Lillian Hardin entered the jazz scene in Chicago, but her musical interest was rooted in Memphis, where she was born on February 2, 1898. She spent her early childhood years at 32 Railroad Avenue, where her grandmother Pricilla Martin reigned over the family, having brought her four children up from Oxford, Mississippi in the previous decade.
Lil’s long and successful life as a performer began 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.”
Recognizing Lil’s abiding interest in the instrument, her mother, Dempsey, hired a woman to give her formal keyboard lessons. Only years later did Lil realize that Ms. Violet White had an unorthodox approach to keyboard technique, one that would be corrected but forever characterized her playing.
“She allowed me to use my hand and fingers any way I chose, as long as I played the notes correctly.”— Lil Hardin Armstrong
Soon, the little girl was playing marches at the Virginia Avenue Grade School and hymns at the Lebanon Baptist Church Sunday School. Proud, impressed and convinced that music was her daughter’s vocation, Decie (as Lil called her mother), made two wise investments: she bought her a full-sized upright piano and enrolled her in Mrs. Hook’s School of Music.
After three years at Kortrecht High School, Lil had become so proficient a pianist that her mother decided to let her continue her music studies at Fisk University in Nashville. The prestige of this black institution appealed to Lil, but her enthusiasm was somewhat dampened when they told her she had been “poorly trained”. It turned out that Mrs. Hook’s school had also taught her the wrong fingering. Humiliated, she tore up her Hooks School diploma on her first return to Memphis.
Lil’s father, Will Hardin, succumbed to tuberculosis when she was only three, but Decie remarried as Lil prepared to start her first year at Fisk. At first, Lil and her stepfather, a railroad fire stoker named John Miller, did not get along, but that changed when she learned of his desire to start a trucking business in Chicago, a city she had visited briefly and fallen in love with. They made the move north in August 1918, when Lil — with one year to go at Fisk — was home for summer vacation.
The excitement of living in Chicago made Lil determined to skip her last year at the university so she could continue to absorb the Windy City’s atmosphere. She loved its wide streets and the fashionably dressed people who strode along them, and the music that seemed to be everywhere. Lil knew she would have a difficult time gaining Decie’s acceptance for her Chicago life, but the solution came on one of her routine walks.
“I came across the Jones Music Store and gazed at all the music displayed in the window, wishing I had every sheet. I went in and hummed a song I had heard people whistling. Recognizing it, the salesman began to play it, but not too well, so I asked if I might try. Amazed to see such a young girl sight read, he offered me a job as music demonstrator. And I accepted it.”
Lil’s persistence and the money she would make won Decie’s approval, and her career was launched. Three weeks later, Lil began a climb to the top by accepting a job with clarinetist Lawrence Duhé’s New Orleans Creole Band, playing at a Chinese restaurant. Then came gigs at the DeLux Café and the city’s ultimate cabaret, Dreamland, where she played accompaniments for a fellow migrated Memphian, Alberta Hunter. In 1921, Lil joined King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band at the Dreamland, which turned out to be a pivotal moment, and the most significant musical association she would make. Decie was still skeptical, so when the band accepted an extended booking in San Francisco, Lil told her that they were going to make some records in New York.
Californians did not take to Oliver’s New Orleans- style music, but the band stayed for the full six-month run. Before embarking on the trip, Lil had been seeing a young man named Jimmie Johnson, whom she married shortly after her return. But, their union was short-lived and her next boyfriend was waiting in the wings: Louis Armstrong, a young trumpeter brought up from New Orleans by Oliver. After a slow start, Lil and Louis’ relationship blossomed fast, but there was a hitch. “When we decided to get married, we each needed a divorce,” Lil recalled, “so we claimed ‘desertion,’ and it worked.”
The wedding took place February 5, 1924, followed by a working honeymoon: a three-week tour of Pennsylvania with the Oliver band.
Louis looked up to Oliver, whom he considered being the greatest of all trumpeters, but Lil did not agree. Her husband, she thought, was wasting his time playing second cornet to Oliver. Eventually, Louis would certainly have been recognized as the better player, but there can be no doubt that Lil sped up the pace of his career by convincing him to go out on his own. She also gave him a visual makeover to make him not look so “country”, as she put it. She gave him a new look from top to bottom and talked him into leaving Oliver’s band. She then packed him off for a job with Fletcher Henderson’s band in New York. When he returned to Chicago in 1925, Armstrong was a star, and his name and status were emblazoned in huge letters on a banner, thanks to Lil’s promotional efforts.
Okeh Records offered to issue a series of sides under his own name. With Lil at the piano, these classic Hot Five recordings remain among the most coveted in jazz history. Lil and Louis grew apart as his fame catapulted in the late 1920s, but it was no secret that her encouragement had made a big difference that the jazz world continues to recognize.
During the 1930s, Lil continued performing as a leader and soloist, sometimes billed as Mrs. Louis Armstrong. In the 1940s, she decided to abandon her music career and pursue her love for fashion design. At a tailoring school in New York, she made a tuxedo for Louis as her graduation piece. He wore it, but she was persuaded not to leave the stage.
She continued performing for another two decades, working as musical director for Decca Records’ Sepia Series and performing on both sides of the Atlantic. “Struttin’ with Some Barbecue” and other early compositions she had written for Louis became Dixieland standards, and, when Ray Charles recorded her 1936 tune, “Just For a Thrill” in 1959, it became a major hit.
In 1961, when Riverside Records approached Lil Hardin Armstrong about doing an album, she asked, incredulously, “Who would want to listen to that old stuff?,” adding, “I like to listen to Thelonious Monk and Billy Taylor.” The resulting album capped an illustrious recording career that begun with the historic King Oliver Gennett sessions in 1923.
In 1962, Hardin began working on her autobiography. The book was never finished, as she passed away in Chicago on August 27, 1971 during a televised performance paying tribute to her love, Louis Armstrong, who had died a month earlier.