Jazz musicians Deanna Witkowski and the late Mary Lou Williams both have stood at spiritual crossroads and opted for similar paths.
Williams, a jazz pianist, arranger and composer who counted among her friends Benny Goodman, Earl Hines, Tommy Dorsey, Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie, stopped playing for several years in the 1950s as she reached a spiritual crisis.
She became Catholic and began writing liturgical music. When Williams and other musicians performed "Mary Lou’s Mass" at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City in 1975, it was reportedly the first time jazz had ever been performed at the cathedral.
Jazz musician and Webster native Deanna Witkowski also found herself at a life-altering junction in 2000, when she was asked to participate in the Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival. The invitation spurred her to research Williams’ music, and she now lectures on and performs William’s music in addition to playing her own compositions.
"Mary Lou wanted jazz to be heard in the church, on the street, in the club, everywhere," said Witkowski, a 1989 graduate of Webster Thomas High School.
In 2009, Witkowski, who had worked as a music director in an Episcopal church in her home of New York City, cemented another connection with Williams: She became a Catholic, as Williams had nearly 60 years prior.
Speaking Sept. 22 and 23 at Nazareth College, Witkowski recalled that she was drawn to Catholicism due to a silent retreat she attended, her growing interest in Ignatian spirituality and other forms of spirituality, and the works of several writers, including St. Teresa of Avila and Margaret Silf.
Witkowski’s talk kicked off the 2011-12 William H. Shannon Chair in Catholic Studies Lecture Series, which this year looks at the intersection between spirituality and the arts. Witkowski spoke Sept. 22 on "Moving with the Spirit: The Sacred Art of Jazz" and "Beyond Words: Improvisation as Prayer."
Upcoming lectures on the theme "Awakening the Heart: The Art(s) of Faith" will be presented by iconographer and Franciscan friar Robert Lentz, who will speak March 29 and 30, 2012; and poet photographer and Trappist monk Paul Quenon, who will speak April 12 and 13, 2012. Filmmaker Gerard Thomas Straub spoke Oct. 27 and 28.
"For a very long time, I’ve wanted to look at the intersection of faith and the arts," said series organizer Dr. Christine Bochen, who is the Nazareth College William H. Shannon Chair in Catholic Studies and a professor of religious studies and women and gender studies at the college. Bochen noted that Witkowski’s invitation to speak on the series came about because of the friendship the two had struck up as Witkowski researched a piece that involved writings of Trappist monk Thomas Merton, whom Bochen has studied.
Bochen said Witkowski’s ability to speak frankly about her spiritual journey and illustrate it in music helped provide the inspiration for a lecture series.
Witkowski said she believes jazz — especially improvisation — and spirituality are intertwined.
"One of the spiritual qualities of jazz is openness to the present moment," Witkowski said, noting that openness to the present also may be a hallmark of prayer.
Witkowski said she uses her improvisation skills in worship as well. For instance, during a monthly healing service, she often improvises music to fill gaps that may range from 10 minutes to half an hour.
"Music creates community and can inspire people to do something they wouldn’t normally do," she said.
Witkowski was first turned on to jazz music in college. She had been a classically trained musician who played flute and piano, and she attended the classical conservatory of Wheaton College. Yet there she was drawn to the joyful atmosphere of the jazz ensemble at the school. She took up alto sax to be able to play in the group, and it was there that she learned how to improvise.
"There seemed to be this degree of excitement, of not knowing where the music would end up," Witkowski said.
She said she sees similarities between jazz and her other passion of Brazilian music, including the samba, in which she finds a similar sense of buoyancy and excitement.
Critics also have responded to Witkowski’s exuberance. She is a winner of the Great American Jazz Piano Competition and she has appeared on National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition Sunday and Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz radio programs. Her albums include "Having to Ask" (2000), "Wide Open Window" (2003), "Length of Days" (2005) and "From This Place" (2009), which is her first album of sacred texts set to jazz music.
She said her aim in all of her music is to listen to what God has in store for her.
"I want prayer to transform me," she said.