Armstrong, Lil Hardin (1898–1971)

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Armstrong, Lil Hardin (1898–1971)

African-American jazz pianist, bandleader, composer, and vocalist, who wrote over 150 compositions and led bands that included such illustrious performers as Louis Armstrong, Kid Ory and Johnny Dodds. Name variations: Lillian Hardin Armstrong, Lil Hardin, Lilian. Born Lillian Hardin on February 3, 1898, in Memphis, Tennessee; died of a heart attack on August 27, 1971, in Chicago, Illinois, while performing at a memorial concert for her late former husband, Louis Armstrong; raised by her mother and grandmother; studied classical piano at Fisk University, received a teacher's certificate from the Chicago College of Music, 1924, and a post-graduate diploma from New York College of Music, 1929; married Jimmy Johnson, early 1920s (divorced 1924); married Louis Armstrong, February 5, 1924 (divorced 1938); no children.

Member of Joe "King" Oliver's Creole Jazz Band (1921–24); recorded nearly 50 tunes with Louis Armstrong's Hot Fives, Hot Sevens, and Lil's Hot Shot (1925–27); led all-woman bands (1932–36); became house pianist for Decca Records, leading many all-star recording sessions (late 1930s); toured Europe, playing with Sidney Bechet and others (1952); played many extended engagements in Chicago until her death (1971).

Selected discography:

Lil Hardin Armstrong And Her Swing Orchestra 1936–1940 (Classics 564); Forty Years of Women In Jazz (Jass CD 9/10); Born to Swing (Harlequin HQ 2076); Safely Locked Up in My Heart (Harlequin HQ 2069); Women in Jazz: Pianists (Stash ST-112); Satchmo and Me (Riverside 12-120); The Louis Armstrong Story (Vols. 1-2, Columbia CL 851 and CL 852); Young Louis: "The Side Man" (MCA 1301); Mean Mothers: Independent Women's Blues (Rosetta RR 1300).

At her first audition for work as a musician, the polite student from Fisk University in Memphis asked her prospective employer, "Where's the music?" The leader of the New Orleans-style jazz band explained to the young woman that it was not the habit of his musicians to use sheet music. "Well," she then asked, "what key is it in?" With a look suggesting that her question was not only irrelevant but somewhat eccentric, the bandleader counted off two beats. Lil Hardin, classical piano student, who planned to return south at the end of summer to continue work on her college degree and preparation for a career as a concert pianist, struck a long combination of notes, figuring that whatever the key and the tune that followed, she would have at least a few notes that fit. But when the band swung into play, she soon got a feel for what it was doing, and was hitting the piano so hard—and with such a swinging sound—she was hired on the spot. Thus began a career that was to last 50 years, with the dreams of a classical career all but forgotten.

Lillian Hardin was born in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1898, and was raised by her mother and grandmother (her father died when she was two.) Musical from the beginning, she was taking organ lessons by age six and studied piano in grade school from a Miss Violet White. At age eight or nine, she was playing for school and church and learning classical music along with marches and hymns at Mrs. Hook's School of Music. She entered Fisk University while still in her teens, planning to get a college degree and then to become a concert pianist. But in an oral history recorded on the Riverside label in 1961, Lil recalled that as far back as the days she played the piano for Sunday school, her music swung.

In 1918, Lil was two years into her studies at Fisk when she paid a summer visit to her mother's new home in Chicago, Illinois. Her mother had become one of the half-million blacks who migrated out of the South between 1915 and 1920, in search of the unprecedented job opportunities opening up in industrial cities to the north as a result of World War I. For the student of classical music, the summer vacation was to change the direction of her life. Describing her first views of the city in Hear Me Talkin' To Ya, by Nat Shapiro and Nat Hentoff, "Heaven" was Lil Hardin's word for what she found in Chicago. Wandering up and down the streets of the South Side, with its large brick apartment buildings fronted by lawns and its prosperous businesses owned by blacks, she saw the new surroundings as a veritable oasis of hopefulness. She was also entranced by the music, especially the loud, swinging sounds of the New Orleans-style bands reaching out of Chicago nightclubs into the streets.

Lil had always had an appetite for the popular music abhorred by her mother and her grandmother. Once she received a beating with a broomstick for having a copy of "St. Louis Blues." But a guitar-playing cousin had introduced her to jazz, and she was craving a particular song she had heard people humming when she dropped into Jones' Music Store on 35th and South State Street in search of the sheet music. As the piano was the center of family entertainment in those days, sheet music stores enjoyed enormous popularity. When the proprietor of the shop, Jennie Jones , heard Lil play on the store piano, she offered her a job as a music demonstrator or "song plugger." Though Lil's mother did not approve, she was persuaded that the work was appropriate for a future concert pianist because it gave her an opportunity to review all the available sheet music. By the second day on the job, Lil knew all the music in stock, and soon people were coming to the store from all over town to hear the "jazz wonder child." Her salary jumped from three to eight dollars a week.

On one memorable day, the great pianist Ferdinand "Jelly Roll" Morton came into the store and joined the young woman on her piano bench. Initiating an informal "cutting session," in which two musicians compete on the same instrument, Morton would play a few chords in his percussive New Orleans jazz style and Lil would retort with a run of Chopin or Bach. While store patrons declared Lil the winner, the young music student heard something impressive in Morton's style, the likes of which she had never heard before. From that time on, she developed a harder and more vigorous attack on the keyboard.

Since Jennie Jones was also a booking agent, it was not long before Lil was granted her first audition with a band. The group was the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, and they were playing in a Chinese restaurant. When Lil was hired, her mother was not thrilled. She gave up trying to stop her daughter once she realized the money Lil could make, but she did arrange for her to be escorted home at night. All thought of returning to Fisk was soon abandoned. Over the next several years, Lil played with a number of other New Orleans-style bands, including those of the Kansas City-born drummer Curtis Mosby and the celebrated cornet player Freddie Keppard.

By 1921, Lil was pianist for trumpet player Joe "King" Oliver's Creole Jazz Band at the Royal Gardens. As the bands originating in the South had come north in those years, the New Orleans style of instrumentation underwent considerable change (including the addition of the piano), but in the '20s a front line in a Chicago band usually consisted of one trumpet or cornet, one clarinet or saxophone, and one trombone. In 1922, Oliver took the unusual artistic step of hiring a second trumpet player besides himself, a young man from New Orleans named Louis Armstrong.

Louis was immediately impressed by Lil's ability at the piano; he liked the way she played all four beats. But Lil didn't pay much attention to Louis until Oliver admitted to her that his humble new second trumpet player was a great deal better on the instrument than he was. She also began to notice the number of musicians turning up in their audiences to hear the extraordinary young performer play his horn. The scope of his talent became fully apparent to Lil in 1923, at the famous King Oliver recording dates, which produced what James Lincoln Collier has called "the first substantial body of real jazz" on record. By this time, Lil realized that Louis was holding back, careful not to outblow Oliver, whom he loved and admired. When Louis was put further away from the recording equipment than the rest of the musicians, so that they could be heard, Lil saw that the modest trumpeter would never reach his full potential unless he somehow took control of his own career.

Lil Hardin Armstrong">

I might have known I was gonna end up in jazz, because I played "Onward Christian Soldiers" with a definite beat.

—Lil Hardin Armstrong

Lil ended her brief marriage to singer Jimmy Johnson in 1924 and married Louis Armstrong that February. By 1925, she had convinced him to leave King Oliver and strike out on his own. "I don't want to be married to no second trumpet player," she told him. Although this is the event for which she is best remembered, it is generally not remembered that Lil Hardin Armstrong was making it musically on her own. She was now leading her own band, "The Dream-land Syncopators," at the ornate Dreamland club—one of many African-American women who were successful piano player-band leaders, especially in Chicago, during the 1920s. Ida Mae Maples, Garvinia Dickerson, Lovie Austin and Lottie Hightower were among the best known, and during those golden years of Chicago jazz, Lil Hardin Armstrong and Lovie Austin gained national fame.

After Louis quit King Oliver, he briefly joined the band of Ollie Power, and had a short stint with Fletcher Henderson's group. But in 1925 it was Louis' move to Lil's band that launched his independent success. The Dream-land Syncopators became, variously, Louis Armstrong's Hot Five, Hot Seven, and Lil's Hot Shots. On the famous Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings, Lil was both pianist and musical director, and many compositions on these famous recordings, including "Struttin' With Some Barbecue," "Brown Gal," and "Lonesome Blues," are the works of Lil Armstrong. Besides these historic sessions between 1925 and 1927, which produced 50 recordings, some of which are considered among the most important jazz recordings in history, Lil was also recording some excellent sessions on her own.

Louis took a lot of teasing from fellow musicians about working for his wife. By 1931, relations between the couple were strained, and she and Louis separated. They did not divorce until 1938. By that time, Lil had appeared in several Broadway musicals, including Hot Chocolates (1929) and Shuffle Along (1933). During the late '20s and early '30s, she completed her formal education, earning a teaching certificate and a post-graduate degree. In the 1930s, she led two all-women groups, including one of the first all-female swing bands, the Harlem Harlicans, with included Leora Mieux (wife of Fletcher Henderson) on trumpet, Alma Long Scott (mother of Hazel Scott ) on reeds, and Dolly Jones , one of the greatest solo trumpet players of her time. In 1932, the Harlem Harlicans appeared at the Lafayette Theater in New York City, and they played New York's famed Apollo and Chicago's Regal Theater in 1934.

Also in the mid-1930s, Lil led a highly acclaimed band made up of former members of violinist Stuff Smith's group and featuring trumpet player Jonah Jones. In the depths of these Depression years, the band's manager, who was also manager for her estranged husband, tried to drum up publicity by billing Lil as "Mrs. Louis Armstrong" and by calling Jonah Jones "King Louis II." Despite these humiliations, many of the band's members, including Jones, maintained that it was one of the best sounding bands they ever played in.

In 1936, Lil Armstrong left Chicago to become the house pianist for Decca Records in New York, and she led various all-star band recording sessions until 1940. Many recordings featured her compositions, including "Just for a Thrill," which was recorded 20 years later by Ray Charles and became one of his biggest hits. She had also sued Louis, in 1938, for royalties on songs they had written together and won the case.

In the 1940s, Armstrong returned to Chicago, where she continued to play extended club engagements off and on for the next 30 years. A well-loved solo performer as well as combo musician, she appeared with trumpet player Red Allen and drummer Zutty Singleton. She also pursued other talents. She opened a restaurant called the Swing Shack, which used musical themes in the menu listings, designed clothes, including outfits worn by her ex-husband onstage, and taught music and French. In 1952, she made a tour of Europe, playing with various artists including soprano-sax legend Sidney Bechet and trumpet player Peanuts Holland, as well as giving solo performances and making some recordings.

Austin, Lovie (1887–1972)

American pianist, arranger, and leader of Lovie Austin's Blues Serenaders. Born Cora Calhoun in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on September 19, 1887; died in Chicago, Illinois, on July 10, 1972; studied music at Roger Williams' University in Nashville and at Knoxville College; married a Detroit movie-house owner; married a variety artist (who toured with a partner as "Austin and Delaney").

After many years touring with Irving Miller's Blue Babies and The Sunflower Girls, Lovie Austin settled in Chicago and was music director, for 20 years, for the Monogram Theater; she later directed at the Gem and Joyland Theaters. Between 1923 and 1926, her name appeared often on blues releases of the Paramount label, both as pianist and leader of Lovie Austin's Blues Serenaders. At that time, Austin backed Paramount's stars Ida Cox and Ma Rainey , and occasionally contributed some group instrumentals on her own. During World War II, she took a job as security inspector at a defense plant. From the late 1940s, she was pianist at Jimmy Payne's Dancing School at Penthouse Studios. She made another recording in 1961.

Despite the fact that the Armstrong marriage had lasted barely 13 years (they had lived together for eight), and despite his subsequent remarriage, Lil and Louis Armstrong remained friends for the rest of their lives. In 1955, she told Shapiro and Hentoff, "My feelings for him haven't changed in spite of all the marriages." She continued to live in the house they had bought together in the 1920s, and when Louis passed away, on July 6, 1971, two months after suffering a heart attack, she was deeply shaken. Six weeks later, on August 27, she was performing at a Louis Armstrong memorial concert in Chicago, playing the "St. Louis Blues," when she suffered a massive heart attack and died. She was 73.


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Sherrie Tucker , Alameda, California

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Armstrong, Lil Hardin (1898–1971)

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