Sometimes we are surprised to discover that people whom we hold in high regard for one talent are also to be admired for another. Of course, some people are so creative that they simply don’t recognize genre boundaries. My long-time friend, Geoffrey Holder, comes to mind. I bring this up because I was thinking of Lil Armstrong, as I often do, and a decision she made in the 1940s. Her career in music had gone beyond the success most performers enjoy: Her participation on the historic recordings of King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band and the celebrated Louis Armstrong Hot Five sides would have been enough to secure for her a prominent place in the history of American music, but the creativity did not end there. Following her divorce from Louis, Lil continued to write enduring compositions and she made noteworthy recordings with her own bands. She kept the famous name, but—as you will see in a future post—not just for its obvious commercial value.
In the 1940s, when the popularity of big band swing was cresting and music magazines like Down Beat and Metronome showed increased interest in the past, Lil's musical career did not seem likely to reach a dead end. Thus it came as a surprise to her friends and admirers when she put away her baton, closed the lid on her piano, and dragged out the old Singer: Lil Armstrong enrolled in a school for tailoring.
When she graduated, Lil threw a party to make it known that seamstress Armstrong was ready to take orders. Her piece de resistance at school, the garment that earned her the graduation diploma, was a tuxedo for Louis. It was displayed prominently at the party, among several other samples of her work.
Many people came to help Lil celebrate. They sipped their champagne, nibbled on their canapes, and admired the displayed fashions, but it wasn’t long before someone suggested that Lil “play some piano”. That’s when she realized that she would never shake off the music. Of course, I don’t think she really wanted to.
Some twenty years later, I asked Louis if he still had that tux. That brought a big grin to his face and he seemed surprised that I even knew about it. “No,” he said, patting himself on the stomach, “but it was a perfect fit.........back then.” No surprise there, for I had by then experienced on my own how meticulously Lil too measurements—a custom-tailored shirt from Lil became something I could look forward to each year on my birthday.
So, Lil did not totally abandon that side of her talent, but she only created clothes for friends and never for profit. Lil’s desire for good, fancy clothes went back to her childhood, but she had to wait a few years before she could indulge herself.
The door to that indulgence opened wide around the end of WWI, when Lil became a member of the New Orleans Creole Jazz Band (her description of its members will be a future post). After a three-week engagement at a Chinese Restaurant, the band was booked into the the Southside’s De Luxe Café, on State Street and Lil started making a good salary that was augmented by tips. Decie, Lil’s mother was deeply religious, so Lil told her that she was playing accompaniments at a dancing school, but the charade only lasted until a neighbor spotted the young girl at the club and told Decie the truth. Lil was as persuasive as she was determined, so she managed to calm her mother’s fears with the promise of adult supervision. One of the musicians would bring her to and from the De Luxe every night.
"A Mr. Quinn came in the place once a month and he had the unusual habit of tearing a $20 bill in half, giving me one half and keeping me worried all through the rest of the night for fear that he’d get too drunk to remember to give me the other half, but he never forgot. With all these tips and my salary, I began to get new ideas as to how to dress after Decie had seen the 'dump' I was working in and given the go sign to keep working. I discarded all my midi blouses and started to spend all my money on clothes. The girls remarked that I sure did cultivate in a hurry, little did they know that I had always had expensive taste and all I needed was the money to satisfy it.
Mr. Schorr, my boss, really help me satisfy my expensive taste by sending me to Madame Marguerite, a place where his wife bought her clothes. The first suit I bought there was a French import, mustard-colored wool, trimmed in navy blue pure satin. I didn’t even bat an eye when she said that the price was $200! I knocked ‘em cold when I came to work in the outfit and from then on I sure made up for all the time I had to wear middies to work to fool Decie. Every week, I had something delivered to the house C.O.D."
I still have some of the shirts Lil made for me. My initials were always either sewn into the lining or onto a breast pocket, and every shirt bore Lil’s own label, with her beloved mother’s name.