DECATUR — At a time when women were finding their way in society outside traditional norms, Lil Hardin Armstrong was making a name for herself as a jazz musician alongside her husband, the great Louis Armstrong. Together, they made beautiful music, and Champaign author Patricia Hruby Powell showcased the sounds of the era and inspiring story during a visit to Millikin University on Thursday.
Tonya Hines attended a book signing in Champaign recently and met Powell and immediately thought she'd be a good addition to Millikin's Women's History Month activities.
“I've been trying to get students engaged in learning about music from the (19)30s and trying to just make Women's History Month really impactful for the students,” said Hines, assistant director of inclusion and student engagement for Millikin.
Powell, who is also a dancer and lithographer, writes books that appeal to third-grade through young adult readers, and the book she spoke about at Millikin on Thursday was “Struttin' With Some Barbecue: Lil Hardin Armstrong Becomes the First Lady of Jazz.”
Armstrong was married to Louis Armstrong and was a featured musician in early traditional jazz combos in a time when women might sing with a band, but they never played an instrument alongside men, Powell said.
Lil Hardin's grandmother had been a slave, and Lil was interested in music from a young age, but her mother and grandmother wanted to raise her to be “a lady,” Powell said, and jazz was considered sinful music.
A move to Chicago from Memphis when Lil was young, in an effort to remove her from the influence, didn't work. Lil's interest in jazz and in playing the piano led her to work in a music store and later to start playing in jazz bands. That's when she met Louis Armstrong, nicknamed “Dipper Lips” because of the shape of his mouth, which reminded the other band members of a water dipper.
The two wrote songs together and eventually married, and thanks to Lil, Powell said, and her belief in Armstrong's talent, he became famous. He was making a name for himself in New York City while Lil stayed in Chicago, and she enticed him back with the promise of good gigs and recordings.
The Louis Armstrong Hot Five band was born, with Lil on piano. In the earliest days of the recording industry, they found that recording was a lucrative way to get their original songs heard — and get the credit for playing them, which wasn't always the case when musicians played in small clubs.
On Thursday, Powell was accompanied by The Traditional Jazz Orchestra out of Champaign, made up of clarinet, trumpet, trombone, banjo and stand-up bass, the configuration most often used in those early jazz groups. The band played several selections that would have been familiar to those early musicians, including the one Powell's book is named for. She said that song was credited to Lil Hardin Armstrong, but most music historians believe she co-wrote it with Louis Armstrong, as the two often wrote together.
The author has written extensively about influential black women, and she said in some cases, editors asked her to omit things, such as when she wrote about Josephine Baker, whose life included several marriages. Baker was also a World War II spy, and some of the source material was not what children want to read about, Powell said.
“You have certain guidelines about what's appropriate,” Powell said. “I don't write for the very young. If you're writing for the very young, you want to address the psychological development of the child with subject you're working with. My books are picture books and middle grade books and young adult books.”
One point she addressed is that she is a white woman often writing about black women, and there is a growing feeling that people should write only about their own experiences and culture, she said.
“There's a certain value in that,” she said, but added that her parents provided an example of social justice activism that she has followed in her own life, and because she feels strongly about the contribution of people like Baker and the Armstrongs, she can't help but write about them.
Student Jonathan Williams is majoring in commercial music and said he attended to broaden his knowledge.
“I grew up in the church, and I've heard every kind of music you can think of,” Williams said. “It all ties together and we all speak the same language of music. There's a connection.
"There's a truth that's hidden in music and I strongly believe that growing up and branching out can be another piece of the puzzle.”