Lil Hardin More jazz pianists

Lil in top hat and white gown Lil in top hat and white gown

Lillian “Lil” Hardin

(1898 -- 1971)

First lady of jazz: Pianist, song writer, singer, recording artist, band leader

   Best known for her marriage to trumpeter Louis Armstrong, Lil had a huge impact on his early career. She launched, managed and promoted his solo career to ensure his success. But Lil was a talented musician in her own right. 

Album coverAlbum cover

Listen to Lil sing and scat on this 1936 recording of her hit song "It's Murder!"

1898 – 1916:

The Mean Streets of Memphis 

1898 prices and events

     Lillian Beatrice Hardin was born in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1898. Her maternal grandmother, Pricilla Thompson, was born into slavery in 1850 in Mississippi, survived the Civil War and, as a free woman, married Taylor Martin in 1870. They moved to Memphis and had 13 children. By 1900 they had separated. In 1895 their daughter Dempsey married William Hardin. Prior to Lil’s birth, another child died in infancy. William left when Lil was two. [1]

    By all accounts, including her own, Lil was a willful child, and raising her in Memphis was a challenge. Lil, Dempsey and Pricilla lived in a boarding house near Beale Street, known for its nightclubs and music but rife with drugs, pawnshops and prostitutes. Many famous black musicians played there: W.C. Handy, who first notated the blues (The Memphis Blues, 1912); blues singer Alberta Hunter, and famed blues guitarist Memphis Minnie. [1]

    Lil began playing the boarding house organ. A school teacher taught her how to read music, and at 9, she began playing the organ for Sunday school. When she put some pizzazz on her rendition of “Onward Christian Solders,” it won her a disapproving look from the pastor and another from her mother, who thought blues music was vulgar.

   Dempsey sent Lil to Mrs. Hicks’ School of Music for piano lessons. When Lil was 16, the school held a contest. Lil lost her place halfway through her piece, “improvised her way to the end” and won the contest, leading her to believe she might have a future in music.  [1]

    Convinced that her only child had special talent, Dempsey sent Lil to Fisk University in Nashville to get her away from the mean streets of Memphis and give her a good education. During the 1915-16 school year, Lil took college preparatory courses (academics and music) but had to abide by Fisk's stringent rules, which prohibited profanity, gambling, the use of alcohol and tobacco, and dancing between the sexes. [1]


   In June 1916, Lil returned to Memphis, a city bursting with World War I patriotism, but filled with violence and racial strife. When Lil brought home a copy of “St. Louis Blues,” Dempsey called it “devils music” and beat Lil with a broomstick. Lil never returned to Fisk. Dempsey and Lil packed their belongings, said goodbye to Memphis and took a train to Chicago. [1]

Bread: .03/loaf Milk: .26/gal

House: $4,425 

Average Income: $630/year

President: William McKinley

258 sailors die when the USS Maine blows up in Havana harbor, precipitating The Spanish-American War, best remembered for the exploits of Rough Rider Teddy Roosevelt that helped him become president.

Black postmaster lynched, his wife and 3 daughters shot in Lake City, South Carolina. 

Anti-Lynching activist Ida B. Wells, editor and part-owner of the black newspaper Free Speech and Headlight, had to flee Memphis in 1892 due to her editorials deploring the lynching of black men. [1-S]

Wells's anti-lynching crusade in England led to formation of the British Anti-Lynching Society. Wells continued to fight race and gender bias by founding the first black women's political club, "The Alpha Suffrage Club," in Chicago 1913. [1-S] 

Founded in 1865, Fisk University was one of the first black colleges in the country.

The reknowned Fisk Jubilee Singers became role models for young black Americans. They were one of the first black music groups to record (Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, 1909). [2-S]

1917 – 1922: Chicago loves Hot Miss Lil     

       Reaping the Whirlwind   

   But Chicago was also full of racial strife. [see sidebar right] 

   The South side of Chicago had an entertainment district similar to Beale Street. After reading newspaper accounts of police raids at clubs where African-Americans gathered to listen to music, Dempsey kept a watchful eye on her daughter. A slender attractive woman with sparkling eyes and a winning smile, Lil appeared younger than her age.

   Lil got a job demonstrating sheet music at the Jones Music Store. Dempsey believed the $3/week Lil earned would help her return to Fisk University. The owner, Mrs. Jennie Jones, was a booking agent, and musicians frequented the store. One day, Jelly Roll Morton came in and sat down at the piano. Hearing Morton play had a profound influence on Lil.

    She said: “[T]he place was rockin and the people were jumping up, and I was jumping higher than anybody. I imitated him after that. I only weighed 85 pounds, and from then on you could hear all 85 of ‘em.”  [1]

At the end of the WWI in 1918, thousands of African-American soldiers came home from Europe expecting to enjoy the full rights of citizenship that they had fought to defend overseas. [photo below]

But scarce housing and jobs heightened racial tensions, especially in industrial cities like Chicago. Unemployed whites blamed working blacks for their hardships.

   In the summer of 1919 race riots erupted in 20 U.S. cities. The largest and most violent were in Chicago. Five days of violence claimed the lives of 23 blacks and 15 whites, with more than 500 others wounded and thousands of black and white citizens burned out of their homes.  [3-S]

Below: decorated African-American WWI veterans

   Lil began to embellish the sheet music and became the store’s star attraction. Lawrence Duhe and his New Orleans Creole Jazz Band came in to audition for Mrs. Jones, who booked them into a club. But they needed a piano player.

   While it was common for female singers like Alberta Hunter to front jazz and blues bands, female instrumentalists were rare. [3] But Lil was different. She might wear frilly dresses, but her piano playing was far from frilly. Thanks to Jelly Roll Morton’s influence, Lil played in a strong, hard-driving style.

Decorated WW I black veterans Decorated WW I black veterans

   Duhe paid Lil $22.50/week to play in his band. None of the men could read music. Lil made them promise not to tell her mother. Inevitably, Dempsey found out. She didn't want Lil playing in saloons, but Lil had no job skills other than music, and Dempsey didn’t want her working as a cook or a maid.

    Dempsey decided to escort Lil home every night after work. From nine to one, Lil was “Hot Miss Lil.”

    Then Dempsey took her home.   

The Chicago Commission on Race Relations  identified several factors that led to the riots: competition for jobs, few  housing options for blacks, racial discrimination and inconsistent law enforcement. During the riots, twice as many blacks were arrested as whites. [3-S]

   The report concluded that white gangs, many sponsored by Chicago's political machine, helped to inflame the riot. The gangs invented the drive-by shooting.

     The band got a gig at Dreamland, a classier club, and Duhe imported a cornet player from New Orleans, Joe “King” Oliver. But Oliver didn’t get along with the other players.

  Lil's dream job became a nightmare, and the band broke up. Lil returned to Dreamland, where she worked with Alberta Hunter and other famous musicians. Lil admired Hunter’s vocal range, sense of style and her ability to make money.


   Around that time Dempsey remarried, and Lil married Jimmy Johnson, a singer. The marriage was brief, and Lil rarely talked about him after their divorce. [1] Oliver took over Duhe’s group, renamed it King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, asked Hot Miss Lil to play in it, and the band became the hottest group in Chicago.   

"Cars from which rifle and revolver shots were fired were driven at great speed through sections inhabited by Negroes." [4-S]    

   An editorial (7/29/1919) in the Chicago Daily Tribune, long considered antagonistic to blacks, said in part: “White people resent the appearance of colored people in white neighborhoods ... and take the position that "encroachment" of Negroes [causes] depreciation of property values."

The Chicago Defender, a black newspaper, called the riots “a disgrace to American civilization. America is known the world over as the land of the lyncher and of the mobocrat. For years she has been sowing the wind and now she is reaping the whirlwind.” (8/2/1919) Photos below: scenes from the 1919 Chicago race riots.

Chicago police guard vandalized house

  Blacks move out of vandalized home

  White gang members chase black man

Police guard vanalized house, Chicago 1919Police guard vanalized house, Chicago 1919


Blacks move out of vandalilzed homeBlacks move out of vandalilzed home


White gang chases black man, Chicago 1919White gang chases black man, Chicago 1919


A hot new cornet player, a romance and some hot recordings

    Oliver's band got a gig in San Francisco, but problems arose and many of the players quit. Lil returned to her job at Dreamland. Oliver took his remaining band members back to Chicago and sent for a young cornet player he knew in New Orleans. Some say Oliver sent Louis Armstrong a photo of Lil to entice him, saying she played piano in the band, but when Louis played his first gig with the King Oliver Creole Jazz Band, Lil was at Dreamland. Oliver took him there to meet her.

   It wasn’t love at first sight on Lil’s part, but Louis fell in love with Hot Miss Lil. However, Lil was still married to Jimmy Johnson, and Louis had a wife back in New Orleans. Drawn by financial concerns not romance, Lil rejoined the Oliver band and began to notice the hot cornet player who was winning admirers with his big sound and freewheeling style. [1]

At right: King Oliver (seated) with his band; Lil stands on right; standing 4th from left, young Louis Armstrong.

Due to growing demand for recordings by African-Americans, King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band made some of the first jazz recordings for Gennett (1923) and later for Okeh, Columbia and Paramount.

King Oliver Band photoKing Oliver Band photo



  Romance bloomed. Lil divorced Jimmy Johnson, helped Louis win a divorce from his first wife, and on February 5, 1924, Lil became Mrs. Louis Armstrong. [3] Lil felt his talents were wasted playing second cornet to Oliver and urged him to leave the band.

   In 1924 they went to New York City where Louis got a job in Fletcher Henderson’s Black Swan Troubadours. Henderson’s wife, Leora Mieux Henderson, a trumpet player, wrote the arrangements but didn’t perform with the band. [2] 

Speakeasies, clubs that illegally sold alcoholic beverages, flourished during Prohibition when the sale, manufacture and transport of alcoholic beverages was illegal in the U.S. (1920–1933)

Bartender serves thirsty white patrons Bartender serves thirsty white patrons


   No one seemed interested in hiring Lil to play piano either, so she returned to Chicago. Determined to make Louis a star, she organized an 8-piece band, Lil’s Dreamland Syncopators, featuring Louis. Ever the promoter, she persuaded Okeh Records to hire a smaller group, The Hot Five, for a recording featuring Louis Armstrong on trumpet, Lil Hardin on piano, Johnny Dodds on clarinet, Johnny St. Cyr on banjo and Kid Ory on trombone. 

   Some say the term speakeasy arose because bartenders would tell patrons to be quiet and "speak easy." The 18th Amendment, Prohibition, took effect on January 16, 1920, and lasted almost 14 years. Police and federal agents often raided speakeasies and arrested their owners and patrons, but speakeasies continued to flourish throughout the 1920s.

   Gangsters like “Dutch” Schultz, “Lucky” Luciano, and Chicago’s Al Capone made millions supplying beer and liquor to speakeasies.

    The 1925 session featured four of Lil's songs. In 1926 they did another session that included Louis’s now-famous rendition of “Cornet Chop Suey.” Halfway through “Heebie Jeebies,” Louis began scatting (singing non-sense words and syllables). Considered the first scat recording, “Heebie Jeebies” sold more than 40,000 copies within weeks of its release. [1]

  Prohibition had a positive effect on jazz. Due to its popularity in speakeasies and the development of better recording devices, jazz became hugely popular. Speakeasies allowed black Americans to drink and be entertained without racial discrimination. [Photo below]. Some clubs, "black-and-tans," entertained a racially mixed clientele, and many white patrons grew to love jazz and admire black jazz musicians.

  Between 1925 and 1927, recordings by the Hot Five, Hot Seven and Lil’s Hotshots (aka the Hot Five), including Lil’s masterpiece “Struttin With Some Barbecue,” made musical history. [2]

   Louis and Lil became the “First Couple of Jazz.” Louis was the star and Lil was the star-maker.

  But Prohibition was a big blow to the alcohol industry. Making alcohol at home was common, known as “bathtub gin” in the North, moonshine in the South.

Black patrons in speakeasy Black patrons in speakeasy

  Although Louis was a fantastic musician and leader, Lil was the one who took care of business and got him gigs and the record contracts. [1]

   Despite their success, mindful that she had still no college degree, Lil decided to go back to college. [2]

Bootlegging was lucrative for gangsters, who made big bucks transporting booze to thirsty patrons. Bootleggers were relentlessly pursued by the feds and built souped-up cars to escape them. The Prohibition Era, bootlegging, and stock-car racing are featured in movies like Thunder Road in 1958, starring Robert Mitchum, and Days of Thunder starring Tom Cruise.

At right: The Hot Five around the piano

Below right: Members of The Hot Five gather around Lil at the piano.

Hot Five musicians around pianoHot Five musicians around piano

The cost of enforcement was high and the government lost $500 million annually in tax revenue. Prohibition became increasingly unpopular. On March 22, 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt signed an amendment

White male demonstrators with "WE WANT BEER" placardsWhite male demonstrators with "WE WANT BEER" placards

In 1928 Lil earned a degree from the Chicago College of Music, and in 1929 a post-graduate diploma from the New York College of Music. [2]

Members of Hot Five gather around Lil at pianoMembers of Hot Five gather around Lil at piano

allowing the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages. On December 5, 1933, the ratification of the 21st Amendment repealed Prohibition. And the celebrations began.   

Mob drinking in saloon Mob drinking in saloon

But Lil's marriage to Louis was disintegrating.

1930s: It's Murder!

   There is little doubt that Louis was the love of Lil’s life. Early on, she put up with his affairs, but as his fame grew, so did his philandering. Louis’s mother and adopted son Clarence lived with them in Chicago, but in 1925 Louis moved his mother and son into his mistress Alpha’s house. [1]

   Although the Depression derailed the careers of many musicians, Louis’ career blossomed. In 1930 he got a job playing the Cotton Club in Culver City, CA, which gave him added exposure on radio broadcasts.

   Lil went to visit him, but their reunion was interrupted by the arrival of Alpha. Weary of playing the role of abandoned wife, Lil returned to Chicago. [1]

Smiling Louis Armstrong with trumpetSmiling Louis Armstrong with trumpet

   Days later, Louis was arrested for smoking marijuana and went to jail. Johnny Collins got him a suspended sentence; in return, Collins demanded a percentage of his earnings. Louis returned to Chicago and organized a new band, but after a nightclub brawl in which several patrons were hurt, Louis took the band on the road and wound up in New Orleans.

    Lil went there to visit, found him living with Alpha, and confronted him.

   “I think it’s best if you go your way and I go my way," she said, "and we’ll remain friends."[1]  


   Lil returned to Chicago to focus on her own career. During the early 1930s the  vivacious Hot Miss Lil led two all-woman bands, The Creolians, and the Harlem Harlicans, which featured Dolly Jones on trumpet, Leora Mieux (Henderson) on trombone, and Alma Scott (mother of jazz pianist Hazel Scott) on woodwinds. [2]

  But other than the [white] band led by glamorous Ina Ray Hutton, jobs for all-women bands, especially several very talented black bands, were hard to find during the Depression.  

Lil poses in gown, standingLil poses in gown, standing

   In 1933 Lil was invited to play with an all male band based in Buffalo, NY, featuring Jonah Jones on trumpet and George Clarke on tenor sax.

     “We all fell in love with Lil,” Clarke later said. [1] 

   For performances, Lil wore a glamorous white gown and a top hat, and used a baton to direct the band. Photo at right  But the band never got the radio exposure that the Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway bands received.

Lil poses in white gown and top hatLil poses in white gown and top hat

    Perhaps booking agents weren’t ready for a female bandleader. And times were tough during the Depression. In 1935 the group disbanded. “I never could figure that out,” said Jonah Jones. “It was a great band, one of the best I’ve ever worked with—and that’s saying a lot.” [2]

   Lil returned to Chicago and organized another all-male band—Lil Hardin and Her Swing Orchestra—and became a swing vocalist. Teddy Coleman played piano; Lil sang, wrote songs, arranged the music and in 1936 cut a record deal with Decca [1]

   Lil wrote both lyrics and music for her songs. “Brown Gal” reflects her pride in her black heritage, and her scatting on two of her songs, “Hi-De-Ho-Man” and "It’s Murder,” was slick. [You can hear "It's Murder" on the player at the top of this page]


   The Decca releases were so successful, Lil took the band to New York in 1937 to record at the Decca studio there. These were equally successful. Late that year, billed as the “swing queen,” Lil returned to Beale Street in Memphis to headline a nightly show at the Palace for blacks. At midnight she did a second show, for whites. [1]

   In 1938 Lil did two record sessions for Decca with bands she organized, but the year was a difficult one. Although they had been separated for years, Lil was in the midst of negotiating a divorce from Louis. Her mood is reflected in the title of one of her songs: “Happy Today, Sad Tomorrow.”

   In July, her mother died. More sorrow came when she learned that King Oliver had died penniless in Savannah. [1] And, although the band members loved and admired her, promoters and ballroom managers were reluctant to hire her. Not only was she female, she was black.

   Worn down by the stresses in her life, she agreed to a divorce from Louis, waiving any claims to alimony. The most important collaboration in the history of early jazz came to an end. [1]     

1940 -- 1960: Just for a Thrill

   Lil recorded her final session at Decca with a new band that included her old friend Jonah Jones on trumpet. Lil played piano, but her heart wasn’t in it. Louis had married Alpha, but soon began a much publicized affair with a young chorus girl, Lucille Wilson. Five days after his divorce from Alpha in 1942, Louis married Lucille.


Now in her forties, Hot Miss Lil still had a sparkle in her eyes, but her zest for music was gone. Ever the entrepreneur, she opened a restaurant in Chicago. Lil Armstrong’s Swing Shack featured a soul-food menu with specials like Boogie-Woogie Stew, Bebop Black-Eyed Peas, and Divine Swine (ham or bacon). [1]  

   Inspired by a Works Progress Administration sewing class she’d taken, Lil decided to become a fashion designer. When she wasn’t at the restaurant, she worked on clothing designs, targeting both men and women. And one man in particular: Louis.

     She made suits and jackets for his performances, and Louis wore them proudly, including the midnight blue tux he wore as King of Zulus at the 1949 New Orleans Mardi Gras celebration. When Lil saw photos of Louis wearing her clothes, it made her feel closer to him. [1]


   Lil held a fashion show in New York, but once again she was ahead of her time. America wasn’t ready for a black fashion designer. No matter how good the designs, white buyers wouldn’t purchase her line for white customers. Not until 1962 did Life Magazine feature a black model, Liz Campbell. [1]

    Disheartened, Lil closed her restaurant and found work teaching piano, French, and general music. By 1950, she was largely invisible in the music world. She hadn’t released a record for over a decade, and musical tastes had changed. In 1952 she decided to return to music and went to Paris, playing at Paris’s Jazz Month celebrations and jazz clubs. 

   After almost two years in Europe, she returned to Chicago in September 1953, but gigs were scarce. During the 1950s, race relations were tense. Black leaders were pressing for legal and social reforms. And black jazz players like Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker were playing bebop. The only gigs Lil got were playing the “oldies” of a by-gone era. [1]

Album cover: Lil Armstrong Hits the RoadAlbum cover: Lil Armstrong Hits the Road

   But the 50s ended on an up note when Ray Charles’s remake of Lil's song, Just For a Thrill, became a big hit. The lyrics reflect her tortured relationship with Louis Armstrong. 

                                             Hear Ray Charles sing it in 1990

      This introduced her to a new generation of listeners who admired the way she blended sophisticated lyrics with the melody. Others who recorded Just For a Thrill include Peggy Lee, Nancy Wilson, the Ink Spots, Aretha Franklin and the J. Geils band. [1]

The 1960s: Living Legends 

    In 1961, Lil was recruited by Riverside Records for a series of albums titled “Chicago—The Living Legends." Lil appeared on the third album.

    At the age of 61, she took three of her songs to the session in September 1961. Due to a mixup in scheduling, her band was combined with that of Earl Hines. The album featured 40 minutes of Lil at her best. It was her final recording, but it led to her appearance in a 1961 NBC-TV special: Chicago and All That Jazz, one that drew approval from younger jazz fans.

Album cover: Chicago Living Legends Album cover: Chicago Living Legends

   Sometime later, the man who produced the Riverside albums, Chris Albertson, asked Lil to co-write her autobiography with him. After a while Lil ended the collaboration and continued to work on it on her own. By 1969, she completed 4 chapters, but the book was never published. [1]


   In 1968, Lil played at the Top of the Gate in New York City. John S. Wilson interviewed her for a New York Times article, calling her “a hearty woman with a bubbling personality, who plays piano and sings with a zest and assurance that completely belie her age.” [4]

1971: A Most Wonderful Woman

    The end of an era came on July 6, 1971, when Louis Armstrong died. Lil was devastated. Although separated for years, they remained firm friends. More than husband and wife, they had been musical soul-mates, their offspring the music they created together. Now he was gone.

   Lil attended the funeral on July 9 along with 500 others, including his widow Lucille, his sister Beatrice, and hundreds of music, film and political luminaries. A thousand fans stood outside listening to the service over loudspeakers. Millions more watched on television.

   At the age of 73, Lil returned to Chicago, totally alone. Her only family members, a few cousins, lived in Memphis. Seven weeks later, she was invited to participate in a memorial concert for Louis [1]

Lil Hardin publicity photo, seated at pianoLil Hardin publicity photo, seated at piano

   On August 27, 1971, thousands gathered for the noon concert at Chicago’s Civic Center Plaza.    Chicago Tribune jazz critic Harriet Choice, who had on several occasions spent time with Lil, spotted Lil and went to talk to her. When she asked for an interview, Lil said, “We’ll talk later, honey.”  [1]


    Introduced by the master of ceremonies, Lil sat at the piano and began to play W.C. Handy’s St. Louis Blues. The audience cheered. Inspired by her listeners, Lil smiled broadly. When the final chord came, Lil paused, her hands hovering over the piano, and toppled to the floor.


   The audience gasped. Everyone on stage froze. Someone rushed to give her mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, but it was too late. Lil was dead.

    Her obituary appeared in the New York Times the next day. [8/28/1971]. However, unlike Louis’s funeral, only a handful of people attended Lil’s services on August 29. The only media person was Harriet Choice, who came out of friendship not because an editor sent her. Lil was buried in Lincoln Cemetery, Cook County, Illinois, and disappeared from the jazz scene. Not until books began to be published about Louis did she regain some attention.

   John Hammond wrote: “One of the most loveable people that ever existed in music was Lil Hardin Armstrong, Louis’s wife and protector during those early rough days in Chicago. [She] was no match for the vultures who surrounded Louis in the most creative days of his career.” [1]

  Lil’s old friend and admirer Jonah Jones summed it up best: “I thought this was a most wonderful woman.” [1] 


   Lil Hardin was a jazzwoman pioneer, possibly the most important female musician in the history of early jazz. During the 1920s she played on many of the first jazz recording, first with King Oliver’s band, and later on the Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings with Louis Armstrong. She also composed many of the songs that later became jazz classics. [see partial list of her songs, below]

   Not until the 1970s did women win acceptance in [male] jazz bands. Prior to that, some performed with all-women groups, but a woman’s presence in a male jazz band was rare. A notable exception: Melba Liston with Dizzy Gillespie’s band in the 1950s. [See Melba Liston's bio). Even today it is  relatively rare for women instrumentalists to play in male jazz groups.


   There are those who say that Lil would not have achieved success without being married to Louis Armstrong. The facts indicate otherwise. In the early years, Lil set aside her own ambitions to facilitate his career. By all accounts, when Louis came to Chicago, he was a shy overweight boy of 17, with little confidence in his abilities, a country bumpkin haircut and rumpled clothes. Were it not for Lil, his genius might never have been heard. Recognizing his talent, she launched his solo career and worked hard to ensure that he was seen in clubs and heard on records. She helped him notate his musical ideas, arranged record sessions, published their music and promoted his stardom.

  Lil's strength was not as a piano soloist. In the early recordings, she provides a strong rhythmic foundation. She was a consummate musician with a terrific ear who could repeat anything she heard, and, unlike the men in Oliver’s band, including Louis, Lil could read and notate the music. As James Dickerson put it: “She wasn’t the soul of the band, she was the brain of the band.” [1] 

   Her relationship with Louis had its ups and downs, but Louis believed in Lil. When others criticized her, he praised her piano playing and musicianship. He often said that he’d won success by listening to Lil’s advice: “Play second trumpet to no one.” [1] Although they went through some rough times, they remained good friends for life.

Role models and Inspirations

   Lil admired many musicians, but three stand out as having a profound impact. One early influence was Jelly Roll Morton; after hearing him, Lil adopted his hard-swinging style and began improvizing. Alberta Hunter was another. Hunter dressed in flashy clothes, and Lil recognized the impact this had on audiences. Most of all, she admired Hunter's business sense and ability to make money, something Lil began to emulate. Perhaps the biggest inspiration of all was Louis Armstrong. They were musical collaborators at home and in clubs and recording studieos. After their separation and divorce, many of the songs Lil wrote were thinly veiled vehicles to express her love for him. 



   For a black woman to achieve the success Lil Hardin attained was unheard of in the early years of the 20th Century, especially in the South. Although she encountered both race and gender bias, her perseverance never wavered. The outstanding musicians she worked with, including Johnny Dodds, Red Allen, Zutty Singleton, Buster Baily, Lovie Austin, and Sidney Bechet, recognized her talent. As her friend trumpeter Jonah Jones said: Lil Hardin was a most wonderful woman. 


    Even in her day, Lil served as a role model and inspiration for other young jazzwomen. An independent feisty woman, she achieved success in the male-dominated world of early jazz. Her talents live on in her many recordings and the 150 songs she composed, some of which, Struttin With Some Barbeque, Just for a Thrill, Perdido Street Blues, are considered jazz classics.

Lil Hardin Armstrong: A Partial Discography

Note: The Hot Five used the name Lil’s Hot Shots when recording for Vocalion.

The Hot Seven added a tuba and drums, thanks to advances in recording equipment.

King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, Gennett Record Company, 1923.

The Hot Five (“My Heart,” “My Heart Will Always Lead Me Back to You,” “(Yes) I’m in the Barrel,” and “Gut Bucket Blues”), Okeh Records, 1925.

The Hot Seven (“Don’t Jive Me”), Okeh Records, 1928.

Four recordings for Decca:

Lil Hardin Armstrong and Her Swing Orchestra (“Just for a Thrill,” “Brown Gal,” “Doin’ the Suzie-Q,” “It’s Murder,” and “My Hi-De-Ho Man”) 1936.

Lil Hardin Armstrong and Her Swing Orchestra (“Born to Swing,” “(I’m on a) Sit-Down Strike for Rhythm,” “Bluer Than Blue”) 1937.

Lil Hardin Armstrong and Her Swing Orchestra (“Let’s Get Happy Together,” “Happy Today, Sad Tomorrow,” “You Shall Reap What You Sow,”) 1938.

Lil Hardin Armstrong and Her Swing Orchestra (“My Secret Flame”), 1940.

ChicagoThe Living Legends (“Boogie Me,” “Eastown Boogie,” and “Clip Joint”), Riverside Records, 1961.

Television appearances

1961 NBC-TV special: Chicago and All That Jazz

Hear Ray Charles sing Just For a Thrill in 1990

Hear Lil's Struttin With Some Barbecue, 1927 

A partial list of Lil Hardin songs

Just For a Thrill (recorded by Ray Charles and many others); Struttin' With Some Barbecue (recorded by Louis Armstrong, Pete Fountain, Al Hirt, Billie Holiday, Earl Hines, Bobby Hackett, Doc Severinson, The Gene Krupa Band, and many others); Perdido Street Blues (recorded by Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, Johnny Dobbs and others); I'm Not Rough (recorded by Louis Armstrong, The J. Geils Band, and others);

King of the Zulus, Skit Dat De Dat, Lonesome Blues, My Sweet Lovin' Man, Satchel Mouth Swing,

Happy Today, Sad Tomorrow, Hi De Ho Man, New Orleans Stomp, It's Murder (hear this at the top of page) Everything's Wrong, Ain't Nothing Right, Born To Swing, My Secret Flame

SOURCES: Lil Hardin

1. Just for a Thrill: Lil Hardin Armstrong, First Lady of Jazz, by James L. Dickerson, 2002

2. Jazzwomen 1900 to the Present,

       by Sally Placksin, 1982

3. All About Jazz: Lil Hardin Armstrong biography

4. John S. Wilson, New York Times, 12/10/1968

5. Obituary, New York Times, 8/28/1971

6. see Dave Radlauer's excellent article about Lil Hardin.

Sidebar Sources:

1-S  Ida B. Wells

2-S Fisk University Jubilee Singers 

3-S Jazz Age Chicago Notable events, 1919 Race Riots.

4-S  Gangs and the 1919 Chicago Race Riot,

           John Hagedorn, Ph.D  

Speakeasies and Prohibition

5-S  Speakeasies        

© copyright 2010 Susan Fleet

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