Jazz Stars: Lillian Hardin Armstrong

Today, on Lillian Hardin Armstrong 125th birthday, "Jazz Stars" column is dedicated to the life story of American jazz pianist, composer, orchestrator, singer and bandleader; the second wife of Louis Armstrong wife and a new musical selection comprised of compositions that she performs.

Lillian Hardin Armstrong (née Hardin; February 3, 1898 - August 27, 1971) was an American jazz pianist, composer, orchestrator, singer, and bandleader. She was the second wife of Louis Armstrong, with whom they often performed together in the 1920s. In those years, she was known as “Hot Miss Lil”.

Lil was born in Memphis. Though her mother worked as a house cleaner, she gave her kids a comfortable and somewhat refined life. 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.” Missis Hardin made sure that Lil attended School of Music and the prestigious Fisk University. Lil’s mother favored hymns and popular songs and banned Lil from having anything to do with jazz and blues. Ironically, in 1918, Lil’s mother moved her family to Chicago—a center of the burgeoning jazz universe and a magnet for the best New Orleans players. Lil soon found a job at a music store where she met piano giant Jelly Roll Morton and Chicago’s top jazz bandleader King Oliver. Before long Lil made a good living as a jazz piano player with Oliver in spite of her mother’s initial objection to the genre. She found that most of the band's musicians did not know the notes.

Louis Armstrong also played there. They began a stormy romance. In 1924, the couple married. In addition to updating her clothing style and hairstyle, Hardin helped Armstrong study classical music and worked on his career.

At the time, Lil and Louis were playing with the King Oliver Jazz Band. They even began recording their own music, thus creating some of the first jazz recordings in history. The band was popular and toured a lot, but Louis was not in the lead, and Lil convinced him to leave the band. That same year, 1924, Louis went to New York City and joined the Fletcher Hendeson Orchestra.

Lil always felt that her husband should become famous, and she wanted to help him. When Louis returned to Chicago, they organized their own musical band. Lil was her husband's manager and at the same time started her own band. She continued to help her husband, organized the "fives" and "sevens" of the mid-20s, and wrote many compositions.

Nevertheless, as popularity of Louis Armstrong grew, their familial dynamics went downhill exponentially. Hardin and Armstrong separated in 1931 and finally divorced in 1938. In the 1930s Lil performed in several Broadway musicals, sometimes calling herself 'Mrs. Louis Armstrong', she led the All Girl Orchestra, a big band whose performances were broadcast nationwide on the NBC radio network.
In the 1940s, she decided to give up her music career and take up fashion design. At sewing school in New York, Lil sewed a dinner jacket for Louis as her graduation project. She continued to perform with varying intensity for another two decades, working as music director for Decca Records' Sepia series and performing on both sides of the Atlantic. "Struttin' with Some Barbecue" and other early compositions she wrote for Armstrong became Dixieland classics, and when Ray Charles recorded her 1936 tune "Just For a Thrill" in 1959, the tune became a major hit.

In 1961, when the Riverside Records label approached Lil Hardin Armstrong about recording an album, she asked incredulously, "Who would want to listen to this old material?" adding, "I like listening to Thelonious Monk and Billy Taylor, myself". The resulting album capped an illustrious recording career that began with the historic King Oliver Gennett sessions in 1923.

Lil died at a concert in memory of Louis Armstrong in Chicago, while performing "St. Louis Blues", dropping dead on the piano. She only survived Louis by two months.

Seven years after she died, a song composed by Lil Hardin Armstrong topped the pop charts all over the world. Ringo Starr recorded her composition “Bad Boy” in 1978 and it was on the radio everywhere. No doubt Lil would have enjoyed that immensely.