While doing a little research on the under-appreciated pianist and songwriter Lil Hardin Armstrong, I came across an interview with Alberta Hunter, in which she praised Ms. Armstrong’s piano playing. ‘And she was a pianist too, baby,’ she says. ‘you know one thing? All you had to do — we knew nothing about arrangements, keys, nothing– all you had to do was sing something like ‘Make Me Love You’ and she would have one gone. She could play anything in this world and could play it awhile. She was marvelous.’ (“Just For a Thrill: Lil Hardin Armstrong, First Lady of Jazz”, James L. Dickerson, Cooper Press 2002.)
Like Lil, Alberta Hunter grew up in the same rough neighborhood in Memphis, yet they didn’t meet until they were both rising stars in those early years of jazz in Chicago. I like to think of them, two young gifted, spirited gals, who managed to sidestep the pitfalls of club life, and rise above all expectations of what was available to young Black women in the 1920’s.
Lil, who is usually only mentioned as an incidental footnote to her husband Louis Armstrong, is frankly overlooked as a jazz pianist. Yet her powerful, rhythmic style was remarked upon by many musicians, and although certainly not a soloist like Earl Hines, she did something few musicians still know how to do: delight in the role of supporting the singer or soloist, and play in a manner meant almost to disappear within the fabric of the rhythm section. She played a straight ahead, no nonsense 4/4 groove that drove every band she was in.
Lil Hardin Armstrong was an early member of the Creole Jazz Band in 1920’s Chicago (even before King Oliver), whose impassioned and canny guidance of her husband Louis Armstrong made jazz history. It was she who urged him to leave Joe Oliver and go out under his own name (she even booked him as “The World’s Greatest Trumpet Player” which enraged him, but certainly created the legend that he enjoyed for the rest of his career.) Lil hired the band, contributed music and arrangements to and played on the first Hot Five and Hot Seven records, which most people consider the seminal Jazz Recordings and made sure each track featured the thrilling Louis Armstrong.
When I listen to her playing on the Hot Five Sessions, especially on her own “Struttin’ With Some Barbeque” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yl-2R_Pb7dk) and “I’m Gonna Gitcha” it’s almost like hearing a drummer (although there was none on that famous session). She lays down the form simply and clearly, allowing all the other instruments to shine and swing hard. The arrangements (which she provided) are a delight, whimsical, wrapped around the clarinet, trumpet and vocal.
Although her marriage to Louis Armstrong didn’t last, he remained the love of her life. (Just listen to Ray Charles sing “Just For a Thrill” sometime, the torch song she wrote for her ex-husband). She died onstage shortly after Louis’ death in 1971, performing a concert in his honor.