Biography of Lil Hardin Armstrong, Early Jazz Instrumentalist

Lil Hardin Armstrong

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Lil Hardin Armstrong (February 3, 1898–August 27, 1971) was a jazz pianist, the first major female jazz instrumentalist, who played with the King Oliver Creole Jazz Band and Louis Armstrong's Hot Five and Hot Seven bands. She also wrote or co-wrote many jazz songs and fronted several of her own bands in the 1920s and 1930s.

Fast Facts: Lil Hardin Armstrong

  • Known For: First major woman jazz instrumentalist, pianist, and songwriter married to Louis Armstrong
  • Born: February 3, 1898 in Memphis, Tennessee
  • Parents: Dempsey Martin Hardin and William Hardin
  • Died: August 27, 1971 in Chicago, Illinois
  • Education: Fisk Preparatory School in Nashville (1917), Chicago College of Music (BA, 1928), New York School of Music (post-grad, 1930)
  • Credited Songs: "I'm Gonna Gitcha," "Hotter than That," "Knee Drops" 
  • Spouse(s): Jimmy Johnson (m. 1920–1924), Louis Armstrong (m. 1924–1938)
  • Children: None

Early Life

Lil Hardin Armstrong was born Lillian Beatrice Hardin, in Memphis, Tennessee, on February 3, 1898, to Dempsey Martin Hardin and William Hardin. Dempsey was one of 13 children of a woman born into slavery; but she only had two children, one who died at birth, and Lillian. Her parents separated when Hardin was quite young and she lived in a boarding house with her mother, who cooked for a white family.

She studied piano and organ and played in church from a young age. Growing up, she lived near Beale Street and was early attracted to the blues, but her mother opposed such music. Her mother used her savings to send her daughter to Nashville to study at the preparatory school at Fisk University for a year (1915–1916) for classical music training and a "good" environment. To keep her from the local music scene when she returned in 1917, her mother moved to Chicago and took Lil with her.

Jazz and Jelly Roll

In Chicago, Lil Hardin took a job on South State Street demonstrating music at Jones' Music Store. There, she met and learned from Jelly Roll Morton, who played ragtime music on the piano. Hardin began finding jobs playing with bands while continuing to work in the store, which afforded her the luxury of access to sheet music.

She became known as "Hot Miss Lil." Her mother decided to accept her new career, though she reportedly picked up her daughter promptly after performances to protect her from the "evils" of the music world. In 1918, she achieved some recognition as house pianist working with Lawrence Duhé and the New Orleans Creole Jazz Band, and in 1920, when King Oliver took it over and renamed it the King Oliver Creole Jazz Band, Lil Hardin stayed around as it gained popularity.

Sometime between 1918 and 1920, she married singer Jimmy Johnson. Traveling with King Oliver's band strained the marriage, and so she left the band to return to Chicago and the marriage. When the King Oliver Creole Jazz Band also returned to its Chicago base, Lil Hardin was invited to rejoin the band. Also invited to join the band, in 1922: a young cornet player named Louis Armstrong.

Louis Armstrong

Though Louis Armstrong and Lil Hardin became friends, she was still married to Jimmy Johnson. Hardin was unimpressed with Armstrong at first, but when she divorced Johnson, she helped Louis Armstrong divorce his first wife Daisy and they began dating. After two years, they married in 1924. She helped him learn to dress more appropriately for big-city audiences and convinced him to change his hairstyle into one that would be more attractive.

Because King Oliver played lead cornet in the band, Louis Armstrong played second and so Lil Hardin Armstrong began to advocate for her new husband to move on. In 1924, she persuaded him to move to New York and join Fletcher Henderson. Lil Hardin Armstrong didn't find work herself in New York, and so she returned to Chicago, where she put together a band at the Dreamland to feature Louis' playing. He also returned to Chicago.

In 1925, Louis Armstrong recorded with the Hot Fives orchestra, followed by another the next year. Lil Hardin Armstrong played piano for all the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens recordings. The piano at that time in jazz was primarily a percussion instrument, establishing beat and playing chords so that other instruments could play more creatively; Lil Hardin Armstrong excelled at this style.

Louis Armstrong was often unfaithful and Lil Hardin Armstrong was often jealous, but they continued to record together even as their marriage was strained and they often spent time apart. She served as his manager as he continued to become more famous. Lil Hardin Armstrong returned to her study of music, obtaining a teaching diploma from the Chicago College of Music in 1928, and she bought a large home in Chicago and a lakeside cottage retreat—perhaps meant to entice Louis to spend some time with her instead of his other women.

Lil Hardin Armstrong's Bands

Lil Hardin Armstrong formed several bands—some all-female, some all-male—in Chicago and in Buffalo, New York. She went back to school again and earned a post-graduate degree at the New York College of Music, and then returned once more to Chicago and tried her luck as a singer and songwriter.

In 1938 she divorced Louis Armstrong, winning a financial settlement and keeping her properties, as well as gaining rights to the songs that they had co-composed. How much of the composition of those songs was actually Lil Armstrong's and how much Louis Armstrong contributed remains a matter of dispute.

Legacy and Death

Lil Hardin Armstrong turned away from music and began working as a clothing designer (Louis was a customer), a restaurant owner, and then music and French teacher. In the 1950s and 1960s, she occasionally performed and recorded.

On July 6, 1971, Louis Armstrong died. Seven weeks later on August 27, Lil Hardin Armstrong was playing at a memorial concert for her ex-husband when she suffered a massive coronary and died.

While Lil Hardin Armstrong's career was nowhere near as successful as her husband's, she was the first major woman jazz instrumentalist whose career had any significant duration.

Sources

  • Dickerson, James L. "Just for a Thrill: Lil Hardin Armstrong, First Lady of Jazz." New York; Cooper Square Press, 2002.
  • "Louis Armstrong's 2d Wife, Lil Hardin, Dies at a Tribute." The New York Times, August 27, 1971. 
  • Sohmer, Jack. "Lil Armstrong." Harlem Renaissance: Lives from the African American National Biography. Eds. Gates Jr., Henry Louis and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2009. 15–17.