♦ 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
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.
—School Library Journal