Pittsburgh, the Catholic faith and all that jazz

Wednesday, November 06, 2019 - Updated: 2:22 pm

By Mike Aquilina Correspondent

Deanna Witkowski is singing praise in a new key, and she’s finding her inspiration in Pittsburgh.

Witkowski, based in New York City, took up temporary residence in Pittsburgh this fall to research jazz composer Mary Lou Williams. Williams, who died in 1981, grew up in the city’s East Liberty neighborhood and returned here often through her life.

Witkowski’s biography of Williams is due for publication in 2021 by Liturgical Press. Williams was, like Witkowski, a jazz bandleader, a convert to the Catholic faith and a composer of sacred music.

“This is my fourth visit to Pittsburgh since last December,” she told the Pittsburgh Catholic, “and each visit has been for performances.” She gave the keynote address and performance at a conference on Williams at the University of Pittsburgh in 2018. Then followed a concert with the Pittsburgh Symphony, a seminar at the diocesan Summer Institute for teachers, and concerts at the Hillman Center, City of Asylum and elsewhere.

“I can’t say enough good things about the jazz scene here,” she said, adding that Pittsburgh is more relaxing than Manhattan.

Classically trained on piano, Witkowski discovered jazz while in college. A devout evangelical who played professionally in churches, she began to use jazz techniques in her arrangement of hymns and choral music.

She has released six recordings, including most recently “Makes the Heart to Sing,” a collection of jazz hymns.

In 2000, jazz musician and scholar Billy Taylor invited Witkowski to perform at the Kennedy Center’s Mary Lou Williams Festival. As she studied Williams’ life and work, she found an affinity that was not just musical, but spiritual, too.

She also began to read the Catholic authors who were contemporaries of Williams: the monk-poet Thomas Merton, novelist Walker Percy and Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic Worker movement. She made contact with the Jesuit community in New York City and signed up, first for a retreat and then for spiritual direction. She was received into full communion with the Catholic Church in 2009.

“What I feel more keenly now,” she said, “is the communion of saints. I never felt a sense of church history growing up … I also finally feel like I am part of a church where different ethnicities are celebrated.”

Witkowski speaks of this communion as spanning time and space. She is working out its musical expression in her current project, “Nossa Senhora Suite.” Its inspiration is Brazilian; its language Portuguese; its idiom jazz; and its subject the Virgin Mary.

She expects both the suite and her Williams biography to be finished in the coming months.

“Jazz is an inclusive music that, by its very nature, brings people together,” she said.

While she is in Pittsburgh she will continue to bring people together with jazz. She is set to play Nov. 4 with the Roger Humphries Quartet at Savoy Restaurant, 2623 Penn Ave. in Downtown Pittsburgh; Nov. 6 with the Reggie Watkins Quartet at Quantum Spirits, 230 E. Main St., Carnegie; Nov. 8 and 10 and Dec. 1 at Con Alma, 5884 Ellsworth Ave., Pittsburgh’s Shadyside neighborhood; and in concert Nov. 10 at Sewickley Presbyterian Church, 414 Grant St., Sewickley. For details, see her website, DeannaJazz.com.

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