My mama pinned a rose on me, She pinned it where everybody could see. . . Everybody is talking about the way I do. I'm gonna leave this hard-luck town, I'm gonna leave before the sun goes down, Everybody is talking about the way I do.
Mary was marked from birth with a sign of significance in African-American culture, a sign that indicated special powers, especially a tendency toward "second sight." She writes in her memoir, "The midwife told my mother that I was born with a veil over my eyes and for her to save this veil and dry it out and she could tell when I was sick and all that." (This is the caul, a portion of the membrane that sometimes covers a fetus's head at birth.) "My mother," Mary concludes, "was frightened." Yet Mary did fulfill the omen of the "veil": she soon was drawn to the supernatural, seeing ghosts and having visions and premonitions. As a girl, and even as a young woman, she would sometimes become so agitated at her fearful hallucinations (of cows and dogs) that those around her would resort to tying her to the bed.
Displaying psychic powers was not seen as deviant behavior in African-American folk culture, at home with root doctors and conjure men, but it did set her apart. Combined with her natural nervousness and supersensitivity as a child prodigy--she began playing the piano at about the age of four--it helped to stamp her as something of an outsider. "Everybody was afraid to be around me because I was seeing so many wierd things," Mary said. "My mother said at an early age I was seeing spirits. I used to hear so many stories about spooks and ghosts. Seemed like I picked up on that when I was about two or three years old because my mother was afraid to take me out anywhere with us. She said that one day we were walking in a field and I saw a little white dog which grew into a cow. I often wondered about other kids, their imagination," Mary continued. "Because I've gone through life like that, seeing various things."
Jazz musicians, who must be incredibly focused to improvise, are, as a group, highly intuitive and what Mary called her "seeing" was to become very useful to her as a player. "At one time I could hear a musician playing and could hear the note he was going to make next," she said. "It was just that fast, just like telling someone's fortune; it may have something to do with the fastness of the mind and hearing. Some people lose their minds," she cautioned of this ability. "But I think it's useful in your music. You can't control it. You see these things when you're not even expecting them."
Mary Lou Williams—pianist, arranger, composer, and probably the most influential woman in the history of jazz—receives the attention she has long deserved in this definitive biography.
About the Author
Linda Dahl writes frequently about jazz. Her groundbreaking book Stormy Weather: The Music and Lives of a Century of Jazzwomen was published in 1984.
Table of Contents
1 My Mama Pinned a Rose on Me 2 The Little Piano Girl of East Liberty 3 Hits 'n Bits 4 Nite Life 5 Walkin' and Swingin' 6 Silk Stockings 7 Why Go On Pretending? 8 Trumpets No End 9 Cafe Society Blues 10 The Zodiac Suite 11 Kool 12 Benny's Bop 13 Walkin' Out the Door 14 Chez Mary Lou 15 Praying Through My Fingertips 16 Black Christ of the Andes 17 Zoning 18 Artist-in-Residence 19 The Mary Lou Williams Foundation
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS SOURCES AND NOTES A SELECTIVE BIBLIOGRAPHY A SELECTIVE MARY LOU WILLIAMS DISCOGRAPHY: 1927 TO PRESENT COMPOSITIONS AND ARRANGEMENTS BY MARY LOU WILLIAMS INDEX ILLUSTRATION CREDITS