Lil Hardin Armstrong

From Academic Kids

Lil Hardin Armstrong (February 3, 1898 - August 27, 1971) was a jazz pianist, composer, arranger, singer, and bandleader, and the second wife of Louis Armstrong with whom she collaborated on many recordings in the 1920s.

Hardin was born as Lillian Hardin in Memphis, Tennessee. In her youth she learned hymns, spirituals, and Classics on the piano. She was drawn to popular music and later blues, but could only listen or play these styles occasionally covertly, as her mother, a deeply religious woman considered them "sinful". While she sometimes claimed to be a valedictorian graduate of Fisk University, records show that Hardin actually attended for less than a year without receiving a degree.

Lil Hardin moved to Chicago in 1917. Her ability to read music, landed her a job demonstrating sheet music at Jones Music Store. Her third week on the job Jelly Roll Morton walked in the store and played the piano, making jazz variations on the tunes Lil had been playing. This had a profound effect on Lil, who now began exploring jazz style by creating variations on the sheet music. Her performances at the music store began to draw crowds, and she was offered a job at a Chinese Restaurant with clarinetist Lawrence Duhé's New Orleans Creole Band. Three weeks later, the band moved on to a better booking at the De Luxe Café, and from there to the jewel of Chicago's night life, the Dreamland. When King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band replaced Duhé's group at the Dreamland, Oliver asked Lil to stay with him. She was with Oliver at the Dreamland when an offer came for the orchestra to play a six-month engagement at San Francisco's Pergola Ballroom. At the end of that booking, Lil returned to Chicago while the rest of the Oliver band went on to Los Angeles.

In Chicago, Lil went back to work at the Dreamland, as pianist with violinist Mae Brady's orchestra. While there, she fell for Jimmie Johnson, a handsome young singer from Washington, D.C., whom she married on August 22, 1922. The marriage was short-lived, ending in divorce after Jimmy moved to Petosky, Michigan, in hopes of getting work and giving their marriage a new start. In the meantime, the Oliver band returned from California and opened at the Royal Gardens, with Bertha Gonzales at the piano, but soon found itself back at the Dreamland, with Lil at the piano.

His band was enjoying enormous success at the Dreamland when Oliver sent for Louis Armstrong to join as second cornetist. Armstrong was beginning to make a name for himself in their hometown, New Orleans, and regarded "Papa Joe" as his mentor. Some say that Oliver saw Louis as a threat to his jazz throne and decided that having him in his band was a good form of containment, although by all accounts both cornetists enjoyed working together. At first, Lil was unimpressed with Louis, who arrived in Chicago wearing clothes and a hair style that she deemed to be "too country" for Chicago, but she worked to "take the country out of him" and a romance developed (to the surprise of other band members, some of whom had been trying to woo pretty Lil for some time with no success). Lil already already had divorce experience and helped Louis get a divorce from his first wife Daisy, whom he had separated from back in New Orleans. Lil and Louis were married on February 4, 1924.

Lil took Louis shopping and taught him how to dress more fashionably--she also got rid of his bangs, and began working on his career. Recognizing his extraordinary talent, she felt that he was wasting it in a secondary role. Louis was happy to be playing next to his idol, but Lil eventually persuaded him to leave Oliver and go it on his own. Armstrong eventually resigned from Oliver's band and, in September of 1924, accepted a job with Fletcher Henderson in New York City. Lil stayed in Chicago, first with Oliver, then leading a band of her own. When Lil's band got a job at the Dreamland Café, the following year, she prepared for Louis' return to Chicago by having a huge banner made to advertise him as "The World's Greatest Trumpet Player."

Louis was gaining an impressive reputation when Richard M. Jones convinced Okeh Records to make a series of sessions under his name: the classic Armstrong Hot Five recordings. With Lil at the piano, Kid Ory, trombone, Johnny Dodds, clarinet, and Johnny St. Cyr, banjo, this stellar group rehearsed at Louis and Lil's house on Chicago's East 41st Street and held its first session on November 15, 1927. Few recordings are as celebrated as the ones made by the Hot Five (and, sometimes, with Earl Hines replacing Lil, the Hot Seven) between then and the end of 1928. Lil had actually recorded five selections for Vocalion, leading the same group, in April and May, 1926.

In the late 1920s Lil and Louis grew apart. Armstrong formed a new Hot 5, with Earl Hines on piano. Lil reformed her own band with Freddie Keppard on cornet (who Lil considered the second best jazz trumpeter after her husband). Louis and Lil separated in 1931, though they remained friends.

In the 1930s Lil Hardin Armstrong led an "All Girl Orchestra", then a mixed gender Big Band which broadcast nationally over the NBC radio network. The same decade she recorded a series of sides for Decca Records as a Swing vocalist, as well as appearing as a piano accompaniest for many other singers. She also recorded with Red Allen.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s she worked mostly as a soloist singing and playing piano. He projects on the side included appearing in Broadway shows and staging a fashion show. Lil again started leading a jazz band in the mid '50s, and toured Europe before returning to Chicago.

Lil Hardin Armstrong died while taking part in a memorial concert for Louis Armstrong, who had died the previous month.

Lil Hardin Armstrong's compositions include " Struttin' With Some Barbecue", "Don't Jive Me", "Two Deuces", "Knee Drops", "Doin' the Suzie-Q", ""Just For a Thrill", "Clip Joint", and "Bad Boy"; a cover record of the last number by Ringo Starr was a hit in Hardin Armstrong


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