Louis’ Muse: A Shout-Out for Lil Hardin Armstrong

Published in New Orleans Magazine. August marked 117 years since Louis Armstrong’s birth. With the city’s greatest native son on a rise of planetary value, we should remember the woman who played an early pivotal role.

When Armstrong left for Chicago in 1922 to join his mentor Joe “King” Oliver in the Creole Jazz Band, the petite Lil Hardin, a pianist with classical training at Fisk University, had moved to the Windy City with her mother. Working in a music store, learning ragtime, she met different piano players, buying scores. “One day Jelly Roll Morton came in,” she told Studs Terkel in a long interview (And They All Sang: Adventures of an Eclectic Disc Jockey.)

“Oh, boy, he sat down at the piano and his long skinny fingers were hitting those keys and he was beating out a double rhythm and the people were just going wild. I was going wild, too! Jelly Roll is the first pianist that influenced my playing.”

Three years younger than Lil, Louis with a fourth-grade education had a downhome, rough-edge quality (his ex-wife was a streetwalker) offset by the soaring poetics of his horn and a charming joviality. Her mother wasn’t happy as Lil turned to jazz, joining the Creole band in ’23. Armstrong’s powerful lyricism as second horn drew white musicians to the cavernous Royal Gardens on the South Side, with elegant Lil on piano an added draw for the house. The early Hot 5 recordings became jazz classics.

In the electricity between Lil and Louis that led them to marry, she saw his stylistic voice getting crimped by Oliver’s lead horn. “Oliver was his idol,” she recalled. “I told him I definitely didn’t want to be married to a second-trumpet player.”

Helping him refine his music reading, Lil pushed Louis to leave the Creole Jazz Band for a better showcase to his talent. He took a job in New York with Fletcher Henderson; she pressed Henderson to give him a raise: $55 to $75.

An obvious question rises. What if Lil hadn’t pushed him to leave King Oliver? Louis would have stayed in Chicago, content in the Creole band, a likely successor as lead trumpet when Oliver’s gum disease made his solos short and painful. All that, and Chicago domesticity.

As Louis’s star soared in New York, he spent long stretches on the road; the breakup was slow, they divorced in 1938. Lil kept a place for him in her heart, went back to school, recharged her career.

“In the meantime, I did have a 16 piece girls band. Oh, yeah, I tried everything…four years, 45 towns in France, 15 towns in Switzerland. Berlin, Frankfurt, Copehagen, Amsterdam, London.”

She sang in several Broadway musicals, recorded as a vocalist for Decca in the 1940s and 50s. In later life she spent long periods at a Michigan lake house she and Louis had bought during the salad years in Chicago.

Louis married a dancer after Lil, divorced again and settled into a long final marriage and a house in Queens with Lucille. (The house is now a museum.)

Lil never remarried. With the news of his death in July 1971 she agreed to appear in a Chicago musical tribute a month later. In the middle of her set, she collapsed and died.