If Lil Hardin Armstrong’s name comes up today, it’s almost always because of the part of her name that belonged to her husband, Louis. In the jazz circles of the 1920s, women – especially black women – were relegated to singing or dancing in the chorus line; but Lil’ Hardin had a serious career as a respected jazz composer, pianist and bandleader long before her marriage to Louis Armstrong in 1924.
Working in a scene dominated by men, Lil Hardin was one of the most sought-after jazz pianists on the South Side of Chicago in the early 20s. Lil was a major contributor to Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings. She played piano, sang occasionally, and composed several major tunes, including “Struttin’ with Some Barbecue” and “My Heart.”
Night after night Louis Armstrong was in the spotlight, swept along on the tide of his enormous talent; Lil Hardin on the other hand always had her feet firmly on the ground, thinking about the next best move. She said she often imagined herself standing out of sight, at the bottom of a ladder, holding it steady for Louis as he rose to stardom.
Though their marriage ended in 1931 they remained friends to the end. Their partnership reflected forever in the body of work they created together.
PIONEER PROFILE | LIL HARDIN ARMSTRONG
Born Lillian Hardin in Memphis, Tennessee; Lil’ grew up in a household with her grandmother, Priscilla Martin, a former slave. Martin had a son and three daughters, one of whom, Dempsey, was Lil’s mother. Priscilla Martin moved her family to Memphis to get away from her husband, a trek the family made by mule-drawn wagon. Dempsey married Will Harden, and Lil was born on February 3, 1898. Unfortunately, Lil’s father passed away when Lil was only seven.
Before Lil’ Hardin was ever introduced to jazz or blues, Hardin had already been taught to play hymns, spirituals, and classical music on the piano. Fortunately for Hardin, her upbringing was somewhat different to the life of poverty that Louis Armstrong knew as a child. Lil’s mother, who worked as a maid, was able to provide her kids a comfortable and somewhat refined life in comparison. She made sure that her daughter attended Mrs. Hicks’ School of Music and the prestigious Fisk University. Whilst the hymns and popular songs were actively promoted, anything to do with jazz and blues were equally discouraged.
Despite her best efforts, when Lil’s mother moved her family to Chicago in 1918 she had unintentionally moved her daughter into the epicentre of the burgeoning jazz universe. It wasn’t long before Lil found a job at a local music store where she met piano giant Jelly Roll Morton and Chicago’s top jazz bandleader, King Oliver.
Lil worked with prominent black bands in Chicago; she performed with Sugar Johnny’s Creole Orchestra, Freddie Keppard’s Band and even led her own band at Chicago’s prominent music venue of the time, the Dreamland Café. Lil’ Hardin also could be found taking groups through their paces for recording sessions, including the New Orleans Wanderers, with whom she recorded her 1926 tune “Papa Dip” —a number she named after Louis Armstrong.
If you look at any of the few known photographs taken of Lil during her stint with King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band in the early 1920s, you’ll see a petite, lady-like figure, usually sat delicately on a piano bench. In contrast, you’ll also notice the masculine, tuxedoed male musicians that make up the rest of Oliver’s group. Not only was her physical appearance noticeably different, but being a classically trained musician who had studied at Fisk University her social standing was too.
Despite these difference, Lil surprised her band-mates with her obvious talents as a musician and composer. Playing every night on the South Side of Chicago, King Oliver’s band drew standing room only crowds, including white musicians from the North Side like cornetist Bix Beiderbecke and tunesmith Hoagy Carmichael. Lil says, “They would listen so intently, and I didn’t know what they were trying to listen to. Now I know.”
As covered in the first instalment Lil and Louis’ married in 1923, by but the beginning of the next decade, both their marriage and musical partnership had come to an end. Louis was on the road almost every night of the year, which took a toll on their relationship. According to Lil, Louis had changed his outlook on life and complained that she had become too old fashioned. The next stop for Louis was back home to New Orleans, where headlines in the local paper now labelled him as a ‘hometown hero’. Lil also returned home and made her way back to Chicago. After a lengthy separation they officially divorced in 1938.
Lil continued to have a rich career in music and appeared in several Broadway shows as well as a series of vocal sides for Decca records. In the late 1960s Lil stepped away from the music business and moved back to the home she and Louis bought in the early years of their marriage in the lake resort town of Idlewild, Michigan. In July 1971, her friend and ex-husband Louis Armstrong died. In August, only one month later, Lil was performing at a memorial concert for Louis in Chicago, when she collapsed and died on stage. Some 50 years on from when they first changed the world together, jazz’s biggest love story finally came to an end.
Thanks for checkin’ in once again! We hope you enjoyed learning about the lives of jazz’s greatest couple. Next up we list some of the other great female figures in the history of the artform.