Known for: first major woman jazz instrumentalist; part of King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band; marriage to Louis Armstrong and promoter of his career; part of Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Hot Sevens recordings.
Occupation: jazz musician, pianist, composer, singer, band leader, manager and promoter; later, clothes designer, restaurant owner, piano teacher, French teacher
Dates: February 3, 1898 – August 27, 1971
Also known as: Lil Hardin, Lil Armstrong, Lillian Beatrice Hardin, Lil Hardin Armstrong, Lillian Hardin, Lillian Armstrong, Lillian Hardin Armstrong
LIL HARDIN ARMSTRONG BIOGRAPHY
Born in Memphis in 1898, Lillian Hardin was called Lil. Her mother was one of thirteen children of a woman born into slavery. Her elder sibling had died at birth, and Lil or Lillian was raised as an only child. 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. She was attracted to the blues, which she knew from Beale Street near where she lived, but her mother opposed such music. Her mother used her savings to send her daughter to Nashville to study at Fisk University for a year for 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 Hardin with her.
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 accorded 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.
After achieving some recognition playing with Lawrence Duhé and the New Orleans Creole Jazz Band, Lil Hardin stayed around as it gained popularity when King Oliver took it over and renamed it the King Oliver Creole Jazz Band.
By this time, she had 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, Louis Armstrong.
LIL HARDIN AND LOUIS ARMSTRONG
Though Louis Armstrong and Lil Hardin became friends, she was still married to Jimmy Johnson. Hardin was unimpressed with Armstrong at first. 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 hair style 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.
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, and 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 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 away from his other women and with Lil.
LIL HARDIN ARMSTRONG’S BANDS
Lil Hardin Armstrong formed several bands — some all-female, some all-male — in Chicago and in Buffalo, New York, and then she 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’d 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.
Lil Hardin Armstrong turned away from music, and began working as a clothing designer (Louis was a customer), then a restaurant owner, then she taught music and French. In the 1950s and 1960s, she occasionally performed and recorded.
In July of 1971, Louis Armstrong died. Seven weeks later, 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.
MORE ABOUT LIL HARDIN ARMSTRONG
- Mother: Dempsey Martin Hardin – daughter of Priscilla Thompson (born into slavery in 1850) and Taylor Martin
- Father: William Hardin – divorced Dempsey when Lil was very young
- Lillian Hardin’s only and older sibling died shortly after birth; she thus grew up as an only child
- Fisk University, 1915-1916, music, college preparatory program
- Chicago College of Music, teaching diploma, 1928
- New York College of Music, postgraduate degree, 1930
- husband: Jimmy Johnson (marriage dates unclear; singer)
- husband: Louis Armstrong (married February 4, 1924; separated; divorced 1938; jazz musician)
- children: none