There was, as expected, a flurry of renewed interest in the life and musical legacy of jazz great Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong over the last week or so because his birthday was on or somewhere around the Fourth of July. Yesterday, July 8, I attended the funeral of pianist/composer Geri Allen, and with her and Armstrong on my mind, I drifted to the memory of Lil Hardin, who was the pianist and former wife of the trumpeter, and the only female member of his early groups.
Allen, like Hardin, was often the only female in an ensemble she led or was part of, but Hardin was a pioneer of this inclusion, and we use this occasion to discuss her importance in the history of jazz.
She was born Lillian Beatrice Hardin Feb. 3, 1898, in Memphis, Tenn. Lil, as she later became known, was very young when her parents separated. Her mother worked as a cook for a white family, which provided just enough income for the two of them and their residence in a boarding house.
They lived not too far from the infamous Beale Street, where the blues and jazz intersected enticingly with the night life of the city. It was a temptation that Hardin’s mother, Dempsey, was well aware of, and she was determined to keep her daughter’s developing music interest on matters religious.
At a very early age Hardin began taking music lessons from her third-grade teacher, Violet White. Later, her mother enrolled her at Mrs. Hook’s School of Music. Her musical interest and abilities were further expanded when she began playing the organ at Lebanon Baptist Church. She was 16 when she won a music contest at her school, and it sparked her interest in jazz and in a musical profession.
To protect Hardin from the notorious aspects of Beale Street and the environs, Dempsey sent her to Fisk University in Nashville. In the fall of 1915, she began classes at Fisk, which required $36.50 a semester in tuition, room and board. Hardin enrolled in what today would be called college preparatory courses in English, science, Latin and home economics. Of course, there were also the music courses that improved her reading and comprehension of music in general and jazz in particular.
After she received her diploma from Fisk, Hardin returned to Memphis, and a year later she moved to Chicago with her mother and stepfather. One of the first jobs she obtained in Chicago was at Jones Music Store, where she was hired to demonstrate sheet music. She was earning $3 a week before being offered a better job with more pay playing with Lawrence Duhé’s band.
Performing with Duhé meant exposure to the bars and clubs, which was offensive to Hardin’s mother’s sensitivity, so Hardin told her the group was a rehearsal band at a dance school, and not in cabarets where they actually performed. More exposure for the band occurred when they began headlining at the De Luxe Café, where such notables as Florence Mills were among the attractions. Then, it was on to the city’s top night spot, Dreamland, where such musical luminaries as blues diva Alberta Hunter were often the featured act.
The Duhé band was soon replaced by King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, and Oliver asked Hardin to stay with him. By 1921, the band was among the best in the land, with gigs from coast to coast, including the Pergola Ballroom in San Francisco. Rather than continuing to travel with Oliver, Hardin returned to Dreamland as the pianist with Mae Brady, a prominent violinist on the vaudeville circuit. It during this period that she met and married singer Jimmy Johnson.
When the Oliver band returned to Chicago and opened at the Royal Gardens, Hardin was once again hired for the piano chair, replacing Bertha Gonzales. The band, once again, was the toast of the town and became even more so when Armstrong joined the band. Almost immediately, the two became a couple, although both had to get divorces before marrying in 1924.
Under Hardin’s guidance and dictation, Armstrong acquired a more debonair style, dressing more fashionably. She was also instrumental in recognizing that her husband’s talent was the bulwark of the band and it was time for him to branch out on his own. Armstrong, perhaps at Hardin’s suggestion, left the band and signed on with Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra in New York City. For a while, Hardin remained with Oliver before heading her own band.
In 1925, when Armstrong returned to Chicago, Hardin’s band was at Dreamland, and she organized a huge homecoming for him as “The World’s Greatest Trumpet Player.”
Shortly, with Armstrong as the star, the Hot Five was formed, with Hardin at the piano, Johnny St. Cyr on banjo, Kid Ory on trombone and Johnny Dodds on clarinet. The group recorded a series of releases for Okeh Records.
The recordings made them one of the most famous ensembles—sometimes expanding to be called the Hot Seven with the inclusion of Baby Dodds on drums and Earl Hines substituting for Hardin —in the country.
By the late ’20s, Armstrong and Hardin grew apart, and they subsequently fronted their own groups, sometimes appropriating the names of their former affiliations.
Their relationship was over by 1931, when Armstrong began an affair with Alpha Smith, who threatened to sue him for breach of promise, forcing Armstrong to plead with Hardin not to divorce him.
After their divorce in 1938, Hardin continued to bill herself as “Mrs. Louis Armstrong,” capitalizing on his popularity, and leading her own All-Girl Orchestra that broadcast on the NBC radio network. Meanwhile, her recording career proceeded uninterruptedly as a soloist and accompanist.
Despite relative success as a singer and pianist, by the 1940s Hardin decided she’d had enough of the music business and enrolled at a school to become a tailor. For her graduation project she designed and made a tuxedo for Armstrong. The tux, along with several other creations, was presented at a New York cocktail party to great notice. It was at this occasion that she was asked to play the piano. “That’s when I knew I would never be able to leave the music business,” she said.
Armstrong wore the tux and Hardin continued to be a tailor, but only on special assignments. Her tailoring turned out to be a temporary avocation—the music business was in her blood. There were occasional tours to France, but mainly she played in and around Chicago, including dates with Joe Williams and Oscar Brown Jr.
In 1961 was the fabulous reunion with Alberta Hunter, “Chicago: The Living Legends.” In 1962 she began working on an autobiography with Chris Albertson but she had second thoughts because she would have to reveal information detrimental to Armstrong’s career. The project was put aside. She had promised to tell it all after Armstrong’s death, but the book was never finished.
Hardin was heartbroken when Armstrong died in 1971, and she traveled to the funeral in New York and rode in the family car. She was performing at a televised memorial for Armstrong Aug. 27, 1971, when she collapsed at the piano and died on the way to the hospital, seven weeks after the trumpet master’s death.
The Chicago Park District renamed a community park in her honor in 2004.