Lil Armstrong

Lil Hardin Armstrong & Her Swing Orchestra: 1936-1940

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Years before Joe Glaser assumed unmitigated control over Louis Armstrong's professional existence, Lil Hardin Armstrong essentially served as her husband's manager. She taught him music theory, and advised him how to dress in style and conduct himself with dignity in public. She also suggested when the time was ripe for Louis to break away from King Oliver's band and venture out on his own. Had it not been for Lil Hardin Armstrong, the Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings would never have come together the way they did, and Louis Armstrong's career would have unfolded much differently. Lil was a brilliant pianist. She sang in a gutsy manner, often using lyrics that were disarmingly funny. "Or Leave Me Alone" is one of the best examples of her knuckly humor that you'll ever hear. It also anticipates a song that Groucho Marx would present many years later as an elderly man singing softly under the spotlight at Carnegie Hall. "Show me a rose, and I'll show you a stag at bay...Show me a rose, or leave me alone," he sang, along with other lyrics that can only be described as surreal. Who wrote Groucho's song, and wasn't it closely based upon this spunky bit of fun from 1936? In another surprising premonition, "Brown Gal" is clearly the direct ancestor of "Bad Boy," a big hit for the Jive Bombers during the 1950s. Chu Berry is all over the first six selections, and Buster Bailey's clarinet lights up the first 14. Berry is succeeded by Robert Carroll, Prince Robinson, Tony Zimmers, and Russell Johns. Let's hear it for the great forgotten tenor players! When Wellman Braud showed up to play bass on April 15, 1937, Pops Foster retreated to the drums. It's the kind of a reaction you'd expect out of any sensible bassist, although Foster could have stood his ground. Maybe they flipped a coin. In any case, Foster uses the hi-hat with great success. These songs are all typical of the 1930s, a time when anybody could float a three-minute song regardless of lyrical content. Lil plays no piano on this collection until the session of September 9, 1939. And it isn't until March 18, 1940, that listeners get to enjoy a pair of instrumentals. In spite of the band being identified as Lil's Dixielanders, "Sixth Street" and "Riffin' the Blues" sound like pure unadulterated Harlem swing. The next place to go is Lil's fabulous 1961 session for Riverside Records, a strong installment in that marvelous series entitled Chicago: The Living Legends.

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