Lil Hardin Armstrong: Profiles in Jazz

Lil Hardin Armstrong
Lil Hardin Armstrong

Lil Hardin Armstrong had a long career as a pianist, songwriter and occasional singer but she is chiefly remembered today for her work during a four year period (1923-27) when she often worked and recorded with her husband, Louis Armstrong. However that is a bit unfair for there was quite a bit more to her career than playing with King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band and Armstrong’s Hot Five and Seven.

Lillian Hardin was born Feb. 3, 1898 in Memphis, Tennessee. She had her first piano lessons when she was in third grade and she attended Mrs. Hook’s School Of Music. Hardin showed plenty of potential, studying music for three years at Fisk University in Nashville with hopes of becoming a classical pianist. However that was an unrealistic dream for an African-American woman at the time. Fortunately she also had talent as a blues and New Orleans-style jazz pianist. After she graduated, she moved to Chicago in Aug. 1918 where, due to her excellent sight-reading ability, she found work as a sheet music demonstrator at Jones’ Music Store.

Hot Jazz Jubile

Due to her feeling for jazz and technical skills, she was soon playing piano professionally, working with Sugar Johnny’s Creole Orchestra, Freddie Keppard’s Original Creole Jazz Band, and Lawrence Duhé’s group. Duhé’s band accompanied Florence Mills at the De Luxe Café and soon was performing at Dreamland including with Alberta Hunter and Ollie Powers. King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band followed Duhé at Dreamland in 1921. Oliver was so impressed with Hardin’s piano playing and classical background that he hired her to work with his pacesetting group.

Sugar Johnny's Creole Orchestra
Sugar Johnnie’s New Orleans Creole Orchestra Left to right: Wellman Braud, Lil Hardin (obscured by damaged photo), Lawrence Duhé, Sugar Johnnie Smith, Roy Palmer, Minor Hall.

The Creole Jazz Band, which also included clarinetist Johnny Dodds, trombonist Honore Dutrey, and drummer Baby Dodds among its members, next performed for six months at the Pergola Ballroom in San Francisco. When that booking concluded, the group went to Los Angeles but Hardin chose to return to Chicago. She found work back at Dreamland as the pianist for an orchestra led by violinist Mae Brady.

Lil met singer Jimmie Johnson, sparks flew, and they were married in Aug. 1922, a short-lived association that ended in divorce. When the Creole Jazz Band returned from California a few months later, they started appearing at the Royal Gardens. Bertha Gonsoulin was their pianist at first but soon Hardin rejoined the band.


At the Lincoln Gardens, King Oliver was having so much success that he sent to New Orleans for his protégé Louis Armstrong to play second cornet. Upon Armstrong’s arrival, at first Harden (who was three years older) had a low opinion of him due to his out-of-date clothes and hair style. But over time he won her over with his charm, kindness, and brilliant cornet playing. They were married on Feb. 5, 1924.

Louis Armstrong Hot Five
Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five Left to right: Johnny St. Cyr, Kid Ory, Louis Armstrong, Johnny Dodds, and Lil Hardin-Armstrong

The previous year, both Lil Hardin and Louis Armstrong had made their recording debuts with King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band. Hardin, who is on all 29 of the band’s selections, did not solo with the ensemble-oriented group but her playing was solid and she tended to pound out the beat which helped make up for the lack of a bass.

One of Lil Armstrong’s greatest contributions to jazz was convincing her new husband that he should not be a second cornetist to anyone. While Louis Armstrong was quite happy to be playing next to Oliver whom he regarded as a father figure, it soon became obvious that he was a stronger player and a rapidly evolving soloist. A money dispute in 1924 resulted in the Dodds Brothers leaving the Creole Jazz Band. While Louis Armstrong at first stayed with Oliver, in September with Lil’s blessing, he joined Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra in New York. Lil went to New York for a little while, recording eight songs with her husband and the Red Onion Jazz Babies (five feature singer Alberta Hunter, and Sidney Bechet is on three of the numbers) but then returned to Chicago. She led her own band at the Dreamland Café for much of 1925.

Lil Hardin with Hot Five and Creole JB
Midwife to jazz on record, Lil Hardin arranged and facilitated the trailblazing discs of King Oliver Creole Jazz Band in 1923 (bottom) and the innovative Hot Five and Hot Seven sessions of her husband Louis Armstrong (top) 1925-27.

After making history in New York, Louis Armstrong moved back to Chicago where his wife welcomed his return. He joined her group where she billed him as “The World’s Greatest Trumpet Player.” At first that was fine but Louis was constantly made fun of by other musicians for working with his wife’s band. He soon left the group to work with the orchestras of Carroll Dickerson and Erskine Tate.

However when Louis started leading his Hot Five on record dates, Lil was his pianist. Her rhythmic playing was quite important for, in addition to the trumpeter, Johnny Dodds, and trombonist Kid Ory, the only other musician in the group was banjoist Johnny St. Cyr. Unlike with Oliver’s band, Lil had occasional solos on the Hot Five recordings, she took vocals on “That’s When I’ll Come Back To You” (where she was Louis’ comic foil) and “Georgia Grind,” and wrote some of the songs including “Skid-Dat-De-Dat,” “Jazz Lips,” “Knee Drops,” and the future standard “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue.” She was also on the sessions by Armstrong’s Hot Seven (the Hot Five with John Thomas in Kid Ory’s place plus drummer Baby Dodds and Pete Briggs on tuba) in 1927, the selections by the New Orleans Wanderers and the New Orleans Bootblacks (the Hot Five except with George Mitchell filling in for Louis Armstrong and Joe Clark added on alto), one number on which the Hot Five accompanied the vaudeville team of Butterbeans and Susie, and a trio session that featured Johnny Dodds.


In addition, she led Lil’s Hot Shots for two songs (“Georgia Bo Bo” and “Drop That Sack”) on May 28, 1926. The group was actually the Hot Five recording under a pseudonym for Vocalion, hoping to make some extra money away from their Okeh label. Since Louis Armstrong took a vocal on “Georgia Bo Bo,” it seemed a bit ridiculous that they thought they could disguise their identity. When confronted by the situation by executives at Okeh, Louis reportedly replied, “I don’t know who that is but we promise not to do it again!”

Lil Hardin composite
Lil Hardin in the mid-1930s. These and selected images below are from Black Beauty, White Heat (Driggs & Lewine 1982).

One would think that all of this activity would result in Louis and Lil Armstrong becoming closer, but the opposite was the case. Louis Armstrong’s career was rising fast and in 1928 he preferred to have the innovative Earl Hines as his pianist. While Lil contributed “Don’t Jive Me” and “Two Deuces” to the repertoire of her husband’s Savoy Ballroom Five, she is not on any of their recordings. The Armstrongs would only record together one more time, for “Blue Yodel #9” with country singer Jimmy Rodgers in 1930. They separated in 1931 and ended their 14-year marriage in 1938. Lil Armstrong would never remarry or stop loving Louis, keeping his last name for the rest of her life.

However her music career was far from over. Lil Armstrong formed a band in 1928 that included cornetist Freddie Keppard. During Jan.-Feb. 1929 she was on four record dates led by Johnny Dodds. She earned a teacher’s diploma at the Chicago College Of Music in 1928 and a post-graduate diploma from the New York College Of Music the next year and she would occasionally teach younger students throughout her life. Lil also freelanced as a pianist back in Chicago throughout the 1930s.


She only appeared on one record date during 1931-35, recording three numbers as a singer including two as vocal duets with Eva Taylor while accompanied by pianist Clarence Williams. For the first time, Lil’s vocalizing was not used merely for comedy, and she displays an attractive voice. Later in the decade Ms. Armstrong led a big band that broadcast regularly on the radio but unfortunately no recordings or airchecks exist of her orchestra.

However she was one of the Decca label’s house pianists during 1936-40, accompanying such blues artists as Tiny Mayberry, Half Pint Jaxon, Rosetta Howard, Alberta Hunter, Blue Lu Barker, Helen Proctor, Peetie Wheatstraw, Lee Brown, Georgia White, and Johnnie Temple on jazz-oriented dates alongside such players as trumpeters Charlie Shavers, Joe Thomas, Henry “Red” Allen, and Jonah Jones, clarinetists Buster Bailey and Fess Williams, bassist Wellman Braud, and drummers Sid Catlett and O’Neil Spencer,

In addition, during 1936-38 Lil Armstrong led five sessions for Decca that resulted in 22 selections. Most unusual is that the focus is on her singing and she only plays piano on the final four songs. Among the best numbers are her “Just For a Thrill” (which became a standard later revived by Ray Charles), “Brown Gal,” “Doin’ The Suzie-Q,” “Harlem On Saturday Night,” and “Oriental Swing.” Her sidemen in the hot swing combos include trumpeter Joe Thomas, trombonist J.C. Higginbotham, clarinetist Buster Bailey, and tenor-saxophonist Chu Berry. It is a little surprising that Lil did not continue in this direction for the music is rewarding and seems to have sold fairly well.


King Oliver and Lil Hardin Armstrong 1921
King Oliver and Lil Hardin Armstrong 1921

Armstrong was strictly a pianist on Johnny Dodds’ lone New York session in 1938, on two songs apiece led by Henry “Red” Allen and drummer Zutty Singleton, and on her last session as a leader for Decca in 1940. She never tried after that to have a career as a singer. While she worked steadily in Chicago-area clubs in the 1940s, Lil gradually slipped away into obscurity. She recorded a session for the Black & White label with an all-star group in 1945 and four little-known solos for Eastwood in 1947 but was discouraged by the music business, not attempting to find a place for herself in a world dominated by pop singers, bebop, and early r&b. She actually studied tailoring and planned to retire altogether from music but, due to the growing popularity of New Orleans jazz, she was able to find work playing her songs and vintage standards.

Lil Armstrong visited Paris in 1952 where she recorded in a trio with Sidney Bechet and Zutty Singleton, sounding fine on piano and taking the vocals on “Big Butter And Egg Man” and “Lazy River.” She also recorded four numbers overseas in a duet with drummer Marcel Blanche and back in the US in 1954 was on a little-known session in Chicago led by veteran trumpeter Natty Dominique.

Otherwise, she had a low profile. In late 1958, Lil recorded Satchmo and Me, a documentary album for the Riverside label in which she mostly talked about her early days, concluding with the end of her marriage to Louis Armstrong with nothing said about her later successes on Decca.

In 1961 Lil recorded one number with Alberta Hunter (“After All these Years”), led a so-so and overly loose jam session-styled album for the Riverside label that included seven different horn players, and was part of the large cast of 1920s veterans who appeared in the television special Chicago And All That Jazz. In the latter, she took brief piano solos on “The Pearls” and “Original Rag” and was one of the singers on “Take Me To The Land Of Jazz” and “Chicago,”

Lil Hardin Armstrong on August 27, 1971, at Chicago’s Civic Center
Lil Hardin Armstrong on August 27, 1971, at Chicago’s Civic Center Plaza. During the concert, which was a memorial tribute to Louis Armstrong, Lil Armstrong collapsed and died at the piano. (AP Wirephoto from Editor’s collection)

Sixty-three at the time, Lil Armstrong’s appearance on the television show was her last hurrah. She started working on her autobiography in 1962 with writer Chris Albertson but changed her mind and it was never completed. (It was presumed lost, though Ricky Riccardi reported finding an unpublished autobiographical manuscript by Armstrong among Chris Albertson’s papers in July 2019.) She played music now and then in the 1960s but her only recording after 1961 was with tenor-saxophonist Franz Jackson in 1968 on a set released decades later by the Jazz Crusade label.

On Aug. 27, 1971, 52 days after the death of Louis Armstrong, Lil Armstrong was performing “St. Louis Blues” at a televised memorial concert for her former husband when she suffered a heart attack and passed away at the age of 73. Her Decca sessions as a leader, which deserve to be much better known, were last reissued in full on Lil Armstrong 1936-1940 (Classics 564) and serve as a testimonial to her often overlooked musical talents.

Scott Yanow

Since 1975 Scott Yanow has been a regular reviewer of albums in many jazz styles. He has written for many jazz and arts magazines, including JazzTimes, Jazziz, Down Beat, Cadence, CODA, and the Los Angeles Jazz Scene, and was the jazz editor for Record Review. He has written an in-depth biography on Dizzy Gillespie for He has authored 11 books on jazz, over 900 liner notes for CDs and over 20,000 reviews of jazz recordings.

Yanow was a contributor to and co-editor of the third edition of the All Music Guide to Jazz. He continues to write for Downbeat, Jazziz, the Los Angeles Jazz Scene, the Jazz Rag, the New York City Jazz Record and other publications.

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