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9/4/09

Lil Hardin's memories...




More of Lil Armstrong's recollections (from an unpublished, copyrighted manuscript). This part covers her six-month stay with the King Oliver band at San Francisco's Pergola Ballroom, in the summer of 1921. It is interesting that San Franciscans found it difficult to dance to the band, but rather liked it as a concert attraction.

We were staying at a hotel on the edge of Chinatown and we laughed a lot at the funny music which we heard the Chinese play. Joe and his wife had a room just up the hall from me and I thought nothing of going to the room to talk to Joe, whether his wife was home or not. One day she told me to stay out of the room and not to talk to Joe if if he wasn't home. I was both hurt and humiliated for I had been accustomed to talking to the musicians at any time and it never occurred to me that it should make any difference whether their wives were around or not. It was Johnny Dodds' wife who finally straighten things out. She told Mrs. Oliver how the band men treated me and assured her that I was a nice girl and not Joe's girlfriend.


Mrs. Oliver finally invited me to have dinner with them one day and from then on she proved to be one of my best friends through the years. Joe often gave me a strange look and I knew that he was afraid I'd let something slip about his double life and extra girlfriends, but I never said a word about that. I was so happy to have Mrs. Oliver like me that I hung around her, trying to learn how she coped and did things in general. The only thing I did learn was how to cook rice the way they did in New Orleans.


Minor Hall and I lived in adjoining rooms and we decided to pool our money and eat together. I could only cook bacon and eggs, but one day I made up my mind to have red beans and rice, as I had seen Mrs. Oliver cook. The meal didn't turn out too well, the beans were slimy and the rice wasn't quite right. That meal ended our partnership, Minor told the guys in the band about it and I came to the conclusion that cooks and piano players were miles apart.


Our engagement at the Pergola ballroom didn't turn out too well, either. The people didn't understand our music and claimed they couldn't dance to it. We sounded fine to the boss who had come all the way from Frisco to Chicago to hear us before he hired us. We tried everything to please the people. The boss, who was supposed to be a great authority on music, even at a man bring in a metronome for us to play by! Thinking all of us were musically limited, he began to expound the wherein and wherefores of music tempo and the like, and to tell us just why our music was not right. We let him talk and when he finished, I finally put in a word or two. I let him know that the metronome was no strange or foreign object to me, and I proved my point by playing some Bach and an étude by the metronome. The musicians were elated and the boss we convinced that we were right and that the patrons were wrong. However, business continued to be bad and the boss lost money on us. Still he paid as every week, kept us there for the full six months and then gave us our transportation back to Chicago.


While we were at the Pergola, we got a week's engagement at the Frisco Theatre, where we packed them in and the people really enjoyed the music. It seemed that our music was good to listen to but impossible to dance by. One day, Mrs. Dodds came to the theater to see the show. On her way out, she overheard a man say "call themselves Creoles, ain't nothing but plain niggers." We all laughed when she told us about it, we couldn't have cared less.


Johnny Dodds constantly kept an eye on me to see if I erred socially. I claimed to be such a nice girl at all times, but once he thought he'd caught me wrong. A comedian named Brown, who was playing the theater in Frisco, took me out to dinner. After dinner he insisted that I go by his hotel and have a drink with him. I told him that I didn't drink, so he told me that he'd have one and then take me home. I felt that he had other plans, but I also knew that Jimmie Palao and "Montudi" Garland lived in the same hotel as he did, so I felt safer. Sure enough, as soon as we got to the hotel, he became all chummy and lovey-dovey. I pretended to like it and I asked him to show me where the bathroom was. He told me that it was down the hall and I asked him to leave the door open. Then, down the hall I went and up the steps to Montudi and Jimmie's room. They were surprised to see me, but I told them what was up and that I intended to spend the rest of the night with them! Well, they were both upset but it didn't bother me, I just slept with them, on the outside of the bed. Later, they told me what a hectic night it had been for them, and when I came to work the next night, Johnny was waiting for me. "So, where did the nice girl spend the night?", he said, "don't tell us you stayed at home." I let him finish and then told him what had really happened. It was a big laugh on Montudi and Jimmie, but Joe said I was crazy and that I must never do a thing like that again. I saw nothing wrong with staying with a member of the band, but staying with a rank stranger was definitely out. They all gave up on me and said that I was sure "way off".


With the place empty, everybody's nerves were getting on edge. One night, Joe and Minor got into an argument, because Joe had decided to replace Jimmy with another instrument. Minor gave in his notice and Joe sent for Baby Dodds, Johnny's brother, to come and play drums with us.


Baby started playing the drums and doing the shimmy at the same time, he may quite a hit when he joined the band. Business picked up a little and, for a while, we thought we had it made, but Baby wasn't enough and business didn't improve enough. I was fascinated by Baby's drumming and watched him very closely. I thought he was the cutest and youngest looking of the New Orleans fellows, but I also noticed that he was stuck on himself, so I decided to keep him at a safe distance. It wasn't hard to get him to talk about himself, he told me that he had wanted to play the drums when he was a kid, so he stripped three rungs from a chair to make drumsticks, which he played with on tin cans. It didn't take him long to find out that the base board of the Dodds family's outhouse had the sound of a bass drum, so that kept him busy. When his father bought a clarinet for Johnny, annoy insisted on a drum for himself. His first job was with a guy named Willie Hightower and they played it various white folks' homes on Sundays. They weren't paid any money, just ice cream and cake. Later, they had a chance to work at St. Catherine's Hall and then Baby got to play with the Eagle Band and Celestine's Tuxedo Band. He was still a minor when he finally had a chance to play in a cabaret, but he just put on long pants.


Baby got around to playing all the tonks and saloons, and he told me some pretty tall tales about them. Some places had gambling and tonk on the second floor, to piano and drum accompaniment, while there was a saloon on the first floor. He played in one saloon that was famous for its oyster loaves and girls. The chicks ordered the loaf, the customers paid for it, then shoved it to one side and finished their business.


Years later, Baby played with Fate Marable on the steamer "Capitol", out of St. Louis. He was playing there when Joe sent for him to join us in Frisco. His arrival turned into quite a reunion, for Johnny and Baby hadn't seen each other for a long time. Johnny had no idea that his brother's drumming had improved so much, and Baby seemed to think that Johnny was annoyed because of it. That I couldn't understand, and I still think that Baby was wrong on that score.


David Jones came along with Baby Dodds, to replace Jimmie. He played a mellophone, which to me was a new instrument, but he played it real well and it added a nice new sound to the band. He was a fairly good musician and he could read music real well, so, naturally, we started to talk about music, and the like. Soon he told Joe that he was going to be my sweetheart and Joe told him to just go ahead and try it. Well, he didn't get any more consideration from me than the other musicians had. I just felt that they were all my big brothers and I love them in that way.


Finally, our six months at the Pergola Ballroom were up and I returned to Chicago while the rest of the band went on to Los Angeles, where they stayed another six months.

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