernacular Mass. In this project I explore how and why Williams crafted the vernacular Mass as a juxtaposition between the practice of redemptive suffering and the neo-bop framework in her sacred works. I argue that she used the musical side, the neo-bop framework, to memorialize and bear witness to the long history of physical, emotional, and spiritual suffering of African Americans. Thus, by using the suffering of a people as a metaphor for the suffering of Christ, Williams was able to bring the history of black Americans forward during a time of civil rights activism. This project looks through the lens of Williams’ Catholicism and her notion of the “spiritual feeling in the blues that arises out of suffering” to explore her late religious works, especially Mass (1967).


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Item Type: University of Pittsburgh ETD
Status: Unpublished
CreatorsEmailPitt UsernameORCID
Capizzi, Christopher Cccc36@pitt.educcc36
ETD Committee:
TitleMemberEmail AddressPitt UsernameORCID
Committee ChairJohnson, Aaron Jdraj@pitt.edudraj
Committee MemberWilliams, Amy Camywill@pitt.eduamywill
Committee MemberHeller, Michael Cmicahel.heller@pitt.edumichael.heller
Committee MemberKane, Paula Mpmk@pitt.edupmk
Date: 16 January 2020
Date Type: Publication
Defense Date: 17 July 2019
Approval Date: 16 January 2020
Submission Date: 4 January 2020
Access Restriction: No restriction; Release the ETD for access worldwide immediately.
Number of Pages: 160
Institution: University of Pittsburgh
Schools and Programs: Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences > Music
Degree: PhD - Doctor of Philosophy
Thesis Type: Doctoral Dissertation
Refereed: Yes
Uncontrolled Keywords: jazz mass, liturgical jazz, sacred jazz, Mary Lou Williams, Catholicism and jazz
Date Deposited: 16 Jan 2020 17:36
Last Modified: 16 Jan 2020 17:36


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