Hardin Armstrong, Lil 1898–1971
Lil Hardin Armstrong 1898–1971
Lil Hardin Armstrong was a pianist, composer, singer, and band leader who helped introduce America to jazz music. She was married to Louis Armstrong, the famous jazz trumpet player, and she was largely responsible for his successful career. She not only wrote songs and performed with her husband, but she also managed his career and helped make him an international star. Aside from promoting her husband’s musical career, Armstrong was a renowned musician in her own right. She established a reputation as “Hot Miss Lil,” one of the few female band ensemble members of her time. Armstrong played on many of the first jazz recordings ever made and she wrote many of the early songs of the jazz era.
Lil Armstrong was born Lillian Beatrice Hardin on February 3, 1898. Her grandmother, Priscilla Thompson, was born into slavery in 1850 in Lafayette County near Oxford, Mississippi. Thompson married Taylor Martin in 1870 and the couple had 13 children together, seven of whom had died by 1900. One of these children, a daughter named Dempsey, married William Hardin in Memphis. This couple had two children together, although the first child died soon after birth. The second, and thereafter only, child was Lillian, affectionately known as Lil.
Dempsey and William Hardin separated when Armstrong was very young. As a young child Armstrong lived with her mother in a boarding house in Memphis. Dempsey worked as a cook for a white family. They lived a few blocks from Beale Street, a bustling nightlife area for blacks where much of blues and jazz music was beginning to take shape. Dempsey Hardin, however, was interested in exposing her young daughter only to religious music.
Armstrong began playing the organ at a young age and she began taking music lessons from her schoolteacher at age six. By the time she was nine years old, she played the organ for Sunday school at Lebanon Baptist Church. At the age of 16, Armstrong won a music contest at her music school. It was this contest that made her realize she had a future in music.
Dempsey Hardin was concerned that her daughter’s passion for music would lead her to the infamous Beale Street, which was notorious not only for the music life, but also for drugs, violence, and prostitution. Hardin was determined to provide a better future for Armstrong so she sent her to Fisk University in Nashville. The school was founded in 1865 with the intent to provide African Americans with a solid Christian education. Hardin drew upon her life savings to pay $36.50 per semester for tuition, room, and board. Armstrong began taking classes in the fall of 1915. She enrolled in a college preparatory program and took high school courses in English, science, Latin, and home economics in preparation for college courses.
Armstrong returned to Memphis in 1916 and continued
At a Glance…
Born Lillian Beatrice Hardin on February 3, 1898, in Memphis, TN; died on August 27, 1971, in Chicago, IL; daughter of Dempsey Martin and William Hardin; married Jimmy Johnson (divorced); married Louis Armstrong (a jazz musician), February 5, 1924 (divorced, 1938). Education: Fisk University, college preparatory classes, 1915-16; Chicago College of Music, diploma, 1928; New York College of Music, diploma, 1930.
Career: Lawrence Duhé and his New Orleans Creole Jazz Band, pianist, 1917; toured as ensemble pianist with various jazz bands, 1917-21; King Oliver’s Creole Band, pianist and arranger, 1921-24; Lil’s Dreamland Syncopators, pianist and composer, 1925-28; Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five, pianist and recording artist, 1925-28; Hot Shots, pianist and band leader, 1930s; New Orleans Wanders, pianist and band leader, 1930s; Decca Records, house pianist and recording artist, 1931-40; Lil Hardin Armstrong and her Swing Orchestra, singer, songwriter, and recording artist, 1935-40; solo pianist and performer, 1940-71.
to play the piano. However, when her mother discovered that she was playing the blues, what Hardin considered to be “devil’s music,” she decided once again that Lil would have to leave Memphis and all of its negative influences. In 1917 Hardin and Armstrong moved to Chicago. A year later Armstrong landed her first job as a piano player at the Jones Music Store on Chicago’s South Side. Armstrong worked afternoons at the store for $3 a week. Although the salary was meager, Armstrong was eager to have a store filled with sheet music at her disposal.
One day while working at the music store Armstrong met Jelly Roll Morton, a famous ragtime pianist whom some credit with inventing jazz. Armstrong was mesmerized by Morton’s loud and energetic performance. “I don’t know what he played—what pieces they were, but they were loud and the place was rockin’ and the people were jumping up, keeping up with him, and I was jumping higher than anybody,” Armstrong was quoted as saying in James L. Dickerson’s biography Just for a Thrill.
Although Armstrong was determined to build a career in music, it was difficult for her to find a band willing to include a female piano player. Armstrong coaxed her employer, Mrs. Jones, to help her find a band with which to play. Her lucky break came when Lawrence Duhé and his New Orleans Creole Jazz Band came to play in Chicago and they wanted to add a piano to their ensemble. They hired Armstrong at $22.50 a week. Armstrong tried to keep her job a secret from her mother, but Hardin eventually heard the news. She was not happy with her daughter’s career choice, but she decided that it was better than being a cook or a housekeeper.
Armstrong became known as “Hot Miss Lil” and was immediately popular on the nightclub scene. “With her hard-pounding hands on the piano, youthful face, and slender body, she was an attraction all unto herself. She played like a man, but dressed like a Sunday school teacher,” James L. Dickerson explained in Just for a Thrill. During her early years as a nightclub performer Armstrong played with some of the greatest performers of that time, including legendary cornet player Joe “King” Oliver and singer Alberta Hunter, who was the first black woman to record the blues. Armstrong was a novelty among jazz bands. While it was common for women to front blues and jazz bands as a vocalist, it was unusual for them to play as part of the ensemble.
Armstrong followed King Oliver to San Francisco for six months, but she was soon homesick and wanted to return to Chicago. She was also married at that time to a singer named Jimmy Johnson and her travels were hard on her marriage. Armstrong returned home to her mother and husband and went to work at the Dreamland nightclub. Eventually King Oliver returned to Chicago with his band and he invited a New Orleans cornet player named Louis Armstrong to join him in Chicago. He also asked Lil to return to the band.
Louis Armstrong was smitten with Lil when he first saw her, but Lil was not as impressed and she was still married to her first husband. However, Armstrong and Jimmy Johnson soon separated and a romance began between Louis and Armstrong. Louis Armstrong was also becoming a musical sensation in Chicago, taking some of the spotlight away from Lil. Their personal relationship grew as their musical careers blossomed. Louis and Lil Armstrong married on February 5, 1924, after dating for about two years.
Lil and Louis Armstrong continued to play with King Oliver’s jazz band. They even began recording their music, creating one of the first jazz records ever. The band also toured the Midwest, traveling to Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Armstrong was concerned that her husband’s considerable talents were wasted playing second cornet to King Oliver, so she eventually persuaded him to leave the band. In 1924 Louis Armstrong landed a job as first trumpeter with Fletcher Henderson’s Black Swan Troubadours in New York City. Lil followed her husband to the East coast, but she was not well received in the musical community. No one was eager to hire a female pianist, so she returned to Chicago by herself.
While her husband played in New York, Armstrong came up with a way to showcase Louis’ talents and bring him the fame and recognition that she felt he deserved. Armstrong returned to the Dreamland nightclub and put together her own band which featured her husband on lead trumpet. The group was called Lil’s Dreamland Syncopators and Louis was the main attraction. He earned $75 a week to perform at Dreamland, which was a huge sum of money for a black performer at that time. As James L. Dickerson aptly described in Just for a Thrill, “Louis was the incomparable leader on the bandstand, especially when he played his horn. Lil was the leader when it came to taking care of all the business that got him on the bandstand.”
In 1925 Lil and Louis Armstrong recorded an album for OKeh Records with their Hot Fives orchestra. The album included four songs written by Lil. A year later they produced a second album. However, while their careers were flourishing, their marriage was deteriorating. Louis had had several affairs while married to Armstrong, and in 1925 he moved in with his girlfriend, Alpha Smith. He also left Armstrong’s band at Dreamland and led a new band called Louis Armstrong and His Stompers at the Sunset Café. Despite their strained personal relationship, Lil and Louis Armstrong continued to write songs and record together and she continued to work as his manager. Lil also decided to return to school to get a formal music education. She enrolled in the Chicago College of Music and earned a degree in 1928.
In 1929 Chicago’s nightclubs suffered from a federal crackdown on organized crime, so Louis moved to New York to record for OKeh Records. Armstrong followed and enrolled in the New York College of Music. After procuring her postgraduate degree Armstrong returned to Chicago, for she no longer worked as Louis’ manager. For the next two years Lil and Louis had an on and off relationship and she accompanied him to California and New Orleans. However, in 1931 Armstrong had tired of Louis’ infidelities and his business connections to organized crime gangs, and she separated from him. While Louis toured Europe, Armstrong formed two all-female bands in Chicago in 1931 and 1932. From 1933 to 1935 she led an all-male band based in Buffalo, New York, but the group suffered because audiences were not very receptive to a female band leader.
In 1935 Armstrong returned to Chicago and formed another nightclub and recording band. Instead of playing the piano, Armstrong arranged the music, wrote songs, and sang. In 1936 Lil Hardin Armstrong and Her Swing Orchestra recorded an album and five out of six songs were written by Armstrong, including one of her most popular songs called “Just for a Thrill.” She continued to write songs and record albums for Decca Records for the next several years.
In 1938 Lil Armstrong finally agreed to divorce Louis. She recorded her last session with Decca Records in 1940 and she seemed to lose her passion for music after her divorce. She took a sewing class offered by the Works Projects Administration and pursued a career as a clothes designer. She began designing and sewing clothes for Louis to wear while performing. However, her career as a designer never took off because America was not receptive to a black designer at that time. Armstrong also briefly owned a soul food restaurant in Chicago called Lil Armstrong’s Swing Shack.
By the 1950s Armstrong had a new vocation as a piano and French teacher. In 1952 and 1953 she traveled to Europe to perform again. Her warm reception in Europe convinced her to return to Chicago to renew her performing career. However, by that time the music scene had changed dramatically, as had race relations in America, and. Armstrong was unable to rebuild an audience. Armstrong recorded one more album in 1961 when she was invited to participate in a series of recordings called Chicago —The Living Legends.
Armstrong spent the last decade of her life giving occasional performances and following her ex-husband’s career. Louis Armstrong died on July 6, 1971, after suffering from heart and kidney problems. Lil Armstrong died just seven weeks later during a performance at a memorial concert for Louis in Chicago. “Throughout all her success and failures, she remained true to her own moral vision and, in doing so, she became a role model for how to achieve goals in life while remaining true to one’s self,” James L. Dickerson summarized Lil Armstrong’s life in his biography of her called Just for a Thrill.
King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, Gennett Record Company, 1923.
Louis Armstrong and the Hot Fives (includes “My Heart,” “My Heart Will Always Lead Me Back to You,” “(Yes) I’m in the Barrel,” and “Gut Bucket Blues”), OKeh Records, 1925.
Louis Armstrong and the Hot Sixes (includes “Don’t Jive Me”), OKeh Records, 1928.
Lil Hardin Armstrong and Her Swing Orchestra (includes “Just for a Thrill,” “Brown Gal,” “Doin’ the Suzie-Q,” “It’s Murder,” and “My Hi-De-Ho Man”), Decca Records, 1936.
Lil Hardin Armstrong and Her Swing Orchestra (includes “Born to Swing,” “(I’m on a) Sit-Down Strike for Rhythm,” “Bluer Than Blue,” and “I’m Knocking at the Cabin Door”), Decca Records, 1937.
Lil Hardin Armstrong and Her Swing Orchestra (includes “Let’s Get Happy Together,” “Happy Today, Sad Tomorrow,” and “You Shall Reap What You Sow,”) Decca Records, 1938.
Lil Hardin Armstrong and Her Swing Orchestra (includes “My Secret Flame”), Decca Records, 1940.
Chicago —The Living Legends (includes “Boogie Me,” “Eastown Boogie,” and “Clip Joint”), Riverside Records, 1961.
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—Janet P. Stamatel
Lillian Hardin Armstrong
Lillian Hardin Armstrong
American musician Lillian "Lil" Hardin Armstrong (1898-1971) ranks alongside Jelly Roll Morton and James P. Johnson as one of the great early jazz pianists. "I was just born to swing, that's all," she once said. "Call it what you want, blues, swing, jazz, it caught hold of me way back in Memphis and it looks like it won't ever let go." Armstrong's statement, ironically, was portentous. After a distinguished fifty-year musical career, she died on stage, at a memorial concert for Louis Armstrong.
Armstrong was born on February 3, 1898, in Memphis, Tennessee. She received piano and organ lessons as a child in Memphis and served as a pianist and organist in church and in her school. Her mother and grandmother hated popular music and considered the blues vulgar. In fact, she was beaten for having a copy of W. C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues." Later, she recalled playing "Onward Christian Soldiers" in church one day "with a definite beat," somewhat to the consternation of her minister.
Armstrong received her formal music training at Fisk University, the Chicago College of Music (earning a teacher's certificate in 1924), and the New York College of Music (earning a diploma in 1929). She left Fisk in 1917 when her family moved to Chicago, and her professional career began there with a job as a "song-plugger" at Jones's Music Store on South State Street.
At Jones's Music Store, Armstrong learned and demonstrated all the music available at the store and was billed as "The Jazz Wonder Child." It was here that she met Jelly Roll Morton, probably the greatest jazz pianist of the era. Their encounter has become legendary among jazz historians. Armstrong and Morton traded renditions of standards of the day, and he demonstrated his heavy, foot-stomping style. She took this as an important lesson. From that day forward, she played with a heavy-handed, aggressive rhythmic style that became her trademark throughout her career.
Armstrong was well known and respected by her peers. Compliments by musicians were typically like those of George "Pops" Foster, the great bass player, who referred to her as "a great piano player and a great musician." In her day the piano was the centerpiece of the rhythm section, charged with maintaining the beat and fundamental chord structure to free the clarinet, trumpet, or cornet soloists for their flights of fancy. The piano was not necessarily a focus for solo playing, as Armstrong herself attests: "It wasn't the style during the King Oliver days for the pianist to play many solos. Sometimes I'd get the urge to run up and down the piano and make a few runs and things, and Joe ["King" Oliver] would turn around and look at me and say, 'We have a clarinet in the band.' "
Her four-beat, solid style guaranteed Armstrong's acceptance among her peers and a good following among devotees. As a pianist, her early jobs included accompanying singers, among them the blues great Alberta Hunter. Armstrong was also a good organizer and led her own band for many years. Her other talents included arranging, composing, and singing.
Armstrong's career in jazz extended more than fifty years and centered in Chicago and New York. She got her first playing jobs through contacts made at Jones's Music Store. Her first major band experience was with the Original New Orleans Creole Jazz Band, playing at the De Luxe Cafe. The band included Lawrence Duhé on clarinet, Sugar Johnson and Freddie Keppard on cornets, Roy Palmer on trombone, Sidney Bechet on clarinet and soprano saxophone, Tubby Hall on drums, Jimmy Palao on violin, Bob Frank on piccolo, and Wellman Braud on bass. It is about this band that Armstrong told one of her most famous tales: When she asked in what key they were playing their first number, they told her, " 'Key, we don't know what key. Just when you hear two knocks, start playing.' So I just hit everything on the piano, so whatever key they was in, I would be in it too. Oh, after a second I could feel what key they were playing, because at that time I don't think they used over five chords. In fact, I'm sure they didn't."
The Original New Orleans Creole Jazz Band played in a pure, swinging New Orleans style and was quite successful. The audience frequently contained some of the leading musicians and stars of the day, including Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, the vaudeville team of Walker and Williams, Eddie Cantor, Al Jolson, and Sophie Tucker. King Oliver and Johnny Dodds came over one evening to hear the band and invited Armstrong to join their band, King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band, playing at the Lincoln Gardens (later the Royal Gardens). In 1922, Louis Armstrong joined him, and the full complement of Oliver's band then included Oliver and Louis Armstrong on cornets, Honoré Dutrey on trombone, Johnny Dodds on clarinet, Baby Dodds on drums, Bill Johnson on banjo, and Armstrong on piano. This band, of course, has become one of the most famous in all of jazz history and formed the nucleus for Louis Armstrong's Hot Five and Hot Seven recording sessions.
Armstrong Called Major Figure in Jazz Field
It must have been quite a heady experience for a young woman in her first few engagements to be playing with the jazz greats of her day who brought the pioneering New Orleans style of traditional jazz to Chicago. It is certainly a testament to Armstrong's talent and ability. Moreover, she was apparently the first woman to enter the jazz field as a major figure and retain that stature and acceptance throughout her career.
Becoming friends almost from the day he joined the band, she and Louis Armstrong were married in 1924. Lil Armstrong eventually "encouraged Louis to leave Oliver and join Fletcher Henderson in New York. It was she who helped Louis Armstrong to become a better music reader and it was she, with her formal training and broad knowledge of musical form, who realized his enormous talent." In New York with Henderson, when Louis Armstrong played at the Roseland Ballroom, Lil Armstrong was not satisfied seeing that her husband was not given featured billing. She organized a band in Chicago and brought him back to the Dreamland, where he was featured as "The World's Greatest Trumpet Player." His other ventures included the recording sessions with his Hot Five and Hot Seven from 1925 through 1928. From this point Louis Armstrong's career took off like a rocket. The Armstrong marriage followed the course of their careers: fused at first, but then divergent, and they were divorced in 1938.
Lil Armstrong's subsequent experiences were diverse. She played with many bands, including those of Oliver, Freddie Keppard, Elliot Washington, Hugh Swift, and Louis Armstrong. She led and played in an all-woman swing group called the Harlem Harlicans from about 1932 to 1936. The group included such notables as Alma Scott (Hazel Scott's mother) on reeds, Leora Mieux (Fletcher Henderson's wife) on trombone, and Dolly Hutchinson on trumpet. She also led her own group out of Buffalo, remnants of Stuff Smith's band, including Jonah Jones and George Clarke, from 1933 to 1935. She fronted this band "wearing slinky white gowns, top hat, and wielding a baton." This was, of course, during the depth of the Great Depression, and it is a testament to Armstrong's talent and skill that she was able to get jobs and keep the band together.
Armstrong worked as a session pianist for Decca Records in the late 1930s and appeared in the Broadway shows Hot Chocolate (1929) and Shuffle Along (1933). While at Decca, she recorded under the name Lil Hardin with soloists and a pick-up band that included numerous stars of the day, among them Red Allen, Chu Berry, Buster Bailey, and Jonah Jones.
She returned to Chicago in the 1940s and continued her career with several long engagements at local clubs, including The Three Deuces. She made several tours, including one to Europe in 1952. She was coaxed out of semi-retirement to play at a memorial concert for Louis Armstrong in 1971 and died on stage on August 27.
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