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Armstrong(born Hardin), Lil(ian)

band chicago louis led

Armstrong(born Hardin), Lil(ian), jazz pianist, singer, composer; b. Memphis, Term., Feb. 3, 1898; d. Chicago, Aug. 27, 1971. Though best known as Louis Armstrong’s second wife, Lil Armstrong was hired by cornetist Joe “King” Oliver and led her own bands, proof of her solid musicianship. She studied music for three years at Fisk Univ., and claimed to have published six songs. In 1917 Armstrong vacationed in Chicago, where she began working as a song demonstrator in Ben Jones’ Music Store. She decided to stay in the Windy City and played with Curtis Mosby, trumpeter “Sugar Johnny” Smith, and Freddie Keppard before leading a band at Dreamland in 1920. (She was briefly married during this period, it seems.) Armstrong worked on and off with King Oliver from 1921 until 1924. She married Louis Armstrong on Feb. 5, 1924. Later that year she led a band at the Dreamland in Chicago while Louis Armstrong was in N.Y. with Fletcher Henderson. After that she lived briefly in N.Y., then again went to Chicago to lead a band, which Louis Armstrong joined in late 1925. She was the regular pianist on her her husband’s famous Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings (1925–27) and composed many of the pieces. She hated to fly, which was one factor that limited her career. (Louis Armstrong turned down several appearances because of her fear.) She also worked in Hugh Swift’s Band (1926) and toured with Freddie Keppard (1928). After studying with Louis Victor Saar, she earned a Teachers’ Diploma at the Chicago Coll. of Music in 1928, then studied at the N.Y. Coll. of Music with August Fraemcke, earning a postgraduate degree in 1929. She and Louis Armstrong separated in 1931 and were divorced in 1938. Now going by her maiden name, Hardin won a lawsuit against Armstrong for unpaid royalties on songs they co-wrote, and at one point she billed his replacement in her band, Jonah Jones, as “Louis Armstrong the Second.”

During the early-1930s Hardin led her own “all-girl” band and guested with Ralph Cooper’s Orch. at the Harlem Opera House in 1931. She next formed an all-male band that broadcast regularly on the NBC, WMCA, and WOR networks. She appeared as a soloist in the “Hot Chocolate” and “Shuffle Along” revues, led an all-girl band at Chicago’s Regal Theatre in 1934, and in 1935 and 1936 led an all-male band that played residencies in Detroit, Buffalo, and elsewhere. During the late 1930s Hardin lived in N.Y., mainly to be house pianist at the Decca recording studios. In late 1940, she returned to Chicago to play solo at the Tin Pan Alley Club, a stint that was followed by long solo residencies at the Garrick Stage Bar, the Mark Twain Lounge, the Nob Hill Club, and the East Town Bar in Milwaukee. Her songs “Brown Gal” and “Just for a Thrill” were recorded by The Ink Spots. While appearing in Milwaukee Hardin met a visiting Frenchman, Michel Grasje, who convinced her to move to Europe in early 1952. She subsequently worked mainly in Paris, including a billing with Sidney Bechet that was attended by 15, 000 people. Hardin made occasional visits to London and a return trip to Chicago in mid-1954. During the late 1950s and 1960s, she was active again around Chicago, and at one point had her own restaurant. She also toured, including dates in Canada. Hardin suffered a fatal heart attack while taking part in a Louis Armstrong Memorial Concert, suggesting that her former husband remained a highly emotional connection for her. She was also a clothing designer and seamstress whose customers included Armstrong, Count Basie, Lucky Millinder, and Fletcher Henderson.

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