World War I was still raging in Europe and Lil Hardin was 16 when she found a $3-a-week job demonstrating sheet music at Mrs. Jennie Jones' music store on 3409 1/2 South State Street. She had no experience playing jazz, but that would soon change. Mrs. Jones also ran a booking and employment agency, and she rented space for rehearsals.
During her first two weeks at the store, Lil had a brief but meaningful encounter with Jelly Roll Morton, so she was ready for the New Orleans Creole Jazz Band when it arrived in Chicago and auditioned for Mrs. Jones. This band truly deserves the over-used "legendary" tag. We know little about this group, because it simply arrived on the Chicago scene too soon, never recorded, and was quickly overshadowed by better groups and individuals, most notably King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band.
Lil's career was given an early start by the New Orleans Creole Jazz Band:
When they auditioned for Mrs. Jones, I nearly had a fit when they started out on the Livery Stable Blues. I had never heard a real jazz band before and their music made goose pimples break out all over me. They played loud and long, weaving in and out of the melody was a cheese and rhythm, and seemingly enjoying every minute of it. They also obviously enjoyed to fit that I was having over their music. Mrs. Jones didn’t have a fit, but she liked them and immediately booked him into a Chinese restaurant.
The band had six pieces: violin, cornet, clarinet, trombone, bass and drums. They didn’t have a piano but they found out that to play for the entertainers at the Chinese café they would have to add one. They tried out all the available male pianists but were not satisfied with any of them. One night, just for fun, Mrs. Jones sent me over to play with them and I remember grinning and giggling all the way to the place because I was so thrilled at the thought of playing with a real jazz band.
When I sat down at the piano, I asked for the music but they told me that they didn’t use sheet music. Then I asked them in which key they were going to play and they told me just to listen and then “hit it” after hearing two knocks from the leader. I listened and fell right on in with them. When I heard the two knocks, I struck as many the keys as I possibly could at one time, because, that way, I thought to myself, whatever they’d be in, I’d be in it, too! After a few measures, I began to feel a chord changes and I was “in the groove”—and in the band. I remember hearing Eddie Garland, the bass player, say “Listen at that little old gal,” as I grinned and did my best to be a miniature Jelly Roll Morton.
A later Creole Jazz Band w. Freddie Keppard and Jimmy Palao.
When we finished the first number, they asked me how old I was, and all of them nearly fainted when I told them. “They’ll put us all in jail,” one of them said, but they still wanted to keep me, so they just told me to say that I was 21 years old if anyone asked. Lawrence Dewey, the clarinet player, who was also the leader, told me not to report to the music store the next day, because they intended to keep me with them at a salary of $22.50 a week.
Now is really time for me to start worrying. I was afraid that Mrs. Jones would tell Decie that I was working in a cabaret and then it would be all over for me. I didn’t know what to do, but I finally decided that I just couldn’t go back to work in the music store, so I told Decie that I had a new job, playing for a dancing school in the evenings. When I told her that I was to get $22.50 a week she laughed and said that I must have misunderstood them, she had never heard of such a salary.
There was no misunderstanding when I brought home my first pay and Decie counted the money. She and Mr. Miller gasped and stared for they couldn’t believe their eyes. Now I was really walking on clouds, all that money plus the thrill of being with the band.
Things went very smoothly at the Chinese place but I do remember one night when “Dovey,” one of the entertainers gave me a rough time. She rehearsed her song in one key, telling me that it was just right, but when she got out on the floor, she yelled back for me to “drop it.” I became very nervous and I dropped a key for sure, I dropped is so low as she was singing bass! Well, she couldn’t very well yell “raise it,” so she just kept singing. When she finished and came off the floor, she called me every name in the book, words that I had never heard before.
Everybody tried to shame her by telling her that I was nothing but a child. She would answer, “If she’s old enough to be playing here, she’s old enough to be cursed.” I was scared stiff and quiet as a mouse, but the musicians assured me that no one was going to touch me as long as I was with them. A few nights later Dovey apologized and she treated me swell from then on. Somehow I always seem to be to make friends with people, even after getting off to a wrong start.
The other members of the Creole Band were Sugar Johnny on cornet, trombone player Roy Palmer, Jimmy Palao on violin and Tubby Hall on drums. The piano was considered to be a solo instrument in New Orleans and so they had never used one there, but a fellow by the name of Louis Keppard had played guitar with them.
Sugar Johnny never had much to say to anyone, he was ill and always coughing and sneezing between sets the fellows said that it was tuberculosis and I think that’s probably true. I personally didn’t get to learn anything about him or his personality, but I do remember that he played a growling style of cornet. Finally, he became too ill to continue with the band and so he was replaced by Freddie Keppard who growled a little louder and had a better tone.
Freddie, a tall, beefy light-skinned guy, was conceited. He just knew that he was the best cornet player that ever hit the sidewalks of Chicago. Whereas Johnny never drank, Freddie drank all night, and the more he drank the better he played. All he was conceited, he was actually a real good-natured fellow, always laughing and joking on the bandstand between sets. I remember how he used to strut in and out of the place, like a peacock, and he always dressed better than the other fellows—there was no counting all the suits he had. The applause from the patrons would bolster his ego and help to make the place really jump to the surefooted maneuvering that he performed on his horn.
Jimmy Palao, the violinist, was a Creole. He was fair and had straight hair, I rarely understood what he said. They all simply murdered the English language and I often wondered if any of them had ever gone to school. I never asked them though, I was too glad to be a member of the band. Jimmy was undoubtedly the worst violinist ever to hit Chicago and the people didn’t take to him, because, at that time, Chicago was seething with such fine violinists as Elliott Washington, Clara Jones and Clarence Black. This made no difference to the New Orleans guys for they were very clannish stuck with each other, so Jimmy stayed on with the band.
Eddie Garland was also the band’s business manager. He was short, brown, a little stoop-shouldered, and full of fun all the time. The band had kind of adopted me and Eddie took the trouble to explain a lot of things to me, not only about playing in bands but also the facts of sex, love and the different relationships between men and women. Decie hadn’t told me any of these things, but Eddie was a good teacher for, in a couple of months, I knew all I needed to know and then some.
I was always anxious to find out how the guys happen to get into this music game and Eddie delighted in telling all that he knew. He was born in New Orleans and had started playing guitar when he was 14—he and his brother, Johnny, and a four piece band that played for parties around New Orleans. Once while substituting in the famous Imperial band, the trombonist, a fellow by the name of George Fields, suggested that Eddie join a promising young outfit from La Place, in John’s Parish. That was Kid Ory’s band, which also featured Lawrence Dewey, Eddie Robinson on drums, a guy by the name of Stone on guitar, and a cornetist called “Chip.” Eddie, or “Montudi,” as everyone called him, told me that he was the first one to introduce slap bass to Chicago, with George “Pops” Foster and Wellman Breaux following close behind.
Lil and Jimmy Johnson on their wedding day in 1922.
Dewey was a skinny, brown skinned guy who coughed almost as much a Sugar Johnny. I would have sworn that he had the TB, too. Truly the playboy of the band, he had two or three chicks supplementing his salary with money that they made from men that came in the place. He hardly ever spoke to me, so I never found out much about his background.
Tubby Hall was an excellent drummer. He was mild-mannered and real fat. Everyone thought he was too fat for the Army, but Uncle Sam thought he was just right, so it wasn’t long before he was off to do his stint. His brother, “Minor” Hall came to take his place, and he was also a good drummer who never missed a beat. He wasn’t quite as fast as Tubby, but he was a little shorter and he had a violent temper. I remember he was always threatening to beat up somebody.
Roy Palmer was a jolly, carefree sort of guy. The fellows said that he wasn’t too good a trombone player. They accused him of being lazy and kidded him about sliding a note in every other bar. He was actually the band’s great gambler and he was caught in a raid one night at the Pioneer club. He had to slide down a gutter to escape arrest and he tore the seat out of his pants. He came to work without changing clothes and we laughed and kidded all-night. He also thought it was very funny and the incident never dimmed his desire for gambling nor revisiting the Pioneer, club which was quite a gambling joint.
When I look back over those years it seems uncanny that we were able to play for hours without any sheet music. The only time we used music was when it came to accompanying the entertainers. That’s where I was boss, because I could read their music and, from playing at the music store, I knew nearly all the songs they sang. I learned about orchestrations and transposing music for singers once when Mrs. Jones sent me on a gig with Curtis Mosby. He asked me if I could read orchestrations and I answered “If it’s music, yes.” Actually, reading orchestrations is much more difficult than reading music written out for just one instrument, but somehow I picked it all up naturally in that one night.