Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Armstrong, Lil Hardin

“if it wasn’t for Lil, Louis Armstrong would not be where he is today,” Chicago trombonist Preston Jackson said in the 1950s about Lil Hardin Armstrong. Preston had reason to know. He was there when, 30 years earlier, she persuaded her husband to assert himself as a soloist, and to leave the band of his longtime mentor, Joe "King" Oliver, to seek better things. In essence, she convinced Louis he could be a star.

Lillian Hardin Armstrong – better known as "Lil," and who at one point worked under the name of “Mrs. Louis Armstrong” – was a pianist, bandleader, composer, and occasional vocalist. While her role in the launch of Louis' career was decisive, she also deserves to be remembered for her own musical merits. The pianist with King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band on Armstrong’s Hot Five and Seven sessions, she also composed songs which became important jazz and pop standards.

Hardin was born in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1898. Unlike her future husband, who was born at the very bottom of the social ladder, Lil Hardin’s parents were part of the early twentieth century's black bourgeoisie.

As a child of well-off parents, Hardin took piano lessons and studied classical and spiritual music, but she was actively dissuaded from having anything to do with blues, ragtime, or jazz, which "decent" families of the time regarded as “worthless music for worthless people,” or even worse, the Devil’s music. Young Lil attended Fisk University in Nashville, one of the first and most prestigious African-American colleges, but in the year she turned 20, she moved with her parents to Chicago.

Her mother was aghast when, not long after the move, Lil got a job playing piano at a the Jones Music Store on South State Street, where she would demonstrate sheet music for potential customers. Before long, she was the talk of Chicago, known as “the jazz wonder child.” “I looked to be about ten years old, in my middy blouse and 85 pounds,” she recalled.

Lil soon experienced two dramatic awakenings to the new music which was rolling in to Chicago from New Orleans at the time. The first arrived in the form of Jelly Roll Morton, who showed up at the shop one day. “I had never heard such music before…the piano rocked, the floor shivered, the people swayed while he ferociously attacked the keyboard with his long skinny fingers.”

The second was the arrival of The New Orleans Creole Jazz Band. ‘I nearly had a fit. I had never heard a band like that. They made goose pimples break out all over me.” The band auditioned for Mrs. Jones, who ran the music store, and she booked them to play at a nearby Chinese restaurant. Before long, Lil was playing piano in the group. Everyone else in the band played only by ear and Lil, at that time, could only play from written music. “The New Orleans Creole Jazz Band hired me and I never got back to the music store or to Fisk University,” she remembered.

Hardin was already one of the world's professional jazz musicians, and perhaps its first female instrumentalist. She worked with the NOCJB at Chicago's Dreamland Café, and then, when the most famous New Orleans bandleader of all arrived to take a gig at the Dreamland, Joseph Oliver, she accepted the offer to play in his band.

Hardin quickly became a fixture in Oliver’s early Chicago bands, and traveled with the cornetist to San Francisco in 1921. After that engagement, she returned to Chicago on her own, and worked as a freelancer. She was briefly married to a singer named Jimmie Johnson, no relation to the legendary stride pianist James P. Johnson, who occasionally worked under that name.

In 1923, she rejoined King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band at the Dreamland; the band was doing tremendous business, and Oliver, flush with success, made an audacious move by bringing his protégée, the young Louis Armstrong, up from New Orleans.

Every cat in the band was after Lil, and at first she thought Armstrong was too “country” for her tastes. But a friendship, and then a relationship, began to develop. By this time, Armstrong was clearly the star of the band, with his talents rivaling those of his mentor, Papa Joe. He was encouraged by Lil on every level – professionally, personally, and musically - to assert himself, and eventually to find a spot where he could both make more money and attract more attention.

By September of 1924, when Armstrong left the Oliver band and Chicago to work for Fletcher Henderson in New York, he and Lil had been married for six months. Armstrong’s reputation soared while he was in New York with the Henderson Orchestra. When he returned to Chicago in 1925, he fronted a band that Lil had put together for him at the Dreamland – the ballroom advertised him as “The World’s Greatest Trumpet Player” and no one disputed the claim.

Armstrong's Dreamland band, run by Lil and starring Louis, was the basis of the group that first recorded for OKeh Records in November of 1925, as “Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five.”

The Hot Five sessions represent the most celebrated jazz recordings in the history of the music, and they defined what jazz was then and what it will forever be. Hardin's role in the Hot Five sessions of 1925-26, as in Armstrong's earlier sessions with Oliver, recorded in 1923 and 1924, cannot be understated. She was there not as Armstrong’s wife, she was fully the equal, and in some ways better, than musicians in both bands.

Hardin also contributed to the series as a composer, notably on the track "Struttin' With Some Barbecue:” she receives credit as its sole composer, but it’s generally acknowledged that Louis had at least some input into it. Two of the finest titles in the Hot Five series, “Georgia Bo Bo” and “Drop That Sack,” were initially released under Lil's name as “Lil’s Hot Shots,” but were subsequently reissued under Louis’s name. She also sang, memorably if squawkily, in a comic duet with her husband on “That’s When I’ll Come Back To You” on which she banters agreeably in response to her husband’s willfulness. This record virtually invented the comic jazz vein later mined by Louis Prima and Keely Smith.

Hardin was an excellent early band pianist, but the rift between her and Armstrong was exacerbated when the trumpeter began to outgrow her; the Louis Armstrong series got even better when Hardin was replaced by pianist Earl "Fatha" Hines, and the group was expanded into the Hot Seven.

By the late 1920s, Armstrong had also become infatuated with a chorus girl named Alpha Smith, and she and the trumpeter were divorced in 1929. Their last project together was Louis' famous "Blue Yodel No. 9" session with the father of country music, Jimmie Rodgers, in 1930.

Lil remained a beloved figure in the jazz world, as John Hammond wrote: "One of the most lovable people that ever existed in music was Hardin Armstrong, Louis's wife and protector during those rough early days in Chicago. In the early days when the first talking Mickey Mouse cartoons came out, Minnie Mouse used to play the piano, and I was always certain [Minnie’s] style was copied directly from Lil's."

Throughout the 1920s, Hardin was to go-to-gal for Crescent City musicians working in Chicago, like clarinetist Johnny Dodds, who settled in the city and the members of the New Orleans Wanders and Boot Blacks, who were actually one band which recorded under two different names. Hardin had also played, usually with Louis in the group, on many sessions for the composer-entrepreneur-producer-publisher Clarence Williams, and she maintained the connection once she was single again. She was absent from the recording studios for most of the early 1930s, except for several titles as a vocalist on dates produced by Williams.

At some point in the 1930s, Lil led her own big band, which at times employed both male and female musicians, and at others was billed as an “All Girl Band.” In the mid-thirties, she began to record again, and by 1940 she had made 24 mostly small-group sides for Decca.

The Lil Hardin Decca series, released as “Lillian Armstrong and her Orchestra,” is something of a mystery. The label spotlighted her as a singer, even though she had only made one notable recording as a vocalist, the aforementioned comic duet with Louis. She does not play piano on most of these, leaving that chore to Billy Kyle, Frank Froeba, and others.

Yet at the same time, Hardin was also doing sessions as a pianist with various blues singers and bands. Although her singing is energetic and agreeable, she doesn’t have a lot of chops or nuance as a vocalist, and is more of a yelper than a singer. The most attractive feature of these sides is not Hardin herself, but rather the all-star cast of expert black swing soloists like Charlie Shavers, Buster Bailey, Chu Berry, Joe Thomas who keep her company.

Hardin’s most valid contribution to her own dates is as composer: her name is on most of the songs here, and one of these, “Just For A Thrill,” grew up to become a true standard. First recorded at her initial Decca date in 1936 in Chicago, “Just For A Thrill,” recorded definitely by Ray Charles (and then Peggy Lee) and which is sometimes co-credited to with pianist-songwriter Don Raye, became a forerunner of the soul ballad. This form of song began to proliferate in the mid-‘40s with Buddy Johnson’s “Since I Fell For You.”

She was extremely busy in the second half of the 1930s, playing on many “race” dates for Decca, generally under the supervision of J. Mayo Williams, the next major black entrepreneur and producer after Clarence Williams. Then, she was absent again from the studio for a few years. At one point she thought about leaving music to become a custom tailor, and even made a suit for her ex-husband, with whom she remained a close friend. She did a number of dates as a bandleader in the late 1940s and worked in Paris in the early 1950s.

She returned to Chicago in the late 1950s, and contributed a lot of valuable, first-person information to Nat Hentoff and Nat Shapiro's groundbreaking oral history of early jazz, Hear Me Talkin’ To Ya. She also recorded an extended autobiographical statement, a spoken word recording of her life and career, for historians Bill Grauer and Orrin Keepnews on the Riverside label, titled Satchmo And Me : Lil Armstong's Own Story: A Jazz Documentary.

In 1961, Hardin recorded an album with producer Chris Albertson as part of Riverside’s Chicago: The Living Legends series. She also started work on her memoirs, with Albertson as her collaborator, but never finished them. In 1962, she appeared on a television special broadcast, Chicago And All That Jazz.

Lil died a few weeks after attending Louis Armstrong's funeral, on August 27,1971.

Contributor: Will Friedwald