Lil Hardin helped introduce America to jazz music. She was a dedicated jazz pianist, who established a reputation as "Hot Miss Lil," one of the few female band ensemble members of the 1920’s. She played on many of the first jazz recordings ever made and she wrote many of the early songs of the jazz era. Though she might be identified in the jazz world as the wife of Louis Armstrong, she was much more than that.
Lil Armstrong was born Lillian Beatrice Hardin on February 3, 1898. Her grandmother, Priscilla Thompson, was born into slavery in 1850 in Lafayette County near Oxford, Mississippi. Her parents separated when Armstrong was very young. As a young child Lil lived with her mother in a boarding house in Memphis, a few blocks from Beale Street, a bustling nightlife area for blacks where much of blues and jazz music was beginning to take shape. Young Lil began playing the organ at early by taking music lessons at age six. By nine, she played the organ for sunday school, at 16, Lil won a music contest at her music school. It was this contest that made her realize she had a future in music.
Her mother concerned that her daughter's passion for music would lead her to a sinful life, sent her to Fisk University in Nashville. Lil began taking classes in the fall of 1915; enrolling in a college preparatory program and took high school courses in English, science, Latin, and home economics in preparation for college courses. She returned to Memphis in 1916 and continued to play the piano. However, when her mother discovered that she was playing the blues, what she considered to be "devil's music," she decided that Lil would have to leave Memphis and all of its negative influences. In 1917 they moved to Chicago. Lil landed her first job as a piano player at the Jones Music Store on Chicago's South Side, working afternoons at the store for $3 a week. Although the salary was meager, she had a store filled with sheet music at her disposal.
Although Lil was determined to build a career in music, it was difficult for her to find a band willing to include a female piano player. Her lucky break came when Lawrence Duhé and his New Orleans Creole Jazz Band came to Chicago looking for a piano player. They hired her at $22.50 a week. She tried to keep her job a secret from her mother, but mom eventually heard the news. She was not happy with her daughter's career choice, but decided that it was better than being a cook or a housekeeper.