I like the universe I was born into, but I imagine alternate ones all the time — the debt I owe to my Big Sister, who introduced me to Golden Age science fiction in my late childhood. So I imagine one where this woman — pianist, singer, composer, bandleader, natural leader, innovator — was a star of the magnitude she deserved.
Lillian Hardin is ill-served as being perceived primarily as just “the second wife of Louis Armstrong.” My admiration and love for Louis is beyond the normal measuring tools, but Lil is someone and would have been someone if she’d never devoted her energies to that chubby young man from the South for a decade or so. She herself didn’t have a substantial ego, which may have accounted for her somewhat shadowy presence in jazz history. How she would have been celebrated had she not been female is something to consider.
You could ask one of the heroes of this music, Chris Albertson, about Lil, for sure. Here — on Chris’ STOMP OFF blog — is a trove of information, all enlivened by his love for Miss Lil. (His memories of Lil — including a three-part audio interview — are treasures.)
Rather than write about her in ways admiring or polemical or both, I offer a banquet of her Swing Era Decca recordings, which — I know it’s heresy — stand up next to the Teddy Wilson, Fats Waller, and Henry “Red” Allen small groups of the period for swing, charm, melodic inventiveness, and fun. On these discs, I know our ears go automatically to the horn soloists — but imagine them with a flat rhythm section and inferior tunes. Lil’s exuberance makes these recordings much more memorable. Although none of her original compositions had much longevity except for JUST FOR A THRILL, sixteen of the twenty-six are hers, and I’d guess the effective arrangements are hers as well.
Underneath the picture on the YouTube posting are all the titles: further details here: Lillian Armstrong And Her Swing Band : Joe Thomas (tp) Buster Bailey (cl) Chu Berry (ts) Teddy Cole (p) Huey Long (g) John Frazier (b) Lil Armstrong (vcl). Chicago, Oct. 27, 1936. OR LEAVE ME ALONE / MY HI-DE-HO MAN / BROWN GAL / DOIN’ THE SUZIE-Q / JUST FOR A THRILL / IT’S MURDER /
Joe Thomas (tp) Buster Bailey (cl) Robert Carroll (ts) James Sherman (p) Arnold Adams (g) Wellman Braud (b) George Foster (d) Lil Armstrong (vcl). New York, April 15, 1937: BORN TO SWING / I’M ON A SIT-DOWN STRIKE FOR RHYTHM / BLUER THAN BLUE / I’M KNOCKIN’ AT THE CABIN DOOR /
Shirley Clay (tp) replaces Joe Thomas, Prince Robinson (ts) replaces Robert Carroll, Manzie Johnson (d) replaces George Foster. New York, July 23, 1937:
LINDY HOP / WHEN I WENT BACK HOME / LET’S CALL IT LOVE / YOU MEAN SO MUCH TO ME /
Ralph Muzzillo, Johnny McGhee (tp) Al Philburn (tb) Tony Zimmers (cl) Frank Froeba (p) Dave Barbour (g) Haig Stephens (b) Sam Weiss (d) Lil Armstrong (vcl). New York, Feb. 2, 1938: LET’S GET HAPPY TOGETHER / HAPPY TODAY, SAD TOMORROW / YOU SHALL REAP WHAT YOU SOW / ORIENTAL SWING /
Reunald Jones (tp) J.C. Higginbotham (tb) Buster Bailey (cl) Lil Armstrong (p,vcl) Wellman Braud (b) O’Neil Spencer (d). September 9, 1938: SAFELY LOCKED UP IN MY HEART / EVERYTHING’S WRONG, AIN’T NOTHING RIGHT / HARLEM ON SATURDAY NIGHT / KNOCK-KNEED SAL (is the unidentified male voice on the last track Clarence Williams?) /
Jonah Jones (tp) Don Stovall (as) Russell Johns (ts) Lil Armstrong (p,vcl) Wellman Braud (b) Manzie Johnson (d) Midge Williams, Hilda Rogers (vcl).
New York, March 18, 1940: SIXTH STREET / RIFFIN’ THE BLUES / WHY IS A GOOD MAN SO HARD TO FIND? / MY SECRET FLAME /
I salute Lillian Hardin as a joyous Foremother. Her virtues should be celebrated on many other days of the year.
May your happiness increase!