Lillian Hardin was born in Memphis, Tennessee in 1898. She first received piano instruction from her third-grade teacher, and later her mother, Dempsey Martin Hardin enrolled her into Mrs. Hook’s School of Music. Lil later advanced her skill at Fisk University. She learned by playing hymns, spirituals, and classical music on the piano. She was drawn to popular music and later blues. By the time she moved to Chicago in 1918 she was proficient at sight-reading which helped her gain employment as a music demonstrator and then a pianist with Lawrence Duhé’s band until 1921 when King Oliver took over as the venue, Dreamland’s bandleader. Oliver asked her to stay as the pianist and the rest is history.
Louis was born in New Orleans on August 4, 1901 to Mary Estelle “Mayann” Albert and William Armstrong. He spent his youth in a rough neighborhood known as The Battlefield. At six he attended the Fisk School for Boys but dropped out of school at the age of eleven and joined a quartet of boys who sang in the streets for money. He wound up bumping into Cornetist Bunk Johnson, who taught Armstrong how to play by ear. A few years later Louis got in trouble and was sentenced to time in a group home. Luckily the group home had a band. Armstrong used his time here to further develop his cornet skills and was selected to become the bandleader at the age of thirteen. He was released two years later and returned to The Battlefield. He straddled the fence between music and battling in the streets. Having a larger influence on him than the poverty that surrounded him, Armstrong finally landed a spots with brass bands that played and travelled on riverboats. This finally got him outside of The Battlefield. He was later invited to move to Chicago by Joe “King” Oliver to join his ensemble.
Lil and Louis were band mates in King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band. Louis was the new kid in town and Lil the established player on the Chicago jazz scene. Lil Hardin was not impressed with Louis on first sight. She stated that ‘Louis was too fat and had a funny hairdo.’ Louis’s charm and talent peaked her interest and eventually she fell for him. They were married within a year.
Louis Armstrong and Lil Hardin had two completely different personalities. She was a sophisticated extrovert. He was a country as hell. She was driven by her ambitions and had a good head for business. He was chill and wasn’t too concerned with making money. All Louis wanted to do was play his horn.
She saw him as a star with his name in lights and he thought she was “crazy.” But she was able convince him that she was right. After that they both changed the face of jazz. Who knows if Louis Armstrong’s genius would have touched the world as it did without the tireless effort and steadfast vision of Lil Hardin Armstrong.
Despite working in a male dominated scene, Lil Hardin was one of the most sought-after jazz pianists on the South Side of Chicago in the early 20s. She met Louis while playing piano in “King Oliver’s Creole Orchestra. Oliver sent for Louis to move up from New Orleans and play second cornet in his ground-breaking jazz band.
It wasn’t love at first sight for Lil. She only started to notice Louis after King Oliver pointed out that Louis was the better player of the two. Lil and Louis tied the knot on February 5, 1924 and their honeymoon was spent on tour with Oliver’s band.
Lil Hardin Armstrong is credited with persuading Louis to pursue a solo career, leave King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, and join Fletcher Henderson’s landmark group at the Roseland Ballroom in New York.
Lil was a major contributor to Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings. She played piano, sang occasionally, and composed several major tunes, including “Struttin’ with Some Barbecue” and “My Heart.”
Night after night Louis Armstrong was in the spotlight, entertaining bigger and bigger crowds with his endless charm and playing his heart out on trumpet. He was swept along on the tide of his enormous talent. Lil Hardin always had her feet on the ground, calculating their next move. She said she often imagined herself standing out of sight, at the bottom of a ladder, holding it steady for Louis as he rose to stardom.
Though their marriage ended in 1931 they remained friends—their partnership reflected forever in the body of work they created together.