Lil Hardin Armstrong

One of the most prominent women in jazz history is Lil Hardin Armstrong, and although she might be more well-known than some of the other ladies featured here, she was often overshadowed by her superstar husband, Louis. In fact, I had not taken the time to research her catalog beyond the famous Hot Five and Seven recordings until now. After she and Louis parted in the ’30s, she continued to have a very rich career composing, playing piano, singing, and recording. Though she took some time off from music to go to tailoring school, she realized she couldn’t walk away from music. [1] I’m so glad to have spent the time listening to some of her later recordings!

Lil Hardin was a child prodigy, her long musical career beginning when she “started playing around with a neglected harmonium she found tucked away in a corner of the parlor. ‘I spent a lot of time making that thing moan and groan,’ she recalled. ‘And when they all got tired of listening to that noise, I would play an imaginary piano on the window sill or an upturned bucket.’ She went on to receive classical training and study piano at Fisk University. [1]

When her family moved to Chicago, she worked in a music store, demonstrating the sheet music until Jelly Roll Morton came in, played the blues, and blew her mind. She knew that’s how she wanted to play. Soon thereafter, she started to play with bands around Chicago such as Sugar Johnny’s Creole Orchestra, and Freddie Keppard’s Band. Hardin was leading her own group at the Dreamland Cafe, Chicago’s classiest joint, when King Oliver’s band came to town and he asked her to play with him. That’s when she met Louis and proceeded to become a pivotal person in propelling his career forward. [2] She had the confidence in him that he lacked for himself and convinced him to start his own band, also writing several tunes that they recorded on those classic Hot Five & Seven sessions. Several of those tunes have now become jazz standards, including “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue.” (One of my personal favorites.)

Unfortunately, the record company wanted to capitalize on Louis’ name and therefore the recordings were released as “Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five (& Seven)” with no mention of Lil’s musical direction. According to Riverwalk Jazz, “Lil Hardin always had her feet on the ground, calculating their next 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.” [3]

After she and Louis split, Lil led and recorded with her own group, and with other greats such as (my hero) the great Sidney Bechet and Zutty Singleton. (Unfortunately, those recordings are poorly mixed but there are still some excellent musical moments.) Here is some priceless footage of Hardin with Mae Barnes having a grand time and making great music (Red Allen and Buster Bailey show up toward the end to join in the fun):

Although Lil and Louis’ romantic relationship ended in the ’30s, they remained close friends for the rest of their lives and Lil died on stage while performing “St. Louis Blues” at a memorial concert for Louis just two months after he passed. [4]

Re(sources)

[1] Chris Albertson. “Lil Hardin Armstrong.” Memphis Hall of Fame. (http://memphismusichalloffame.com/inductee/lilhardinarmstrong/).

[2] Margaret Moos Pick. “My Heart: The Story of Lil Hardin Armstrong.” Riverwalk Jazz Program 141. 2000. (http://riverwalkjazz.stanford.edu/program/my-heart-story-lil-hardin-armstrong).

[3] Margaret Moos Pick. “Behind Every Great Man: Lil Hardin and Louis Armstrong.” Riverwalk Jazz Program 285. 2012. (http://riverwalkjazz.stanford.edu/program/behind-every-great-man-lil-hardin-and-louis-armstrong).

[4] “Lil Hardin-Armstrong.” Red Hot Jazz Archive. (http://www.redhotjazz.com/lil.html).


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