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Folkways to Reissue Williams’ Black Christ

On May 25, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings will release Mary Lou Williams Presents: Black Christ of the Andes, a musical commentary on the African-American experience and a call to the divine by one of the most important pianists and composers in jazz. The album, originally released in 1964 on Williams’ own Mary label, will include four bonus tracks.

Williams (pictured), who became a devout Catholic in the mid-1950s, was a master of boogie-woogie, stride, swing, and be-bop. “[Williams] sums up in herself the full essence of jazz,” Duke Ellington once said.

Black Christ was the first major project after Williams’ seclusion, religious conversion, and reemergence (1955-1964). The album’s 14 songs mix of Williams’ arrangements of standards, like the funky interpretation of “My Blue Heaven,” and her own compositions, like the gentle hymn “Praise the Lord” and “Martin de Porres” (after the 16th century Peruvian saint who is the “Black Christ of the Andes”). Throughout, Williams builds on traditional spirituals, hymns, and popular songs to draw parallels between her faith in God, her reverence for Black music, and her regard for American culture. With complex harmonies and phrasing, her affecting arrangements often border on the avant-garde. The album doesn’t have static personnel; instead, Williams is joined on each track by a rotating cast of players that includes bassists Theodore Cromwell, Larry Gales and Percy Heath, drummers George Chamble and Tim Kennedy and the Ray Charles Singers, who sing on a number of chorale arrangements.

Track list (* denotes a previously unreleased track):

1. St. Martin de Porres (Williams)

2. It Ain’t Necessarily So (Gershwin/Gershwin)

3. The Devil (Williams)

4. Miss D.D. (Williams)

5. Anima Christi (Williams)

6. A Grand Night for Swinging (Taylor)

7. My Blue Heaven (Donaldson/Whiting)

8. Dirge Blues (Williams) 9. A Fungus a Mungus (Williams)

10. Koolbonga* (Williams) 11. Forty-Five Degree Angle* (Best) 12.Nicole* (Williams) 13. Chunka Lunka* (Williams) 14. Praise the Lord (Williams)

A self-taught pianist who began performing at age 6, Williams (1910-1981) was one of the jazz world’s most renowned players and composers by the late 1920s, recording on her own and with Andy Kirk and his Clouds of Joy until 1942. Between 1944 and 1947, she cultivated a prolific relationship with Moses Asch, recording more than fifty sides for his various labels, including Disc and Folkways. Later, Asch distributed Williams’ Mary Records releases. Over six separate recording sessions, she performed with such sidemen as Coleman Hawkins, Don Byas, Vic Dickenson, Bill Coleman, Edmond Hall, Frank Newton, and Josh White, predominantly in arrangements and compositions of her own. After the Black Christ project, Williams founded the Bel Canto Foundation to help drug- and alcohol-addicted musicians, initiated the Pittsburgh Jazz Festival, and served as artist-in-residence at Duke University.

Originally Published