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Deanna Witkowski: Force of Nature – Episode 65

About Deanna Witkowski

Deanna Witkowski was first drawn to the pianist Mary Lou Williams in 2000 when she was invited to perform at the Kennedy Center for the Mary Lou Williams Festival. Of course she said yes, but she also realized that she was unfamiliar with Mary Lou’s music. That initial listening dive sparked a 20-year exploration of Mary Lou Williams’ life and music, now showcased in a book, Mary Lou Williams: Music for the Soul, and an album, Force of Nature.

Force of Nature is the perfect phrase to describe Mary Lou Williams. She was not only an amazing composer and pianist in her own right — musicians like Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, and Dizzy Gillespie learned harmony and composition from her caring mentorship. The names of her students get thrown around in history classes more often than we hear of Mary Lou. But perhaps she deserves a bit more credit than what’s given — especially when we hear startlingly similar harmonies in the compositions of her pupils. The bridge of Monk’s “Well You Needn’t” is practically interchangeable with the bridge of Mary Lou’s tune “Gjon Mili Jam,” written years earlier. 

Additionally, Mary Lou described herself as an experimentalist, someone who was always doing something new. While critics sometimes decried her exploratory styles, Mary Lou took it as a badge of honor. When critics said, “The problem with Mary Lou is that we can’t pin her down into one category,” she just said, “That’s the point.”

Deanna Witkowski shares more about Mary Lou’s life and music in this interview with Bite-Size Jazz. Deanna talks about her connection with Mary Lou as a fellow adult convert to Catholicism, their jazz masses, and digs into Mary Lou’s “Zodiac Suite.”


Learn more about Mary Lou Williams in Deanna Witkowski’s book, Mary Lou Williams: Music for the Soul. You can find Deanna’s album Force of Nature anywhere you stream music, it’s also available for purchase from Deanna’s website.

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