American musician Lillian "Lil" Hardin Armstrong (1898-1971) ranks alongside Jelly Roll Morton and James P. Johnson as one of the great early jazz pianists. "I was just born to swing, that's all," she once said. "Call it what you want, blues, swing, jazz, it caught hold of me way back in Memphis and it looks like it won't ever let go." Armstrong's statement, ironically, was portentous. After a distinguished fifty-year musical career, she died on stage, at a memorial concert for Louis Armstrong.
Armstrong was born on February 3, 1898, in Memphis, Tennessee. She received piano and organ lessons as a child in Memphis and served as a pianist and organist in church and in her school. Her mother and grandmother hated popular music and considered the blues vulgar. In fact, she was beaten for having a copy of W. C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues." Later, she recalled playing "Onward Christian Soldiers" in church one day "with a definite beat," somewhat to the consternation of her minister.
Armstrong received her formal music training at Fisk University, the Chicago College of Music (earning a teacher's certificate in 1924), and the New York College of Music (earning a diploma in 1929). She left Fisk in 1917 when her family moved to Chicago, and her professional career began there with a job as a "song-plugger" at Jones's Music Store on South State Street.
At Jones's Music Store, Armstrong learned and demonstrated all the music available at the store and was billed as "The Jazz Wonder Child." It was here that she met Jelly Roll Morton, probably the greatest jazz pianist of the era. Their encounter has become legendary among jazz historians. Armstrong and Morton traded renditions of standards of the day, and he demonstrated his heavy, foot-stomping style. She took this as an important lesson. From that day forward, she played with a heavy-handed, aggressive rhythmic style that became her trademark throughout her career.
Armstrong was well known and respected by her peers. Compliments by musicians were typically like those of George "Pops" Foster, the great bass player, who referred to her as "a great piano player and a great musician." In her day the piano was the centerpiece of the rhythm section, charged with maintaining the beat and fundamental chord structure to free the clarinet, trumpet, or cornet soloists for their flights of fancy. The piano was not necessarily a focus for solo playing, as Armstrong herself attests: "It wasn't the style during the King Oliver days for the pianist to play many solos. Sometimes I'd get the urge to run up and down the piano and make a few runs and things, and Joe ["King" Oliver] would turn around and look at me and say, 'We have a clarinet in the band.' "
Her four-beat, solid style guaranteed Armstrong's acceptance among her peers and a good following among devotees. As a pianist, her early jobs included accompanying singers, among them the blues great Alberta Hunter. Armstrong was also a good organizer and led her own band for many years. Her other talents included arranging, composing, and singing.
Armstrong's career in jazz extended more than fifty years and centered in Chicago and New York. She got her first playing jobs through contacts made at Jones's Music Store. Her first major band experience was with the Original New Orleans Creole Jazz Band, playing at the De Luxe Cafe. The band included Lawrence Duhé on clarinet, Sugar Johnson and Freddie Keppard on cornets, Roy Palmer on trombone, Sidney Bechet on clarinet and soprano saxophone, Tubby Hall on drums, Jimmy Palao on violin, Bob Frank on piccolo, and Wellman Braud on bass. It is about this band that Armstrong told one of her most famous tales: When she asked in what key they were playing their first number, they told her, " 'Key, we don't know what key. Just when you hear two knocks, start playing.' So I just hit everything on the piano, so whatever key they was in, I would be in it too. Oh, after a second I could feel what key they were playing, because at that time I don't think they used over five chords. In fact, I'm sure they didn't."
The Original New Orleans Creole Jazz Band played in a pure, swinging New Orleans style and was quite successful. The audience frequently contained some of the leading musicians and stars of the day, including Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, the vaudeville team of Walker and Williams, Eddie Cantor, Al Jolson, and Sophie Tucker. King Oliver and Johnny Dodds came over one evening to hear the band and invited Armstrong to join their band, King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band, playing at the Lincoln Gardens (later the Royal Gardens). In 1922, Louis Armstrong joined him, and the full complement of Oliver's band then included Oliver and Louis Armstrong on cornets, Honoré Dutrey on trombone, Johnny Dodds on clarinet, Baby Dodds on drums, Bill Johnson on banjo, and Armstrong on piano. This band, of course, has become one of the most famous in all of jazz history and formed the nucleus for Louis Armstrong's Hot Five and Hot Seven recording sessions.
Armstrong Called Major Figure in Jazz Field
It must have been quite a heady experience for a young woman in her first few engagements to be playing with the jazz greats of her day who brought the pioneering New Orleans style of traditional jazz to Chicago. It is certainly a testament to Armstrong's talent and ability. Moreover, she was apparently the first woman to enter the jazz field as a major figure and retain that stature and acceptance throughout her career.
Becoming friends almost from the day he joined the band, she and Louis Armstrong were married in 1924. Lil Armstrong eventually "encouraged Louis to leave Oliver and join Fletcher Henderson in New York. It was she who helped Louis Armstrong to become a better music reader and it was she, with her formal training and broad knowledge of musical form, who realized his enormous talent." In New York with Henderson, when Louis Armstrong played at the Roseland Ballroom, Lil Armstrong was not satisfied seeing that her husband was not given featured billing. She organized a band in Chicago and brought him back to the Dreamland, where he was featured as "The World's Greatest Trumpet Player." His other ventures included the recording sessions with his Hot Five and Hot Seven from 1925 through 1928. From this point Louis Armstrong's career took off like a rocket. The Armstrong marriage followed the course of their careers: fused at first, but then divergent, and they were divorced in 1938.
Lil Armstrong's subsequent experiences were diverse. She played with many bands, including those of Oliver, Freddie Keppard, Elliot Washington, Hugh Swift, and Louis Armstrong. She led and played in an all-woman swing group called the Harlem Harlicans from about 1932 to 1936. The group included such notables as Alma Scott (Hazel Scott's mother) on reeds, Leora Mieux (Fletcher Henderson's wife) on trombone, and Dolly Hutchinson on trumpet. She also led her own group out of Buffalo, remnants of Stuff Smith's band, including Jonah Jones and George Clarke, from 1933 to 1935. She fronted this band "wearing slinky white gowns, top hat, and wielding a baton." This was, of course, during the depth of the Great Depression, and it is a testament to Armstrong's talent and skill that she was able to get jobs and keep the band together.
Armstrong worked as a session pianist for Decca Records in the late 1930s and appeared in the Broadway shows Hot Chocolate (1929) and Shuffle Along (1933). While at Decca, she recorded under the name Lil Hardin with soloists and a pick-up band that included numerous stars of the day, among them Red Allen, Chu Berry, Buster Bailey, and Jonah Jones.
She returned to Chicago in the 1940s and continued her career with several long engagements at local clubs, including The Three Deuces. She made several tours, including one to Europe in 1952. She was coaxed out of semi-retirement to play at a memorial concert for Louis Armstrong in 1971 and died on stage on August 27.
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