This is the true story of Lil Hardin Armstrong: pianist, composer, and bandleader in the early days of jazz. Ahead of her time, Lil made a career for herself--and for Louis Armstrong, her modest, unassuming husband. Louis might never have become the groundbreaking jazz player he was, if it hadn't been for Lil. Scat-inspired verse celebrates how Lil overcame race and gender barriers to become the first lady of the Chicago jazz scene.
♦ Lil Hardin, dubbed "the first lady of jazz," gets a loving ode in this biography in free verse. Raised by "Mama and Grandma / in Memphis, Tennessee, / two blocks from / wild, wailin' Beale Street," Lil was a precocious musician from childhood. But the night life of Beale Street with its "devil's music" pulled her away from the proper, ladylike college life her mother wanted for her. She got a job at a music store and then won a place in an all-male band, an exceptional feat at the time. She met Louis Armstrong, a shy trumpet player, when they played in the same band. She told him he couldn't stay playing second trumpet and was behind much of his success. "Dang, they were musical royalty— / inventing / a new kind of sound— / makin' / jazz." As she earlier demonstrated in Josephine (illustrated by Christian Robinson, 2014), Powell is a die-hard fan of jazz, and it shows in the hum of her lines. She writes in her introduction that she hopes this biography inspires readers "to explore early jazz—and makes you want to get up and dance." On both counts, her writing succeeds. Himes' ink-and-graphite illustrations are inspired by the time period and add to the immersive feel of the work. Brimming with a contagious love of jazz and its first lady, this work brings down the house. (notes, timeline, glossary, resources, sources, index) —Kirkus Reviews, STARRED review
Powell introduces readers to the young Black woman who broke barriers as a pianist with King Oliver’s jazz band and established a solid career years before her name became associated with her husband, trumpeter Louis Armstrong. Four chapters in verse chronicle Lil’s life, detailing her childhood in Memphis and the tension between Lil and her very godly mother over playing “the devil’s music,” her career move out of a music store and into the spotlight of the Creole Jazz Band, and her management of Louis Armstrong’s nascent career—and heartstrings—even as her own career advanced and evolved. Kids who were charmed by Powell’s Josephine may be a bit disappointed with the stodgier graphite pencil illustrations in this title, but Lil Hardin Armstrong’s story is both inspirational and great fun, and it’s hard to resist the tale of teeny-tiny Lil ordering her famous husband back to Chicago: “‘Come now or don’t come at all.’/ That did it./ Louis chose Lil.” This could be an easy step up from Mara Rockliff’s picture book bio Born to Swing; a glossary, quotation sources, index, and resources for further investigation are also included. —BCCB
POWELL, Patricia Hruby. Struttin’ with Some Barbecue: Lil Harden Armstrong Becomes the First Lady of Jazz. illus. by Rachel Himes. 96p. bibliog. chron. glossary. notes. Charlesbridge. Dec. 2018. Tr $18.99. ISBN 9781580897402.
Gr 3-6–This biography in verse tells the story of Lil Hardin Armstrong, the first lady of jazz and Louis Armstrong’s first wife. While the book starts with Hardin Armstrong’s birth, most of the text focuses on her time as a jazz pianist in the 1920s and her influential role in Louis Armstrong’s success. The poetry is free form and peppered with bits of scat as an ode to early jazz, and it works well as a vehicle to tell the story of such a strong figure in this movement. Hardin Armstrong’s life is compelling, and readers will be inspired by her perseverance and rise to success in a male-dominated field and in the face of segregation. However, details about her life are less realized than in a typical biography partly because of the book’s lyrical format. Thankfully Powell includes a variety of back matter including more information on Hardin Armstrong, jazz music, and the rise of jazz clubs in the 1920s. The charming illustrations nicely enhance the text. VERDICT Recommended for most libraries, especially where biographies circulate well.–Ellen Conlin, Naperville Public Library, IL