'LIL & LOUIS' tells the story of jazz pioneers Lil Hardin Armstrong and her husband Louis

Joe Plummer as Louis.

"LIL & LOUIS," a new play with music about jazz pioneers Lil Hardin Armstrong and Louis Armstrong, will be presented for six performances from Jan. 21-25 at the First Presbyterian Church in Sarasota.

The question at the heart of "LIL & LOUIS" is simple: If Louis didn’t have his Lil, would the world have had its Louis? The playwright, director, cast and crew pose this intriguing theory to audiences throughout the play, which focuses on the amazingly accomplished yet sadly forgotten Lil Hardin Armstrong.

The play, set mostly in Chicago, starts in the Roaring ’20s and remains relevant today with elements of feminism, racism, addiction, and mob rule—but it’s also a most unusual love story according to Morello. Although not a musical, LIL & LOUIS is bursting with dozens of songs and several dances of the era as it dramatizes the lives of the Armstrongs, from their first meeting through their marriage, divorce, careers, and beyond. Whether working together or alone, the extraordinarily talented couple created jazz with every move they made. With LIL & LOUIS, an experienced group of theatrical professionals presents the Armstrong’s unique though sometimes embattled love, which endured until the very end.

The lives of Lil Hardin and Louis Armstrong were inextricably linked, beginning in the roaring '20s in Chicago when “The Hot Miss Lil,” barely 20, was already a star. A sought-after pianist and the only woman in the acclaimed King Oliver Creole Jazz Band, Lil wasn’t impressed by the arrival of the cornetist and country bumpkin called “Little Louis”— but the musical soulmates married and became “The First Couple of Jazz.”

Lil was the star-maker for unambitious Louis, who took her advice, although reluctantly. She pushed him to solo performances and was instrumental in the creation of the Louis Armstrong Hot Five and Hot Seven bands, resulting in a landmark series of recordings that are still highly regarded nearly 100 years later.

Lil watched Louis move up and away to international stardom, countless mistresses and two more wives. “I felt like I was holding the ladder and watching him climb,” she said. Nevertheless they remained close until the very end. She continued her career as “First Lady of Jazz,” “Queen of Swing,” and a “Chicago Living Legend,” but her star has been overpowered by his brilliance. A pianist, arranger, singer, bandleader (and tailor!), Lil composed over 150 songs. “Struttin’ with Some Barbecue,” a jazz standard, has been recorded over 500 times. “Just for a Thrill” was a hit recorded by numerous artists including Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, the Ink Spots, Peggy Lee and Nancy Wilson. Some of her songs have been recorded by The Beatles and others. Yet she is forgotten. “Lil’s story needs to be told,” Morello said. “She was called the first female jazz instrumentalist of significance. We want to restore her to her rightful place in history.”

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