The new play shines a light on the jazz legacy of Lil Hardin Armstrong and her rocky relationship with Louis Armstrong.
The history of jazz is filled with legends. Two were married to each other — Louis Armstrong and Lil Hardin Armstrong. Both helped bring jazz into the world. Louis’ legacy is well known. But, outside a small circle of music aficionados, few know about Lil. Playwright Jo Morello wants to change that. Her latest play, “Lil & Louis,” puts a spotlight on Lil’s largely forgotten contributions. It premieres in two workshop productions — staged readings with music — at the Sarasota Jazz Festival. After both shows sold out, Morello promptly added a third. (At this writing, some tickets remain.) The playwright was happy to share her passion for the other Armstrong.
When did you first get the idea for this play?
In March 2017, at the Sarasota Jazz Festival celebrating Dick Hyman’s 90th birthday. As the festival’s PR director I’m always promoting female instrumentalists, and I’d been thinking of doing a play about three female jazz legends — one was Lil. Then her name came up at the festival with Dick and the Jim Cullum Jazz Band, who had done NPR tributes to her.
Does your play fit neatly in any genre?
I’m calling it “a unique love story.” It’s also a Chicago story, a music story and a jazz story. Above all, it’s a play with music. We have nearly 40 songs, but never more than a few bars. We picked music to fit the story.
Did you run into any rights problems?
Let’s call them “challenges.” Just for two recordings. Everything else is in the public domain.
What’s the basic narrative thread?
Well, it’s a pretty big thread. (laughs) Pianist Lil was known as “The Hot Miss Lil” in Chicago — she performed all over town with the best bands, and the men all tried to date her. When Louis showed up from New Orleans in overalls, Lil considered him a chubby country bumpkin. But they developed a friendship, which blossomed into a marriage, and Lil also helped launch Louis’ career. Their marriage lasted 14 years. Two were somewhat conventional; she called the other 12 “tormented.” In 1938, Lil finally divorced Louis, tired of his countless mistresses. She also sued for the rights to songs she’d written. Louis was listed as sole composer and getting the royalties. They didn’t speak for years. But after they finally settled the lawsuit, they stayed close until Louis’ death. He had two more wives, but Lil never removed her wedding ring. She continued to call herself “Lil Armstrong.” When Louis died in 1971, his fourth wife, Lucille, invited Lil to ride to the funeral in the family car. Lucille said if she didn’t, Louis would find a way to get back at her from beyond the grave.
That’s a lot of story.
Yes, but we’ve packed it into a little over two hours, including the songs. So many people have been passionate about “Lil & Louis.” I had a non-traditional vision for the play and found a director, the wonderful Chuck Smith, who shares that vision. So does our music adviser, NEA Jazz Master Dick Hyman, and my husband, Jack Gilhooley, the dramaturg. The people at Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, the play’s artistic home, have been so supportive: Nate Jacobs, Julie Leach, Co-Director Travis Ray, choreographer Donald Frison, and their talented troupe of actors. We also have Don Walker, our “white guy.”
Who’s your core cast?
Jai Shanae plays Lil and Brian Boyd plays Louis. Audiences will see that we cast for talent, not physical resemblance.
Do they also play their instruments?
No. Randy Sandke performs Louis’ trumpet parts; Mike Moran plays piano for Lil’s pieces. Mike Treni plays trombone for a few songs. (Their music is pre-recorded, so you won’t see them on stage.) They’re all amazing musicians.
What’s been your favorite part of writing this play?
Telling an amazing story and restoring Lil to her place in history.
What’s been the hardest part?
Funding. Last year, Florida’s Division of Cultural Affairs recommended the play for a $25,000 matching grant for a staged reading, but the Legislature zeroed funding. I could either abandon the play, or stage it and hope for funding. I chose to do the latter. Then I wrote a proposal for a full production. When the DCA recommended it for funding, we were slated to run next January, but now there’s no appropriation in the state’s budget. We need angels! We’re hoping some Sarasota jazz-lovers will help close the gap.