Some of the most prominent figures in early jazz and the glory days of pop music make their bows in Richard M. Sudhalter's Stardust Melody: The Life and Music of Hoagy Carmichael and James L. Dickerson's Just for a Thrill: Lil Hardin Armstrong, First Lady of Jazz. Had Hoagy Carmichael (1899-1981) written no other song but Star Dust, his place in music history would be secure. But that tune, which dates back to 1926, was essentially just the beginning of his luminous career. Ahead lay such destined-to-be standards as Georgia on My Mind, Heart and Soul and In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening.Sudhalter, who is a jazz musician himself and a prodigious researcher, presents a sensitive, meticulously documented account of Carmichael's life as a composer, recording artist, actor and radio and television personality. Central to understanding Carmichael, Sudhalter asserts, is understanding his unwavering affection for his home state of Indiana. To Carmichael, Indiana symbolized the mythic rural home and simple life (both metaphors for youth) that he yearned for. He was born in Bloomington, spent most of his early years there and attended Indiana University. Although he studied law and was finally admitted to practice, it was always jazz that fascinated him. His bands played proms and fraternity parties throughout the region. During this period, he met and began performing with his major musical influence, the brilliant but doomed cornetist Bix Beiderbecke. A procession of gifted lyricists, including Frank Loesser and Johnny Mercer, wrote the words to Carmichael's melodies. But Sudhalter's research shows that Carmichael often came up with themes and key phrases and sometimes heavily edited the lyrics provided him. This goes a long way toward explaining why his songs have such a consistent voice and point of view. After Carmichael moved to Hollywood to write songs for the movies, he gradually began to act in them as well. His signature role was Cricket, "the laid-back, laconic, piano-playing sage," in the 1944 Bogart and Bacall classic To Have and Have Not. Later, he moved into television drama. His big disappointments, Sudhalter says, were that he never wrote a successful Broadway musical nor a long-form "serious" piece, even though he tried both. With the advent of rock n' roll in the mid-1950s, Carmichael's run as a popular songwriter came to an end. Just for a Thrill, Jim Dickerson's biography of Lil Hardin Armstrong, is built more on admiration than information. Except for her songs, documentary remnants of this second wife of Louis Armstrong are scarce. But this doesn't make Dickerson's assertion of her musical importance any less valid, and he has performed heroically in tracking down and interpreting the biographical tidbits that do remain.
Lillian Beatrice Hardin was born in Memphis in 1898. She studied piano there and enrolled briefly at Fisk University in Nashville before moving with her mother to Chicago in 1917. After taking a job demonstrating sheet music, she was invited to join a local band. From then on, she worked principally as a performer. Both she and Louis Armstrong were married to other people when they met. But in 1924, they tied the knot, and she became, in fact if not in name, his manager. She also wrote songs for him to record and played on many of his sessions. As Armstrong's career flowered, however, and his infidelities became more flagrant, the artistic commonality that once held them together slowly vaporized. They divorced in 1938.
Dickerson credits Lil with nagging Armstrong to become a headliner with his own band instead of playing the loyal sideman in someone else's group. Although he was a supreme trumpet player even as a young man, Dickerson says, Armstrong was too shy and reticent to assert himself. This was where Lil came in. To compensate for a paucity of autobiographical material, Dickerson contextualizes what he has, describing in great detail, for instance, the turn-of-the-century Memphis Lil grew up in. He also chronicles Armstrong's life. In her later years, Lil Hardin Armstrong saw such stars as Ray Charles, Nancy Wilson and Peggy Lee record her songs. She ran a restaurant, designed clothing (including stage costumes for her ex-husband) and taught music and French. On Aug. 27, 1971, just over a month after Louis Armstrong died, she performed at a concert in his memory. As she finished her opening selection, St. Louis Blues, she collapsed at the piano and died. She was rumored to have been working on her autobiography, but Dickerson says it has never surfaced. Edward Morris reviews from Nashville.