Every year as September approaches, the person I am closest to announces, “You never go swimming after Labor Day.” Labor Day – the great divide between fun and responsibility.
Fun and letting be, not so much the balance between but the constant swaying, the back and forth—this has something to do with Lil Hardin. Lil liked to think of herself as a good time girl, the Hot Miss Lil. Like most of us, the fun part largely happened in her youth. With her mother in tow she moved to Chicago in 1917 from her hometown, Memphis. Her first job was playing piano selling sheet music. Then she hooked up with Joe Oliver and his Creole Jazz Band. When the band stopped playing at 1 am, Miss Lil’s mother was there to pick up Hot Miss Lil. When Oliver’s band toured for the six months, San Francisco, Miss Lil made certain there was no fooling around. She touted the idea of Hot but Miss was who she was. All these adventures all before she was twenty, before she even met Louis Armstrong. In 1922 he joined King Oliver’s band. In next two years Lil fell in love with Louis, took charge of his personal appearance and career, married him, and together they wrote a slew of songs they recorded sometimes within days of composing them. To name a few: “Fireworks,” “I’m Not Rough,” “Skit Dat De Dat,” “Two Deuces,” “Tears,” and especially “Struttin’ With Some Barbeque” (no doubt the most famous one, also the one Lil singled out in her copyright lawsuit against Louis filed in 1934 when he was on an extended tour in Europe).
I was fascinated by the Hot Miss Lil’s audacity and success, but initially found her brash. Perhaps knowing the story of Louis and Lucille’s more compatible union and Lucille’s mellow acceptance of Louis and his ways framed by initial reaction to Lil. Lil was bossy and outspoken, but she helped him make important decisions that advanced his career. She convinced him to leave Joe Oliver, to go to New York, return to Chicago and form his own band. Though Louis, like Lil, was responsible, his idea of responsibility was to find someone else to take charge of this. Louis was always big on fun.
Lil possessed musical talent and she was good at composition. She played the piano moderately well but not imaginatively—at least that’s how Louis’s chroniclers describe her. A solid accompanist, she was frequently criticized for her thumping piano line capable of carrying the rhythm but not much else. Yet Lil was essential in the seminal early recordings of the Hot Five.
Lil herself never claimed she was a great musician. For a long time the subject women in jazz did not exist. Only the greats, Billie Holliday, Alberta Hunter, Bessie Smith made the big mention. But today there is plenty of material and continuing research on seminal (and not so seminal) women in jazz. Lil’s life and contribution are well covered. One source is James L. Dickerson’s biography Just for a Thrill: Lil Hardin Armstrong, First Lady of Jazz (2002). Dickerson details her 1920s musical life but, importantly, covers her whole life, all of her accomplishments and struggles.
Chris Albertson’s blog, www.stomp-off.blogspot.com, is perhaps the best source; it is surely the most personal. Albertson and Lil Armstrong’s friendship began in 1961. He recorded his interview with her shortly after they agreed to collaborate on Lil’s autobiography, a project from which she later withdrew. At the time she said she wasn’t ready to publish her account. However, their friendship continued and they visited several times in the last decade of her life. She frequently made shirts for him and shared many photographs that are found only at this site. Albertson admired and respected Lil. When I found this blog, I began to see Lil in a new light, a softer view grounded in his respect and admiration. Lil did tell her own story not only to Albertson but also on an oral history interview she made in 1956.
Since Albertson has published captivating anecdotes recalled by Lil herself and the whole story can be found in Dickerson, I wanted to find a personal slant to integrate her story into my blog. The Idlewild entry (August 2) speculates on Lil’s marriage to Louis, her pleasure in their summer escape hatch. Reading about her, I realized that despite all she dreamed of and accomplished, she still felt bound, held back by her own self-estimation and the thinking of the time that circumscribed women’s possibilities.
Maybe Lil’s life and example will be what I most remember from my Louis Armstrong Dead At year. Each year has its own cycle. After much research, I find an entry point, a way to respond, to make in a way that testifies to the individual’s unique contribution. Each beginning I ask myself how will inspection into the life of another provide introspection into my life.
It’s autumn outside and in, the end of the line for Louis Armstrong as the center of my attention. My energy for the bigger than life Louis Armstrong and his world is waning. But the delight in seeing someone new on the horizon pulls me. Next year will be my eighth year. As I step across a self-imposed line into the next segment, I know more about the pattern and lack of pattern that this unruly but structured continuum provides. Not only the limits of the year and how to fit a whole magnificent person into that small frame, but the continuum itself, where is this accumulation going?
Lil draws me in, but I’m also straying, not nearly as active as I was a few months ago. I sometimes make excuses. I say it’s already written. Others’ stories are good enough. On the other hand, the fall equinox is still almost two weeks away. There’s another week or so after that to my change date. I don’t want to fall off the blogosphere until the year has ended on October 4. Contemplating Lil is an opportunity.
Aside aside, let’s go back to Lil, how our lives cross. As I recounted in the last entry, my parents married before either had turned twenty. They moved to Chicago’s South Side to begin their dream of the big city life. They used to tell me about the good times, but I never asked whether that included the scene at any of the famed South Side jazz spots, listening and dancing to swing music. I once saw a photo album filled with snapshots from the 1930s. There they were on Lake Shore Drive, Lake Michigan’s waves moving crisply in the distance. They were lined up with their Sunday bicycling club, a dozen or so young couples nattily dressed in black and white gripping their handlebars.
As for Lil, her life in the 1930s was light years different than the 1920s. Louis was gone emotionally if not on paper from Lil’s life long before the Big Crash and onset of the Depression, but the real turning point for Lil was the declaration she made in 1931:
“And, I don’t know, in a way he had changed his way of thinking on a lot of things and I hadn’t changed. So he told me I was a little bit too old-fashioned. So I said, “Well, I think it’s best you go your way and I’ll go my way and we’ll remain friends that way.” But, of course, he though I was joking. But I wasn’t joking, I wasn’t joking at all. So we separated in August 1931 and he kept on on the road. And I came back to Chicago and immediately made my plans to get back into the music business.”
Lil—not who she was, the findable, but who she thought she was, because, like most of us, that’s not findable. It’s hinted in the sliding scale between fun and letting be, but the indicator is tough to read. She recorded her “truth,” but that is only the truth spoken one day. If you have to say it, then the explanation can only obscure it. In Haruki Murakami’s story, “Town of Cats” in the September 6, 2011 New Yorker, the withdrawn father says to his son, “If you can’t understand it without an explanation, you can’t understand it with an explanation.” This is pretty close to the reputed but never documented Louis Armstrong definition of jazz “If you have to ask, then you’ll never know.”
So I’ll never know who Lil was and, frankly, the more I read the more uncertain I am what she thought she thought about herself.
But take today, a perfect sunny blue sky, September 10 with all the ominous collusion that such weather and the next day’s date portends and will for years to come. In this visit to Lil’s 1922-1924 Chicago years, “Tears” appears. “Tears” one of the many songs she wrote with Louis. Most of the time they wrote their songs sitting on their back porch in the house that Lil, most likely, paid for the first year of their marriage. She lived in this house on 44th Street till the day she died in August 1971.
While Louis recorded “Struttin’ With Some Barbeque” thirty-five times, he recorded “Tears” only once, in 1923 with King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band with King Oliver and Louis Armstrong, cornet, plus trombone, clarinet, bass. drums and Lil Hardin on the piano. Lyrics were important in many of their songs, but there are no lyrics for “Tears.” There was something special about this song for Louis, as I found in listening to my recording from Louis’ Home-Recorded Tapes, purchased when I visited the Louis Armstrong House Museum thirteen months ago.
There are over five hundred tapes, more than two thousand hours of Louis speaking to his home recorder so selecting the sixty-six minutes for this CD was certainly a tough call and a labor of love. Dan Morgenstern wrote the liner notes and his words do more than sum up the greatness of Louis’s trumpet as he plays along with this recording:
“Tears” has a sequence of Louis solo breaks that is the first true glimpse of his prowess, which may be why he picked it to play along with…What ensues is something that, when I first heard it, transported me to the spheres, as it will you, dear listener. The tone of Louis’ horn alone suffices to blow you away, and the beauty of his phrasing as well. In a perfect touch, he lays out when his ancient breaks come up, which adds to the magic of these golden moments.”
Louis introduces the song, tells us he’s going to noodle along with it. After he finishes playing with the recording, he says a few more words about King Oliver’s Jazz Band and Lil, “who probably, no, not probably, eventually became my wife.” He intends to play the record again without accompanying it but he can’t get it to play. He doesn’t mention that they wrote the song together.
Should I mention I swam to the island and back yesterday, four days after Labor Day? I had no such intention but the sky was spotless, no wind, no boats, and the air and water were a match at 72°.
 “Satchmo and Me,” an oral history recording made in 1956, released as an LP by Riverside. A portion of this document is published in Joshua Berrett’s The Louis Armstrong Companion: Eight Decades of Commentary. The complete typescript was published in American Music (Spring 2007). Sound excerpts from the recording can be heard on Chris Albertson’s blog, www.stomp-off.blogspot.com.
 ibid, 117.
 Louis Armstrong: Fleischmann’s Yeast Show & Louis’ Home-Recorded Tapes, 2 CDs, Louis Armstrong House Museum, liner notes: Dan Morgenstern, 14.