Patricia Hruby Powell
Rachel Himes, Illustrator
Charlesbridge, 2018 96 pages
Narrative poetry relates the life of one of the forerunners of jazz, Lil Hardin Armstrong. Though not as well-known as her famous husband, Louie Armstrong, Lil was instrumental in building his career and had an impressive career in her own right. At a time when most female jazz musicians were regulated to singing only, Lil made her mark as a ground-breaking jazz pianist. Powell traces Armstrong's life in four parts from her southern birth, to her migration with her mother to Chicago, to discovering and performing jazz and meeting the great Louis Armstrong. The two fall in love and she encourages him to go from second trumpet to the front, eventually forming his own band. Though the couple has great professional success, we see the segregation and discrimination of the time, as well as tension within their relationship and eventual divorce. Not just the story of is mportant couple in music history, but that of early jazz, encouraging readers to want to learn more and listen to some of the recordings.
Much as she did with her previous books Loving vs. Virginia and Josephine: the Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker, Powell offers a biography of the jazz pioneer written in narrative poetry. The print is large and the book is short enough that emerging readers may want to give this story a shot, yet the subject matter also lends itself to an older audience. Himes’ illustrations will further drawn in readers and shed light onto the narrative. Powell's poems not only tell a story, but are rhythmic and reflective of the jazz music it describes. Scat phrases and lingo from early jazz culture pepper the text, putting the story into its proper connotation. An author's note and photo of Lil draw in the reader and extensive back matter, including a brief biography of Lil and a brief history of jazz and its social culture, as well as a timeline, glossary, bibliography, resources, and an index round out the volume. Powell certainly did her research and her knowledge and love of jazz comes through in the narrative. This is a well written, researched, and documented story for young people about a little known American music pioneer that will be a natural fit for both school and personal use. I dare you to try to read this book without going to YouTube to hear her music. A little gem of a book that may need some help to find its audience, but is well worth the effort.