Lil Hardin was one of the most formative female jazz musicians of her generation. She was born in Memphis in 1898 into a middle-class African-American family. Brought up by her mother and grandmother after her father left home, from an early age she played hymns, spirituals and classics on piano and organ. Not long after learning, she began to play regularly in church.
It didn’t take long for Lil to grow an interest in popular music and blues, however this wasn’t encouraged by her parents who decided, in 1916, to send her to Fisk University in Nashville Tennessee for what was considered musical training in a “good” environment. When Lil returned from Fisk, to keep her from her home town’s music scene, her mother moved Lil to Chicago. Ironically, it was here that Lil would take job which would lead to a substantial opportunity: demonstrating music through performing on the pianos at Jones’ Music Store. She earned $3 a week.
The owner of Jones’ music store was Mrs Jennie Jones, a shopkeeper and booking agent. Jones’ connections meant the store was regularly frequented by musicians. Of all that visited, the one whose music most vividly captured Lil’s interest was Jelly Roll Morton and his orchestra. Upon hearing their music, she said “The place was rockin’ and people were jumping up, and I was jumping higher than anybody.”
Lil began to alter the sheet music she performed at the store, adding embellishments and incorporating aspects of Jelly Roll Morton’s hard-driving jazz style into her performance. This began to build her a reputation, and before long, she became the store’s star attraction.
Her ambitions grew as she began to settle into jazz and blues, and with consistent practise Lil became a highly competent musician in a relatively short time frame. As she developed, her drive and skill led her to be picked up by Lawrence Duhe and his New Orleans Creole Jazz Band.
Duhe paid Lil $22.50 a week to play piano in his band. At around the same time, the cornet player Joe “King” Oliver was brought in from New Orleans to play in the band as well. Shortly after this, the band got a gig at a more up-market club in Chicago, Dreamland. However, sadly, Oliver did not get along with the other players and soon, the group was riddled with conflicts. For Lil, what was once a dream job became a nightmare.
The conflicts resulted in Joe Oliver taking over the band to some success; soon, they’d garnered a reputation for outstanding collective improvisation, as opposed to solos. As the band’s reputation grew, they began to tour the across the United States. It was around this time that Lil entered her first marriage with singer Jimmy Johnson.
The marriage wasn’t always a happy one, and Lil was forced to quit the US tour to return to Chicago and focus on improving the relationship. When the band returned to Chicago, she re-joined, and some else joined with her: a young cornet player named Louis Armstrong.
Lil and Louis had chemistry and quickly became friends – though in the early stages of them knowing one another, Lil remained married to Johnson, and Louis remained married to his wife, Daisy. But as time went on, Lil’s marriage, riddled with issues from the offset, began to fail, and eventually, she and Johnson divorced. Louis and Daisy’s marriage soon followed suit and collapsed, culminating in Lil helping Louis through the process of divorce.
Lil and Louis began dating.
The pair married in 1924. From this point on, Lil’s career became somewhat less about her own stardom, and more about supporting her partner’s; she was an astute businesswoman and saw Louis had the potential for stardom.
But Louis was stagnating in Oliver’s band. There was no possibility for progression as Oliver played first cornet. Lil encouraged Louis to seek work in New York with Fletcher Henderson, a composer and bandleader at the forefront of the development of Big Band and Swing. They moved to New York, but Lil struggled to find work in the male-dominated competitive world of the big city and leaving Louis in New York, she returned to Chicago.
She began putting a band together which would feature Louis, and sought out opportunities for him. On his return from New York, Louis began recording with The Hot Fives Orchestra, and Lil performed piano on all The Hot Five’s recordings – she excelled in the style of percussive piano which was required. Sadly though, while the pair began to find increased financial security, Lil also began to feel the strains of Louis’ rising fame, developing concerns about his unfaithfulness.
Perhaps as a response to this, Lil began to focus in on herself again, returning to her study of music and obtaining a teaching diploma from Chicago College of Music. She procured a large home in Chicago, alongside a lakeside retreat. She then formed various bands both in Chicago and in Buffalo, some of which were all-female, others all-male, and then tried her hand working as a singer-songwriter.
Under Lil’s care, under her perseverance and determination to bring his talent into the limelight, Louis had flourished, but in 1938, Lil and Louis divorced. The breakdown of their marriage was thought to be a result of separation due to his constant touring, but also his persistent infidelity.
For reasons that aren’t fully documented, Lil was then to move her focus away from music. She worked as a clothing designer, restaurant owner and a teacher. In the 50s and 60s, she would occasionally perform and record, but she remained on the side-lines, never returning to the spotlight. She died on 27th August, 1971 while performing at a memorial concert for Louis. She had suffered a major coronary.
Lil was one of the first female jazz instrumentalists whose career had any real duration. While her life remains poorly documented and her contribution lives in the shadows of Louis’ career, she remains one of the leading women in early jazz. Lil often reportedly said she imagined herself standing out of sight, at the bottom of a ladder, holding it steady for Louis as he rose to stardom. It’s so important to remember Lil in her own right, for her own remarkable talent and achievements. A woman who, despite the constraints of racial tension and sexism, made a career for herself out of her awesome musicianship. Take a look at her beautiful performance with Mae Barnes here, and remember her for yourselves.