ORLANDO, Fla. – When you hear the name Lillette Jenkins-Wisner, it may not ring a bell or sound familiar.
She was an internationally renowned pianist and vocalist, who was well before her time, not only in the music world but in business as well, at a time when Black women rarely accomplished in what she did.
[TRENDING: Videos show flooding in EPCOT, Disney’s Hollywood Studios after rainy night in Orlando | LISTEN: Alaska Airlines flight relays potential threat to Orlando Air Traffic Control | Become a News 6 Insider (it’s free!)]
“It was a gift. She had never seen sheet music. She just played anything she could hear as a child,” said Michele Harris-Carter, Lillette’s daughter.
Lillette was born in 1924 in New York City. Her daughters said she started playing piano at the young age of 3. She would visit a neighbor’s home to play their piano and after showing how talented she was, the neighbor ended up giving her their piano.
At age 11, she was performing at Carnegie Hall, kicking off a successful musical career.
“My mother was trained classic music, she was a classic artist. She studied at the best schools: NYU, New York school of music, Julliard, Princeton. Her love of gospel was always there because she was raised in that type of a household. She was known to have so many genres of music. Classic to jazz to gospel,” said Lillette’s other daughter, Adrienne Lillette Harris.
Throughout her career, Lillette would perform with legends like Nat King Cole, Ray Charles, Cab Calloway and the “Piano Man” Billy Joel. But Lillette was a legend in her own right, dubbed ‘Queen of the Keys’ by Nat King Cole. She traveled the world sharing her gift, even performing with the Special Services Unit of the U.S. Army during World War II. All this, at the time of segregation.
“She just had an attractive spirit no matter what race you are. Her talent and light made white people sit in those seats. They [Lillette and band] still had to come in through the kitchen and couldn’t stay in those hotels. They had to stay in hotels on the Black side of town,” Michelle Harris-Carter said.
Lillette has a special connection to Florida. Her daughters said she was a snowbird, often traveling from New York to the Sunshine State where she would later call home.
“In the 40s she would travel through the south, she got to Sarasota and she got on the bus and the bus driver said if she didn’t get back by sundown, the tree was there for her. In other words, she’d get lynched. We’d ask her, ‘Why would you go back there?’ Her response was ‘That’s their problem, not mine,’” Adrienne Lillette Harris said.
In 1945, Lillette and her husband Bud Harris, would open the first Black-owned and operated nightclub and casino in Nevada named “Lillette’s Rhythm Club.” Providing a venue for Black entertainers to perform.
“My dad would laugh and say it was for people who would lose all their money and couldn’t get home. Different acts from Vegas would perform there as well,” said Michelle Harris-Carter.
Lillette would continue on, directing Broadway musicals and performing concerts. More than eight decades of success in entertainment.
She passed away in her Orlando home in 2020, at the age of 96, after her battle with vascular dementia. Her daughters said they want to continue to share her story.
“We are still learning more about our mother and her legacy every day. It’s awesome, and gratifying and that’s why we want to continue to promote it,” Harris said. “She would just light up a room. It could be a major concert stage or it could be a volunteer senior center, she never considered herself too big for anything. She was a humble spirit.”
She was also a humanitarian, giving back to the youth and creating her own foundation, Lillette’s Foundation for the Arts, focusing on making sure to contribute funding for music education.
Harris wrote a stage musical “Lillette’s Rhythm Club” based on Lillette’s life and career. Michelle Harris-Carter stars in the musical. The two are also planning to release a docuseries called “Born To Swing” as a tribute to their mother, to raise money for Lillette’s Foundation for the Arts. No word yet on when the pay-per-view docuseries will be released, but you can follow updates on their Facebook page.