Lil Hardin Armstrong – “Hot Miss Lil”

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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.)

Lil Hardin Armstrong and the Hot Five

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.

Kay Swift, George Gershwin, and the Evil Psychiatrist

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Kay Swift, 1931

Katharine Weber’s lovely new book “The Memory of All That” (Crown Publishers), in which she recalls her complicated and somewhat famous  family, reminded me of my own rather terrifying correspondence with Ms. Weber in 2009.   I was asking permission to use photos of her grandmother, the remarkable composer Kay Swift, for use on the Wild Women website, alongside a short bio celebrating her work.

Katharine asked for advance approval of my few words on Kay before she would send me the images.  I sent along a breezy little article about Kay Swift and her music (Can’t We Be Friends, Can This Be Love? Fine and Dandy)  and of course brought up Kay’s long love affair with George Gershwin, conducted while she was also writing songs with her banker husband James Warburg.

Ms. Weber curtly admonished me for treading so lightly upon what must have been an excruciatingly complicated situation.   I submitted no less than five versions of the article before she finally sent me the images.  And although I bristled at the time (I’m just a jazz singer!  I’m not writing a term paper!)   I was later very glad indeed, as the story had turned out to be one of my favorite pieces in the show, like much of Kay’s music: nuanced, beautiful, wistful.

Her story feels at times like a Jazz Age Fairytale:  “There once was a young, brilliant, struggling classical composer named Kay Swift, who met, fell in love with and married a young banker named James Warburg.  They had three little girls and set up housekeeping in the upper East Seventies in New York City.  One night a charismatic songwriter named George Gershwin came to their dinner party…”

Kay and George

Reading “The Memory of All That” brought into sharper focus how deep the musical connection was between Kay and George Gershwin.  He introduced her to the world of Jazz and Popular music, and she became the helpmate who finished his musical thoughts.  You can see her handwriting on most of his manuscripts, and their notes back and forth to each other.    What heady times those must have been, to fully share an artistic passion with a soulmate!  Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.  Paul and Jane Bowles.  Kay and George.

Weber amplifies the tragedy of George’s death by revealing new information of their truly spooky psychiatrist Zilboorg, who was treating ALL three of them at the same time:  James, George and Kay.  At the very least he was unconscionably manipulative, blithely telling each one what the other was saying; at the worst, he seems to have mis-diagnosed George’s symptoms of what may have been a completely operable brain tumor.

The larger than life stories of Katharine Weber’s family are well worth reading – not for their sensational qualities, but for the poignant, complex tales of people whom she loved very much.

Ida Cox, the Job Market and “Pink Slip Blues”

With the country at a seemingly endless stalemate regarding the debt ceiling, and debating what role government should or shouldn’t take in getting the country back to work, I pulled up one of Ida Cox’s best songs:  “Pink Slip Blues”.  Written four years into the Depression, her woman’s viewpoint about losing her WPA job is really refreshing.  As usual, her confident, direct voice delivers home the humanity of the situation which couldn’t be more simply stated:  people need jobs.

I love the way Ida Cox writes and sings.  I’ve been delving into her life work again as I’m preparing a book based on my Wild Women of Song project, and have been happily listening to that clarion voice, (so un- American Idol) go right to the heart of the song.  Never quite as popular as the Classic Blues Queens who were her contemporaries (Bessie Smith, Mamie Smith, Ma Rainey) she nonetheless  outlasted them all, successfully managing her own vaudeville troupe all through the 20’s, 30’s, through the Depression, and working steadily right up until a stroke laid her low in 1945.   When clubs stopped hiring large troupes, she scaled down without apology,  performing as a duo at Cafe Society for a few years with the excellent blues pianist Jesse Crump (who was also her 3rd husband.) She always stayed true to her own style, and certainly earned the title given to her by Paramount Records:  “Uncrowned Queen of the Blues”.

“Just a little pink slip in a long white envelope”…to hear the song, click below:

Pink Slip Blues

Welcome to the Wild Women of Song Blog!!

Wild Women of Song: Great Gal Composers of the Jazz Era is a theatrical, multi-media jazz and blues concert celebrating the lives, times, and songs of the rarely mentioned women songwriters of the Jazz Age.  With images, music and superb storytelling, vocalist and educator Pamela Rose artfully delivers a cultural retrospective while treating the audience to a wonderful jazz and blues concert.

First presented in 2009, Wild Women of Song presents over 600 archived photos and has performed in New York, London and Los Angeles to sellout crowds.  The show is slated to appear at the Monterey Jazz Festival, the San Francisco Jazz Festival and Stanford Jazz Workshop in the fall of 2011.