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Armstrong, Lillian “Lil” Hardin

Black Women in America

Hilary Mac Austin

Armstrong, Lillian “Lil” Hardin 

(b. 3 February 1898; d. 27 August 1971), musician.

Lil Hardin Armstrong is one of the great treasures of American jazz. In a day when women in music were the singers, Hardin played the piano, composed, arranged, and managed—both her own career and that of her husband Louis Armstrong. Uncredited for many years, happily she has begun to gain some well-deserved attention.

Born in Memphis, Tennessee, Lillian Beatrice Hardin was the daughter of Dempsey Martin and William Hardin. Reports differ on whether Hardin’s parents divorced or whether her father died when she was young, but it is known that Hardin was raised by her mother and her maternal grandmother in a strictly religious household. Hardin was attracted to music almost from birth and began playing the organ when she was very young. By the time she was six, her mother had arranged that she take additional piano lessons from her schoolteacher, and by nine she was playing the organ for her Sunday school. At sixteen Hardin won a contest at her school. In 1915 or 1916 Dempsey Hardin enrolled her daughter at Fisk University. Lil Hardin spent only a year at Fisk before dropping out and moving with her family to Chicago. This move would be one of the most significant events in her life.

“Hot” in Chicago

Shortly after she arrived in Chicago, Hardin’s musical skills got her a job at Jones Music Store, where she was billed as the “Jazz Wonder Child.” Legend has it that while playing music at Jones, Hardin met the great pianist Jelly Roll Morton. Hardin was so impressed with his hard-hitting style that she adopted it and made it her own. Another patron of Jones was Lawrence Duhé, who needed a piano player for his Sugar Johnny’s Creole Orchestra. Unbeknownst to her mother, Hardin joined the band and was dubbed “Hot Miss Lil.” The band played the De Luxe Café, and the place was packed every night. During this time Hardin married the singer Jimmy Johnson. She toured with the band to California, but the separation was hard on the marriage, and Hardin returned to Chicago early. She then got a job playing at the Dreamland nightclub.

A Partnership with Louis

In late 1921 Hardin was asked to join King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band as the pianist and arranger. The following year a young cornet player named Louis Armstrong became a member of the band. Though initially unimpressed with him, Hardin soon recognized his talents, and they formed a close musical and romantic relationship. In 1924 Armstrong and Hardin were married. They also recorded one of the first jazz records ever made. As a member of the Red Onion Jazz Babies, Hardin played on a recording for Gennet alongside Armstrong on the cornet. The Jazz Babies recorded three instrumental numbers and five titles with Alberta Hunter, who is listed under the name Josephine Beatty, because at the time she was under contract to Paramount. The same year, Hardin convinced Armstrong to leave King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band and join Fletcher Henderson’s Black Swan Troubadours in New York City. Hardin had a harder time finding a band that would accept a female piano player, so she quickly returned to Chicago.

Armstrong, Lillian “Lil” HardinClick to view larger

Lillian Hardin Armstrong,

at the piano, with King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, at their studio in Chicago, c. 1922. The others are (left to right): Johnny Dodds, clarinet; Baby Dodds, drums; Honore Dutrey, trombone; Louis Armstrong, second trumpet; King Oliver, lead trumpet; and Bill Johnson, banjo. © Bettmann/Corbis

In 1925, upset that Fletcher Henderson was not using Armstrong to his fullest advantage, as well as not giving him proper (or any) billing, Hardin lured Armstrong back to Chicago by forming a new band, Lil’s Dreamland Syncopators, in which Armstrong would receive both top billing and top pay. He received $75 per week, a very large sum of money at the time, and the posters for the band touted “Louis Armstrong: The World’s Greatest Trumpet Player.” Hardin was the pianist for the band as well as its arranger and business manager. Hardin also helped form the recording group Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five. In 1925 the group recorded a number of songs for Okeh Records. Their first song, “My Heart,” was written by Hardin, as were at least three other songs on the record.

While their musical relationship was growing ever stronger, their personal relationship was falling apart. Armstrong moved in with his new girlfriend, Alpha Smith, after only one year of marriage. He left the Dreamland Syncopators as well and formed his own band, Louis Armstrong and His Stompers, which performed at the Sunset Café. Luckily for posterity, the trouble in the marriage did not put an end to the couple’s professional relationship. Hardin continued to advise, teach, and manage Armstrong and to play on later Armstrong records, including the famed “Hot Sevens” recordings. She did not formally separate from Armstrong until 1931, and they were not divorced until 1938.

Continuing to Swing

Hardin continued to pursue her career without her husband as well. In 1926 she made a record under the name the New Orleans Wanderers. The following day she recorded another under the name the New Orleans Bootblacks. In 1928 she graduated with a teachers certificate from the Chicago College of Music. The following year, she received a postgraduate degree from the New York College of Music. During this period she also played with Freddie Keppard, appeared on recordings with Johnny Dodds, and was the pianist and bandleader for the Hot Shots.

Because of her talent, business acumen, and ambition, Hardin worked throughout the Depression. She appeared in two Broadway shows, Hot Chocolates (1929) and the famed Shuffle Along (1933). She formed two different all-female bands and led an all-male band based out of Buffalo, New York. She recorded her own songs at Decca throughout the decade, as well as serving as the company’s house pianist. In 1936 she formed Lil Armstrong and Her Swing Orchestra. This group recorded her most popular composition, “Just for a Thrill,” as well as “Brown Gal,” “Born to Swing,” and “Let’s Get Happy Together,” among many others.

Hardin stopped recording for Decca in 1940. Though she continued to play and compose, her career slowed down in subsequent years. She worked at a variety of jobs, including teaching piano and French and designing clothes. For a short time she even opened her own restaurant, Lil Armstrong’s Swing Shack. She returned to performance when, from 1952 to 1953, she appeared at Metro Jazz in Paris and performed with the band in the short film Sous-sol. In 1961 she appeared on the album Chicago—The Living Legends, produced by Riverside Records. She continued to give occasional performances until 1971. She died onstage on 27 August 1971, during a memorial concert for her former husband, Louis, who had died just a month earlier.

Lil Hardin Armstrong is a unique figure in jazz history. Not only did she recognize and nurture one of the genre’s most incredible talents but she also was a significant force in her own right. Undeterred by the sexism endemic in the music industry, she formed bands, composed and recorded music, and had a significant influence on the development of early jazz. She put it more simply: “I was just born to swing, that’s all. Call it what you want, blues, swing, jazz, it caught hold of me way back in Memphis and it looks like it won’t ever let go.”

See also Jazz and Music Industry.


Dickerson, James L. Just for a Thrill: Lil Hardin Armstrong, First Lady of Jazz. New York: Cooper Square Press, 2002.Find this resource:

    Hazeldine, Mike. Armstrong [née Hardin], Lil(lian). The New Grove Dictionary of Music Online (2003), edited by L. Macy. this resource:

      Placksin, Sally. American Women in Jazz, 1900 to the Present. New York: Seaview Books, 1982.Find this resource:

        Hilary Mac Austin