Lil Hardin is one of my idols, and once you get to know her, you might fall in love with her too. But first, let’s talk dialogue. Is your dialogue mono-chromatic, dull and gray like the soap-scum in your bathtub? Are your characters all the same color? Your color?
Teaching at Berklee College of Music for nine years exposed me to many different ethnicities. In addition to a large number of black students, almost half the students enrolled there came from other countries. Imagine the snippets of dialogue I heard in the halls and classrooms, flavors from Spain, Sarajevo, Japan and Argentina. Spice for my ears.
We live in a world with people of many colors and ethnicities. If you haven’t already, why not try a character of a different color? Not only is it fun to learn about people whose lives were different from our own, it might inspire your next story or novel. Take Lil Hardin, for example.
Lil’s grandmother, born into slavery in 1850, survived the Civil War and became a free woman. She married and had several children, including Lil’s mother, Dempsey, who married William Hardin. Lil, their only child, was born in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1898. Raising her was a challenge. By her own admission, Lil was a willful child. After her father left them, Lil and her mother lived in a boarding house near Beale Street, an area known for its nightclubs and music, but rife with drugs, pawnshops and prostitutes. Lil learned to play the organ, and at the age of nine she began playing in church on Sunday. When she put some pizzazz on her rendition of “Onward Christian Soldiers,” she got disapproving looks from the pastor and her mother.
In 1915 Dempsey sent Lil to Fisk University in Nashville, partly to get her out of Memphis, but also because she believed in Lil’s musical talent. In June 1916, Lil returned to Memphis, a city full of WWI patriotism, but also filled with violence and racial strife. Dempsey and Lil packed their bags and took a train to Chicago. Lil got a job in a music store demonstrating sheet music, added her usual pizzazz and became known as “Hot Miss Lil.” When New Orleans cornetist King Oliver brought his band to Chicago in 1921, he hired Lil to play piano. The next year, Oliver sent for another young New Orleans cornetist.
His name was Louis Armstrong. Romance bloomed. King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band made some of the first jazz recordings in 1923. The next year, Lil married Louis and began promoting his career. She persuaded Okeh Records to hire a small group, The Hot Five, featuring Louis on trumpet and Lil on piano. A star was born. Louis, not Lil. Made during the 1920s, the Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings are now jazz classics.
Louis was a fantastic musician, but Lil was the one who got him the gigs and attention. In 1928 she earned a degree from the Chicago College of Music and a post-graduate diploma from the New York College of Music in 1929. But her personal life was going downhill fast. As Louis’s fame grew, so did his philandering. Eventually, she confronted him. “I think it’s best if you go your way and I go my way,” she said, “and we’ll remain friends.” They divorced in 1938 but remained friends for life. To his credit, Louis always praised her musicianship and later said he’d become successful by heeding Lil’s advice: “Play second trumpet to no one.”
As jazz pianist, vocalist and bandleader, Lil made many recordings. She also wrote the music and lyrics to many songs now considered jazz classics, including “It’s Murder!” An interesting title, but what does it mean? It’s murder being married to a big star like Louis Armstrong? It’s murder playing in clubs owned by Chicago gangsters? It’s murder being a black female trying to get gigs? Keep reading to learn the answer.
There’s little doubt that Louis was the love of her life. He remarried. She didn’t. When Louis died on July 6, 1971, Lil was devastated. On August 27, 1971, she participated in a musical tribute to Louis in Chicago. She sat down at the piano to play W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues.” The audience cheered. After the final chord, Lil paused, her hands hovering over the piano, and toppled to the floor. Someone tried to revive her, but it was too late. Lil was dead. Some say she died of a broken heart.
As for my question about It’s Murder! The rest of the line goes like this: “When my baby makes love to me, it’s murder!” Pretty racy for a 1938 recording! You can hear Lil sing it and read more about her on my website. http://archives.susanfleet.com/documents/lilhardin.html
While researching Lil’s career I made many discoveries. The Fisk Jubilee Singers were one of the first recorded black groups (1909). Black journalist Ida B. Wells was forced to flee Memphis due to her editorials deploring the lynching of black men. While Lil was living in Chicago in 1919, forty people died in race riots that rocked the city. I learned about speakeasies, Prohibition, gangsters like Al Capone, rum-runners and bootlegging. Enough material for a short story or novel!
For a black woman to achieve the success Lil Harden achieved was rare in the early 20th Century. She encountered both race and gender bias, but her perseverance never wavered, nor did her courage. Lil took chances. I hope you will, too. Choose someone whose ethnicity is different from your own, do some research, and voila! You’ve got a sparkling new character.
Some of the diverse women profiled on my website include: Jazz pianist-composer Toshiko Akiyoshi, profoundly deaf solo percussionist Evelyn Glennie, jazz violinist and MacArthur grant winner Regina Carter, and the all-woman Hispanic band, Mariachi Reyna de Los Angeles.
Set in pre-Katrina New Orleans, my suspense-thriller, Absolution, features a black female journalist. My next novel also features several black characters. Due out in June 2011, Diva is set in post-Katrina New Orleans. A diabolical man is stalking a beautiful young flute soloist. He’ll do anything to have her … even commit murder. Stay tuned!