One morning, while out strolling, I came across a music store. It was at 3409 1/2 South State Street and the sign read Jones Music Store. I stopped in front of the window and gazed at all the sheet music on display, wishing I had every piece. Realizing how impossible that was, I entered the store and asked for a song that I had heard people whistling. Not knowing the title, I hummed it to the salesman, Frank Clemons, who recognized it at once and proceeded to play it for me, but not very well. When I asked him if I might try it myself, he nodded, so I seated myself at the piano and hit those keys. Not only did I play the tune at sight, I also added something to it, which amazed him. He asked me right away if I would like a job at the store as music demonstrator, so now it was my turn to nod, but I told him that I’d have to go home first and get my mother’s consent. He told me to come back at three o’clock that afternoon to see the proprietor and make arrangements with her as to salary and hours.
On my way home I decided that I’d better get all the details straight before breaking the news to Decie. I knew that she wasn’t keen on me doing any work until I finished at Fisk, so, after thinking the whole thing over, I decided that she would probably say "no," and so I didn’t even mention it. Instead, I showed up at the store promptly at three o’clock to meet the boss. Mrs. Jenny Jones was a tall distinguished-looking Mulatto with a very friendly face, and I instantly liked her. She took one look at me and said to Mr. Clemons, “Oh Frank, she’s only a child.” Then she said to me, “Honey, if you want to work, I’ll give you three dollars a week.” I readily accepted her offer not once thinking of the money, only that this was a chance for me to learn all the music for nothing.
I ran all the way home to tell Decie what happened. Of course she didn’t like the idea, “Why, the very idea,” she said, “no indeed, you can’t work for three dollars a week.” Well, I was a good talker so I had Decie sold on the idea in no time at all, explaining to her that I only wanted a chance to learn all the music until it was time for me to return to school. Having gotten Decie’s consent, I ran back to the music store to tell Mrs. Jones that I was all set to start work the next day. I also thanked Frank for recommending me, then went back home, singing all away.
Next morning was an eventful one for me: my first job. I got up bright and early in order to be at the store at 10 o’clock. I got busy as soon as I got there, playing all the music on the counter and very nearly learning all the stock in one day. I didn’t know how long I’d be able to keep the job, so I intended to learn all I could as fast as possible. By six o’clock, the store was packed with people who had come to hear the little girl play. Although I was actually 16 years old, they thought I was only about 12. I guess I must have looked that in my middy blouse and weighing 85 pounds.
Every day, people will come to see and hear the “jass wonderchild” and I’d play like nobody’s business, from Bach and on down the line to St. Louis Blues. I was in my second week at the store when Mrs. Jones raised my salary to eight dollars a week. “That’s better,” Decie said, for now I was making as much as she had been making at the railroad station in Memphis.
I was very happy at the music store and the people there were so nice to me. Frank Clemons, especially, was a big help to me. He got around quite a bit, played piano in various cafés at night and was always ready and able to answer all my silly questions about Chicago and people. He was a short stocky, brown guy and quite a ladies man, especially with the boss’s daughter, Beatrice, a 200-pound Mulatto girl who also played the piano. I think she disliked me from the start and it was probably professional jealousy, because she played and sang in a night spot and didn’t exactly relish a little girl cutting in on her on the piano. Frank used to tease her about that.
Bea used to make all kinds of slurs, cracks and insinuations, but I ignored them all, because I considered myself too well bred to be engaging in any cheap arguments. I often heard Frank and Mrs. Jones tell Bea that she should be ashamed of herself that I was just a child. However Bea kept it up and I think her intention was to get me scared so that I would quit. One day, when Decie came to the store to meet Mrs. Jones and see what I was doing, I introduced her to everyone there, except Bea. After Decie left, Bea asked me why I hadn’t introduced her. I told her that it was because I wanted to spare my mother all the slurs and insinuations that she usually gave out. Well, that must have struck home, for she apologized for her manners and, from then on, became my best friend and adviser.
Mr. Frank Jones was an enormous, tall man, so light that he passed for white. He worked as a chef in a downtown restaurant and was also a jack-leg mechanic. They had a car that he always tinkered with, taking it apart with the help of an instruction book, but he could never fit it back again. Everybody got a big laugh out of it, but it was no joke to him, and he let them know it.
Mrs. Jones also ran a booking and employment agency, but I didn’t know anything about that business. One day we got a call for a busboy, and when one of the applicants for the job asked me what the duties of a busboy were, I told him that all he had to do was to stand in front of a building and holler “bus.” Well, that became a standing joke and Mrs. Jones used to tell it over and over again.
The booking agency attracted a lot of singers and musicians and many of them hung out in the music store, talking about music, cafés, and general doings. I listened closely to every word. Sometimes we had jam sessions there, although we didn’t call them that in those days, and I would take care of every piano player who dared sit down on a piano stool. Then, one fine day, the great Jelly Roll Morton fell into town from New Orleans, and I was in for little “cutting” myself. I had never heard such playing before. Jelly Roll sat down, the piano rocked, the floor shivered, and the people swayed as he attacked the keyboard with his long skinny fingers, beating out a double rhythm with his feet on the lower pedal. I was amazed and thrilled. Finally, he got up from the piano, grinned and looked at me as if to say, “let this be a lesson to you.”
It certainly was a lesson. From then on, I put all my 85 pounds to work, trying to sound like Jelly Roll. I didn’t want to perform while he was there, but the people insisted that he hear me play.
I figure that there was no need for me to try and compete with Jelly Roll on popular music, so I laid on him the Witches Dance and Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C Sharp Minor. At the end of the session, it seemed that I was still the winner. A long time passed before I saw Jelly Roll Morton again. It happened in New York City, in 1931.
He was standing on the corner of 131st Street and Seventh Avenue, talking to a bunch of fellows, flashing his bankroll and smiling broadly to show off the diamond in his front tooth. I went up to him, introduce myself, and told him how he had always been my idol and how my hearing him at the music store in Chicago had influence my style of playing. He was very pleased and asked me right away if he had given me a job. I told him that he hadn’t, but he sure had given me inspiration. Those were the only two meetings I had with the great Jelly Roll Morton, and every time I play his music I think of that first meeting with him.
One day, while I was playing in the music store and showing off my classics, I noticed two young men watching me. When I finished, they started talking to each other in Spanish. I gasped and stared until they finally came over and introduced themselves as John Arrington and Joe White. John was a lean suave copper-colored guy with black curly hair and Joe was short, real fair and with straight black hair. They were both so handsome that I lost all sense of poise and just stood there not knowing what to say or do. After talking to me for a while they admitted that they were both colored and that they had only spoken Spanish to attract my attention. They were so handsome that they certainly didn’t need to speak any Spanish to attract me. Then John asked if he might take me home and I immediately consented, almost fainting when I saw the long green Pierce-Arrow car that he was driving. Oh, I sure was thrilled, it seemed as if there was no end to all the thrills and breaks that Chicago offered me. John became my steady beau and, for the next five years, he never gave another guy a chance to get near me. He taught me to drive a car and became just the protector I needed for the night life that I was now heading for.
Lil's recollections continue with her joining the New Orleans Creole Jazz Band, which I posted previously. Here's a link to that post.