Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Exploring the creativity, passion and pain of two early jazz luminaries

Jo Morello's two-act play Lil & Louis offers its audience many insights into the star-crossed lives and music of trumpeter Louis Armstrong and his second wife, pianist and composer Lil Hardin Armstrong.
Marta McKinnon as Lil Hardin

Its central question - "If the world didn't have a Lil, would it have had a Louis?" - doesn't get a clear answer, but is something to ponder. The young Satchmo encountered Lil Harden after he moved to Chicago to join horn man Joe "King" Oliver's Creole Jazz Band. 

They soon shed their prior spouses and married. The classically trained and college-educated Lil played piano in some of the bands in which Louis worked, wrote songs for him, and for a time became his manager. And she eventually got him to break out of the bands of Oliver and Fletcher Henderson to carve his own path. In short, she convinced him he didn't need to play second fiddle - or, in this case, second cornet - to another bandleader. 

McKinnon, Kinsey
"Hot Miss Lil," as she was known at one point early in her career, may have been weaned on classical music but proclaimed, as artfully played by Marta McKinnon, "I was born to swing!"

This two-act play digs into the couple's creativity, passion and pain - as Louis embraces stardom. He loves Lil, the second of four wives, but also was an unrepentant womanizer. Michael Kinsey of Sarasota's Westcoast Black Theatre ensemble, revealed the many facets of Louis the man. He gets extra credit here - stepping into the role just five days before Lil & Louis opened on Tuesday, January 21.
Lyles, McKinnon

The three supporting cast members had multiple roles. Yvonne Lyles' roles included that of Lil's mother, Decie, and a reporter interviewing Louis about his career. Donovan Whitney took on a half-dozen different male characters who come and go - including Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver and Zutty Singleton. Andrea Coleman played Lil's young friend, Mae Brady, and, later, a dancer whose wiles caught Louis' attention.  
Kinsey, Coleman

Through the course of this two and one-half-hour production, we learn much about the early Armstrong, Lil's career before, during and after her marriage to Louis, and the times in which they made music. Civil rights, desegregation, mob influences on the nightclub scenes in Chicago, New York and elsewhere, all surface at various times. 

Lil's mother at one point asks if the pianist will go back to her maiden name after their divorce from Armstrong. "I paid for that name," she proclaims, "first with fame, then with pain." 
McKinnon, Kinsey

A bit later, she says: "I divorced him just for spite - and I sued his sorry ass for the rights to my songs." Louis had been credited as composer of several songs that Lil wrote - including the classic "Struttin' With Some Barbecue." That copyright issue took about a decade to straighten out.

Late in his career, crossing paths with Lil, the Louis in this play reflects that the two of them were quite a pair. "We were reaching for the stars." To which Lil retorts: "I was at the bottom of the ladder watching you climb."

Louis died in his sleep in July 1971. Lil died six weeks later, after collapsing while performing at an Armstrong tribute concert, held outdoors at Chicago's Civic Center Plaza.
The ensemble: Whitney, McKinnon, Coleman, Lyles, Kinsey
Trumpeter Randy Sandke assembled a seven-piece "Lil & Louis Jazz Band," which recorded the 40-plus brief musical numbers that set the tone throughout the play. He relied mostly on public domain early jazz material, but also contributed three original compositions. His vintage horn work was also exquisite. The other band members include saxophonist Peter BarenBregge, trombonist Herb Bruce, pianists Roy Gerson and Bob Page, banjo player Ken Salvo and tuba player Howie Smith.  

The play runs through Saturday, January 25 at First Presbyterian Church of Sarasota's Fellowship Hall. Find more details here.

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