During the week of March 4, 2010, the “Riverwalk” jazz program — featuring Jim Cullum’s Jazz Band and perhaps a guest or two — will be honoring Lillian Hardin Armstrong, someone who deserves attention even when it’s not Women’s History Month.
Lillian Hardin Armstrong was known as “Miss Lil” to her fellow musicians in King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band. On 1945 record labels, she was heralded as “Lil ‘Brown Gal’ Armstrong” — not an offensive racial reference, but a reminder of one of her hit tunes. But most people know her as one of the earliest (and perhaps most successful) women in jazz and as Louis Armstrong’s second wife and co-composer.
It’s easy to dismiss Lil Hardin Armstrong as an improviser. In early recordings, one hears her piano as competent at best: a steady but hardly swinging approach to the music. Correct and emphatic but not terribly inventive. And it is ungracious but inevitable to imagine how much more the Hot Five might have swung had Teddy Weatherford or Cassino Simpson or Earl Hines been the pianist.
But she was one of those musicians we cherish because she improved — by the Thirties, her Decca recordings (now almost impossible to find) show an ebullient vocal personality. Her compositions were cheerful swing material, and at least one of them — JUST FOR A THRILL — is wonderfully moving. She knew enough to surround herself with the best players of the period, Chu Berry and Joe Thomas among them. And she had learned a good deal about playing swing piano — if you compare her recordings from 1926 and a decade later, it’s clear that she had travelled a long distance, not only in concept, but in Hot execution.
But we celebrate her for more personal reasons. Many married men roll their eyes when they discuss the power that their wives hold in the household and beyond. “She Who Must Be Obeyed,” Rumpole of the Bailey calls his Hilda. “The Power Behind The Throne,” says another. “I’ve got to call home and get my marching orders,” said one of my professors in college, years ago — with some vestige of affectionate resignation.
And Louis Armstrong’s bandmates called him “Hennie,” short for “hen-pecked.” So Miss Lil, by her own account, was a woman who would say, “Do it this way or I won’t stick around a moment longer.” She told Louis that she wasn’t going to stay married to a second-trumpet player, and that he had better play first, lead the band.
But her way — she was ambitious for her husband in ways that he wasn’t — benefitted both Louis and the course of the music. He would have been more than content to play a supportive role to his musical father, Joe Oliver, for a long time. But Lil saw what was happening: that Joe was keeping Louis down so that Joe wouldn’t be outshone by the younger man. She directed Louis’s career until he was a star. So we owe her thanks for being so — overbearing. And Louis, late in life, although he was ungenerous about her skills as a pianist and improviser, thanked his pushy wife for aiming him in the directions his talent said he should go.
So when the Riverwalk series (given over to the Jim Cullum Jazz Band and illustrious guest stars) devotes a program to Miss Lil, with the subtitle, “Behind Every Great Man,” it has real validity. And fine jazz. The program wil air the week of March 4, 2010 — and, as an extra bonus, the Riverwalk people have included audio clips of Lillian Hardin Armstrong telling her own story.
Here’s the link where you can find out more AND hear Lil herself reminisce: http://www.riverwalkjazz.org/jazznotes/behind_every_man/
And I’m sure that the Cullum band will do justice to STRUTTIN’ WITH SOME BARBECUE (which I’ve heard was originally a pretty waltz by Lil before Louis changed the tempo) as well as JUST FOR A THRILL and other delights.
P.S. If you want to learn more about Miss Lil after you’ve heard the Riverwalk tribute, be sure to visit Chris Albertson’s blog — not only did he record her with a great romping Chicago double-sized band, but he’s also published long sections of her typed autobiography, fascinating stuff. The first section is http://stomp-off.blogspot.com/2009/09/louis-lil-and-little-gangster.html; others follow.