How often do you get to hear the story of the woman behind the man? That’s a major part of the story Sarasota playwright Jo Morello tells with her new play with music, Lil & Louis, relating the true tale of jazz pioneers Lil Hardin Armstrong and Louis Armstrong. It’s onstage for six performances Jan. 21-25 at the First Presbyterian Church.
Anyone familiar with the history of 20th-century music knows of Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong, the cornet master whose growly vocals also made him memorable. But fewer are acquainted with “the Hot Miss Lil,” a pianist and the only woman in the acclaimed King Oliver Creole Jazz Band back in the Roaring ’20s in Chicago. Barely 20 years old, she was already a star when Louis came to town, and at first she was unimpressed with the country bumpkin he was then, says Morello. But over time she helped him to forge his career, as well as becoming his second wife. Despite divorce and his move up the musical ladder, however, they remained close until his death.
Morello first became interested in Lil’s story a few years ago, when musician Dick Hyman mentioned her name and played several of Hardin’s songs with a jazz band here. (Hardin’s compositions include the oft-recorded “Struttin’ with Some Barbecue,” “Just for a Thrill,” later recorded by Ray Charles, and “Bad Boy,” which Ringo Starr recorded years later.) When Morello began research into Lil’s life, she found the perfect entry point into her play in the moment Lil played piano at a memorial for Louis in 1971. Ultimately, Lil & Louis would come to touch on 50 years of history and include such well-known songs as “When the Saints Go Marching In” and “After You’ve Gone.”
But the path to production has not been an easy one. Chuck Smith, a Chicagoan and a frequent Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe director, worked with Morello and WBTT (where it was presented in a workshop production last year) from its early stages to help form the show, but illness prevented him from directing this run. Luckily, another WBTT contributor, choreographer Harry Bryce, was able to step in to take on the task.
A Chicago actor, Joe Plummer, was also found to play Louis. But most of the actors, including sometime WBTT actress Marta McKinnon as the feisty Lil, Yvonne Lyles as Lil’s mother, St. Petersburg resident Donovan Whitney as Jelly Roll Morton and others, Michael Kinsey as “King” Oliver and others, and Andrea Coleman as Lil’s friend Mae Brady and others, have a local connection.
Along with director Bryce, NEA Jazz Master Hyman has provided musical advice, and trumpeter Randy Sandke assembled the band of musicians that recorded songs for the play.
“Lil was an amazing, seminal figure,” says Morello. “She was a black woman in a white world, and the only woman in male jazz bands. But she’s largely unknown, and this bugs me. She deserves her place in history.”
Tickets to Lil & Louis are available online at lilandlouis.com.