Lil Hardin Armstrong

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Lil Hardin Armstrong
Lil Armstrong Billboard.jpg
Background information
Birth name Lillian Hardin
Born February 3, 1898
Memphis, Tennessee, United States
Died August 27, 1971(1971-08-27) (aged 73)
Chicago, Illinois
Genres Jazz
Occupation(s) Musician, composer, bandleader
Instruments Piano, vocals
Associated acts

Lil Hardin Armstrong (February 3, 1898 – August 27, 1971) was a jazz pianist, composer, arranger, singer, and bandleader. She was the second wife of Louis Armstrong, with whom she collaborated on many recordings in the 1920s.[1]

Her compositions include "Struttin' with Some Barbecue", "Don't Jive Me", "Two Deuces", "Knee Drops", "Doin' the Suzie-Q", "Just for a Thrill" (which became a major hit when revived by Ray Charles in 1959), "Clip Joint", and "Bad Boy" (a minor hit for Ringo Starr in 1978). Armstrong was inducted into the Memphis Music Hall of Fame in 2014.


She was born Lillian Hardin in Memphis, Tennessee, where she grew up in a household with her grandmother, Priscilla Martin, a former slave from near Oxford, Mississippi.[2] Martin had a son and three daughters, one of whom was Dempsey, Lil's mother. Priscilla Martin relocated her family to Memphis in order to get away from her husband, a trek the family made via mule-drawn wagon. Dempsey married Will Harden, and Lil was born on February 3, 1898. Will died when Lil was seven, though Dempsey later remarried.[3]

During her early years, Hardin was taught hymns, spirituals, and European classical music on the piano. She was drawn to popular music and later blues.

Early education and mentors[edit]

Hardin first received piano instruction from her third-grade teacher, Violet White. Her mother then enrolled her in Mrs. Hook's School of Music. It was at Fisk University, a college for African Americans located in downtown Nashville, that Hardin was taught a more acceptable approach to the instrument. She received a diploma from Fisk, returning to Memphis in 1917.[4] In August 1918, she moved to Chicago with her mother and stepfather. By then, she had become proficient in reading music, a skill that landed her a job as a sheet music demonstrator at Jones Music Store.[5]

The store had been paying Hardin $3 a week (US$49 in 2017 dollars[6]), but bandleader Lawrence Duhé offered $22.50 (US$366 in 2017 dollars[6]). Knowing that her mother would not approve of her working in a cabaret, she made it known that her new job was playing for a dancing school. Three weeks later, the band moved on to a better booking at the De Luxe Café, where the entertainers included Florence Mills and Cora Green. From there, the band moved up to the jewel of Chicago's nightlife, the Dreamland. Here the principal entertainers were Alberta Hunter and Ollie Powers, and there was no finer nightspot in Chicago. When King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band replaced Duhé's group at the Dreamland, Oliver asked Hardin to stay with him. [7]She was with Oliver at the Dreamland in 1921, when an offer came for the orchestra to play a six-month engagement at San Francisco's Pergola Ballroom. At the end of that booking, Hardin returned to Chicago, while the rest of the Oliver band went to Los Angeles. She later studied at the New York College of Music, where she earned a postdoctorate degree in 1929.[8]

Marriages and divorces[edit]

In Chicago, Hardin went back to work at the Dreamland, as pianist in an orchestra for Mae Brady, a violinist and vaudeville stalwart. While there, she fell for Jimmie Johnson, a young singer from Washington, D.C., whom she married on August 22, 1922. The marriage was short-lived, ending in divorce. In the meantime, the Oliver band returned from California and opened at the Royal Gardens, with Bertha Gonzales at the piano, but soon found itself back at the Dreamland, with Hardin at the piano.

King Oliver's band was enjoying enormous success at the Dreamland when he sent for Louis Armstrong to join as second cornetist. Armstrong was beginning to make a name for himself in their hometown, New Orleans, and regarded Oliver ("Papa Joe") as his mentor. Some say[who?] that Oliver saw Louis as a threat to his jazz throne and decided that having him in his band was a good form of containment, but by all accounts both cornetists enjoyed working together. At first, Hardin was unimpressed with Louis, who arrived in Chicago wearing clothes and a hair style that she deemed to be "too country" for Chicago, but she worked to "take the country out of him", and a romance developed (to the surprise of other band members, some of whom had been trying to woo her for some time with no success). She already had divorce experience and helped Armstrong get a divorce from his first wife, Daisy, from whom he had separated back in New Orleans. Hardin and Armstrong were married on February 4, 1924.

Hardin took Armstrong shopping and taught him how to dress more fashionably. She also got rid of his bangs, and she began working to foster his career. Recognizing his extraordinary talent, she felt that he was wasting it in a secondary role. Armstrong was happy to be playing next to his idol, but Hardin eventually persuaded him to leave Oliver and go out on his own. Armstrong eventually resigned from Oliver's band and, in September 1924, accepted a job with Fletcher Henderson in New York City. Hardin stayed in Chicago, first with Oliver, then leading a band of her own. When Hardin's band got a job at the Dreamland Café in Chicago, the following year, she prepared for Armstrong's return to Chicago by having a huge banner made to advertise him as "The World's Greatest Trumpet Player".[5]

Armstrong was gaining an impressive reputation when Richard M. Jones convinced Okeh Records to make a series of sessions under his name: the classic Armstrong "Hot Five" recordings. With Hardin at the piano, Kid Ory on trombone, Johnny Dodds on clarinet, and Johnny St. Cyr on banjo, this stellar group rehearsed at Armstrong and Hardin's residence on Chicago's East 41st Street and held its first session on November 15, 1925. Few recordings are as celebrated as the ones made by the Hot Five (and, sometimes, with Earl Hines replacing Hardin, the "Hot Seven") between then and the end of 1928. Hardin had actually recorded five selections for Vocalion, leading the same group, in April and May 1926. She also recorded a session for Columbia Records as the New Orleans Wanderers.[citation needed]

In the late 1920s Hardin and Armstrong grew apart. He formed a new Hot Five, with Earl Hines on piano. Hardin reformed her own band with Freddie Keppard on cornet (whom she considered second only to Armstrong). Hardin and Armstrong separated in 1931, when he had begun a liaison with Alpha Smith, who threatened to sue Armstrong for breach of promise, so he begged Hardin not to grant him a divorce.

Later years[edit]

In the 1930s, sometimes billing herself as "Mrs. Louis Armstrong", Hardin led an "All Girl Orchestra", then a mixed-sex big band which broadcast nationally over the NBC radio network. In the same decade she recorded a series of sides for Decca Records as a swing vocalist and performed as piano accompanist for many other singers. She also performed with Red Allen.[9]

Solo work[edit]

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Hardin worked mostly as a soloist singing and playing piano. In the late 1940s, she decided to leave the music business and become a tailor, so she took a course in tailoring. Her graduation project was to make a tuxedo for Louis. It was displayed prominently at a New York cocktail party she threw to announce her new field of endeavor. "They looked at Louis' tux and all the other things I had made and they were very impressed", she recalled, "but then someone asked me to play the piano. That's when I knew that I would never be able to leave the music business." Armstrong wore Hardin's tuxedo, and she continued to tailor, but only as a sideline and then only for friends. Her shirts, which friends received regularly on birthdays, proudly bore a label with her mother's name, "Decie", and beneath that, "Hand made by Lil Armstrong."

Hardin eventually returned to Chicago and the house on East 41st Street. She also made a trip to Europe and had a brief love affair in France, but mostly she worked around Chicago, often with fellow Chicagoans. Collaborators included Red Saunders, Joe Williams, Oscar Brown, Jr., and Little Brother Montgomery.

In the 1950s, Hardin recorded a biographical narrative for Riverside's Bill Grauer, which was issued in LP form. She would again appear on that label in 1961, participating in its project Chicago: The Living Legends as accompanist for Alberta Hunter and leader of her own hastily assembled big band. The Riverside recordings led to her inclusion in a star-studded 1961 NBC network special, "Chicago and All That Jazz", and a follow-up album released by Verve Records. In 1962, Hardin began writing her autobiography, in collaboration with Chris Albertson, but she had second thoughts when she realized that such a book could not be written without including personal experiences that might discomfit Louis Armstrong, so the project was shelved until his death. She died before she was able to finish the book.[10]


When Armstrong died, in 1971, Hardin was deeply shaken by the loss. She traveled to New York for the funeral and rode in the family car. Returning to Chicago, Hardin felt that work on her autobiography could now continue, but the following month, performing at a televised memorial concert for Armstrong, she collapsed at the piano and died on the way to the hospital from a heart attack. In the aftermath of her funeral, her letters and the unfinished manuscript of her autobiography disappeared from her house.[11]

In 2004, the Chicago Park District renamed a community park in her honor.[12]


Armstrong's composition "Oriental Swing" was sampled by electro swing musician Parov Stelar to create the 2012 song "Booty Swing". The song in turn gained notoriety when it was used in a 2013 Chevrolet commercial.[13][14]


  1. ^ Cook, Richard (2005). Richard Cook's Jazz Encyclopedia. London: Penguin Books. pp. 17–18. ISBN 0-141-00646-3. 
  2. ^ Dickerson, James L. (2002). Just for a Thrill: Lil Hardin Armstrong, First Lady of Jazz. Cooper Square Press. p. 4.
  3. ^ Laurence Bergreen (1997). "Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life". New York: Broadway Books. pp. 178–179. 
  4. ^ Dickerson, James L. (2005). Go, Girl, Go! The Women's Revolution in Music. Schirmer Trade Books. p. 3.
  5. ^ a b Terkel, Studs (2005). "Lil Armstrong" (interview). In And They All Sang.
  6. ^ a b Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis Community Development Project. "Consumer Price Index (estimate) 1800–". Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. Retrieved January 2, 2018. 
  7. ^ Uterbrink, Mary (1983). Woman at the Keyboard. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company. p. 24. 
  8. ^ Stanton, Scott (2003). The Tombstone Tourist: Musicians. Simon & Schuster. p. 13. 
  9. ^ Chilton, John (2000) [1999]. Ride, Red, ride : the life of Henry "Red" Allen. London: Continuum. p. 171. ISBN 9780826447449. OCLC 741691083. 
  10. ^ Just for a Thrill, pp. 208–209.
  11. ^ Just for a Thrill, p. 219.
  12. ^ "Armstrong Park". Chicago Park District. Retrieved 16 October 2015. 
  13. ^ Bowling, Clarke. "General Motors Apologizes After Chevrolet Ad Includes Chinese, Japanese Racist Stereotypes". New York Daily News, Wednesday, May 1, 2013.
  14. ^ Abad-Santos, Alexander. "GM Is Editing a 'Chop Suey' Car Ad Based on How Much It's Offending You". The Atlantic Wire, May 1, 2013. Archived May 9, 2013, at the Wayback Machine.

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