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9/23/09

Louis, Lil, and the little gangster


When Louis Armstrong passed away in 1971, Lil Hardin Armstrong came to New York for the funeral. Given the circumstances, it was no surprise to find that she was not her peppy self, but she also looked tired and drawn. I attributed some of that to the fact that New York was experiencing hot and humid weather, but Lil was also obviously shaken by the event. "I can't believe that Louis is gone," she said, more than once.

As you will see in the old article that ends this post, the bond that remained between Louis and Lil was indeed of the "'til death do us part" variety.

No one resented the long-lived friendship that existed between Louis and Lil more than Joe Glaser, Louis' longtime manager, who made continuous attempts to keep them apart. I was staying with Lil in 1962 when she received a phone call asking if she would be willing to participate in Disneyland's planned reunion of the Hot Five. Most of the members were still alive and playing well at the time, so it sounded like an interesting idea, but I heard Lil tell the man that, while she was interested, she was also certain that Glaser would never allow it.

Of course, she turned out to be right. Glaser feared anyone who might threaten his hold on Louis, and Lil was someone with whom he could not compete for Louis' attention.

When I mentioned Lil's Disneyland call to Earl Hines (who took over her piano bench for the Hot Seven recordings), he told me that Glaser's insecurities led to his creating animosity between members of the All-Stars group. To this end, he once had Hines' personal belongings placed in Louis' dressing room, and had his go-fer spread among the band members false stories that were designed to antagonize them against each other and prevent unity within the group. Glaser, once a low-level gangster, never really rose out of the gutter. He found a gold mine in Louis and worked it well, making sure that Louis never needed money. Thanks to Louis, Glaser was able to build and attract great artists to his Associate Booking Corp., but while he could rely on his star client's unshakable loyalty, he knew that there was one person, Lil, who always had Louis' ear. The bond between Louis and Lil was permanent, and she had a more realistic take on Glaser and how he operated. Consequently, Louis and Lil always met without his knowledge. Earl Hines shared Lil's view of the manager-client relationship—both felt that Louis ought to assert himself. "If Joe [Glaser] told Louis that he should sleep on the lawn in front of his house, Louis would have obeyed," Hines once told me.

I will eventually get around to posting here some correspondence between Glaser and Columbia Records, incredible documents that fell into my hands almost by accident—that is a story in and of itself.

In the summer of 1971, less than two months after Louis’s death, Lil Hardin Armstrong performed in Chicago at a memorial concert for her former husband. In the middle of a lively number, she threw her arms in the air and collapsed. It was a fatal heart attack that the public witnessed on the news that night. Minutes after it aired on New York channels, I received a rare call from Lucille Armstrong. "Did you see that?" she asked. When I replied that I had, she told me that Lil rode to Louis' funeral in the family car. "I had to put her in there," she added, "because Louis would have found some way to get back at me if I hadn't."




Lil in 1962, at the entrance to her house, holding one of Louis' old trumpets. This is where Lil lived out her life, the house in which the Hot Five and Hot Seven groups rehearsed.



When I interviewed the Armstrongs' former maid shortly after Lil's death, she had very little of positive nature to say about Lucille. I told her that some people believed Louis' marriage to Lucille had been on shaky ground for a long time. "Oh yes," she replied. "Did they tell you that she wanted a bigger house out on Long Island?" I had heard about that, and that Louis told her she could have it, but he was staying in Corona. She also told me that a highlight of her time with the Armstrongs came when Lil arrived for the funeral. "I went upstairs to Lucille's room and told her that Mrs. Armstrong had arrived. She didn't like that much.

A few days after Lil's death, The Saturday Review asked me to write a remembrance. Here it is:

LIL ARMSTRONG - A FOND REMEMBRANCE
Saturday Review, September 1971.

In September of 1961, I met for the first time the young lady who so often had stared back at me through shadowed eyes on a faded photograph of King Oliver’s famous Creole Jazz Band. Thirty-eight years had then passed since Oliver’s band posed for that picture; there remained only a handful of rare old records and two surviving members to tell the story.

Louis Armstrong and Lillian Hardin had met in the Oliver band, married in 1924, and gone on to make those extraordinary Hot Five recordings. Through ten years of marriage, Lil had not only contributed musically to Louis’s career, she had been its guiding force. Their marriage ended in the early Thirties, as Louis embraced world-wide fame, but Lil’s love and admiration for him remained with her for the rest of her life. She still wore the rings he had given her; she preserved with the devotion of a museum curator his old cornet, letters, photographs, and earliest attempts at writing music; she spoke of him with an indifference belied by the spark in her eyes.

As we sat in the living room of the house Lil and Louis had purchased in the mid-Twenties, I felt a sense of history: it was here that the famous Hot Five rehearsed; upstairs was the guest room King Oliver frequently occupied. Though she surrounded herself with such reminders of bygone days, Lil Hardin Armstrong refused to live in the past. I told her that I had come to Chicago to produce a series of recordings and that I wished to devote one album to her. Her response was surprising, but—I soon found out—typical: “Tell me,” she said, “who would want to listen to that old stuff?” Then she laughed as if the thought of her doing an album were a joke and walked over to a small collection of records. “This,” she said, holding up albums by pianists Billy Taylor and Thelonious Monk, “is what I like to listen to. I only wish I could play that well.”

I got to know Lil better during the next two weeks. She really meant what she said; her playing was in the old style, but her musical taste was thoroughly modern. I introduced her to a Gil Evans arrangement of her own tune, Struttin' with Some Barbecue, featuring Cannonball Adderley—she was ecstatic. Two weeks later when we finished her album she was quite pleased with the result, but she still found it hard to believe that anyone would actually buy it.

From those two weeks in Chicago, a friendship developed. On one of her numerous trips to New York, Lil told me she was preparing her autobiography and asked me to write it with her. For almost a year, sheets of neatly typed manuscript arrived regularly from Chicago. Lil turned out to be an excellent writer and storyteller; all she really needed was an editor. As the book began to take form, an agent [the late Anne Curtis-Brown] produced a publisher’s contract, but Lil had last-minute reservations: the book, she felt, offered too personal a picture of Louis and their relationship. Rather than change anything, she decided to shelve the manuscript. This did not impair our relationship; her concern was understandable.

Later, in those early Sixties, Lil learned through friends that I was out of a job and not doing at all well financially. She immediately sent me a round-trip airline ticket to Chicago with firm instructions to “come out and be properly fed and cared for.” I stayed three weeks, gained several pounds, and returned to New York with my morale considerably boosted. I shall always remember that visit. Lil introduced me to some of her many friends, not once hinting at her charity; she borrowed a tuxedo so that I might escort her to a cotillion dance; she sat up nights when I was out, and there was always a snack ready in the refrigerator; she entertained me at the piano, laughing at past mishaps, sometimes fondly mimicking Louis, and often extracting from her remarkable memory an anecdote she knew I would enjoy.

Once, in the Forties, she had tried to retire from music. Having graduated from a school of tailoring, she staged a fashion show in New York, complete with champagne, prominent guests, and as many people from the press as she could summon. This debut in the world of fashion was to have been her farewell to the music profession. The invited marveled at her creations and drank up her champagne, but when the evening drew to a close and someone said, “Now, play some piano,” Lil knew that no one would take her new ambition seriously. Fashion design and tailoring became a hobby, the fruits of which she reserved for close friends.

Although she spent over fifty years at the piano, playing, singing, and composing, Lil never really took her music seriously. She had originally played marches in grade school and hymns in church, but at Fisk University she studied classical piano, and one of her proudest possessions was a faded program from a Bach recital she had given in her youth. Framed, it was prominently displayed on her living room wall. She used to laugh when I told her of hours spent in my hometown, Copenhagen, with groups of jazz record collectors listening to her old records. “You people were listening to Louis,” she said, “because I know you couldn’t have been taking my playing seriously.”

In recent years, much of Lil’s time was spent in Idlewild, a Michigan lake resort where she had built a small, comfortable house on land purchased by her during the early years of her marriage to Louis. She had planned to sell the old house in Chicago and retire to Idlewild. I suspect she would have done this a few years ago had it not been for the fact that the old house formed such an important part of her memorabilia. She would never admit it, but it was hard for her to part with any reminder of Louis. The love she tried to conceal but couldn’t was very much in evidence a few months ago when she called me after learning that Louis was in the hospital; she wanted to know what reports I had heard of his condition. “If I know Louis,” she said, “he’ll just keep going,” but it was clear that she didn’t really believe that. In July she came to New York for the funeral.

She stayed with a friend who lived in a Harlem housing project, and asked me to drop by on the following day. New York was hot and humid that afternoon, and Lil did not look well. I attributed this to the sweltering heat in the un-airconditioned apartment and the ordeal of the funeral, but she told me, with unconvincing disconcern, that her blood pressure was too high and that her doctor advised her to give up work for a while. It was hard to believe that Louis was gone, she said. “I guess I’m the only one left of the old Oliver bunch.” A few minutes later her characteristic vivacity returned, but it no longer seemed natural. She spoke of her new piano, a bedroom she had added to her house in Idlewild, and a summer shirt she was planning for me, but every once in a while she shook her head and said she couldn’t imagine Louis’s being dead. It was the last time I saw Lil, but she called me from Chicago toward the end of August. The time had come, she said, to seek a publisher for her autobiography.

Two days later my television screen cruelly showed her dying at the piano during a memorial concert for Louis.


Chris Albertson
September, 1971


Please click on images to enlarge them.

4 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  2. This is the deleted, much appreciated comment, sans phone number. [CA]

    Hi Mr. Albertson. I would love to speak with you about Lil. She was our cousin, and was very close to my Mom (who is now 80 years old). I can actually remember being at Lil's home in Chicago when I was only 3 or 4. I would love to ask a few questions, and share additional information with you. I'm not sure how to contact you, but I can be reached at xxxxx Thank you for keeping Lil's memory alive. All the best, Lynn Colbert-Jones

    ReplyDelete
  3. We enjoyed Louis Armstrong's music and have many of his albums. I enjoyed seeing him in the movie, "Hello Dolly".

    ReplyDelete
  4. Dear Mr. Albertson,

    My name is Kent Brown and I am the grandson of the late Beryl Booker. I'm putting together a commemorative piece on her and hope to speak to you about your memories of her.

    Please contact me at: kent@berylbooker.com at your earliest convenience.

    All the best,
    Kent Brown

    ReplyDelete