A pianist, composer, arranger, and bandleader. One of the first prominent female instrumentalists in early jazz.
Lillian Hardin was born in 1898 in Memphis, raised by her mother who was a maid. In her childhood, she started playing with a found harmonium and an imaginary piano. Her mother paid for her music classes, later sending her to Fisk University.
Armstrong’s mother objected to “the evils” of jazz and blues, but those were irresistible to Lil when the family moved to the musical hub of Chicago in 1918. She found a job at a music store and started playing with local bands.
Lil Hardin grew to be a sought-after musician, playing piano, composing, and arranging. Nicknamed “Hot Miss Lil” she occupied a unique position in the male-dominated 1920s jazz world. When she met trumpeter Louis Armstrong, she was more established and contributed to building his career towards world fame. After 14 years of marriage, they drew apart, but stayed in professional friendship.
Lil continued with her musical career – singing swing, leading eight bands, two of them all-female bands, and appearing on Broadway. She also studied in a tailoring school to be a fashion designer, taught French, and opened a restaurant in Chicago, called Lil Armstrong’s Swing Shack.
Hardin Armstrong died from a heart attack on stage while playing the piano in Louis Armstrong Memorial Concert in Chicago Civic Center Plaza.
“I never was going to be a big star, but I always was a star, a little star, up there in the sky twinkling”
More Interesting Anecdotes:
- Both she and Luis Armstrong were married when they met and had to get divorced before marrying each other.
- Her 1924 honeymoon with Luis Armstrong was a performing tour of Pennsylvania.
- At the age of 54, she traveled to Paris and played jazz there.
- Seven years after her death, a song she composed “Brown Gal” was re-recorded by Ringo Starr as “Bad Boy” and became a hit.
- She had no children, and her drafts for an autobiography were left unfinished.
- A park in Chicago was named in her honor.