What’s That Building: How Lil Hardin Armstrong And Her Greystone Made American Music History

What’s That Building: How Lil Hardin Armstrong And Her Greystone Made American Music History

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Lil Hardin was already an accomplished, in-demand musician here in Chicago when she met young cornet phenom Louis Armstrong, who had just moved here from New Orleans. It was at the home she owned on East 44th St. that she taught the musician how to dress, how to talk, and even how to conduct his affairs in the big city. 

The small band they formed together, The Hot Five, practiced at that greystone, and those practices soon turned into some of the most important recordings in the history of music, and the blueprint for almost all the jazz that was to follow.

Crain’s reporter Dennis Rodkin joins us to talk about the home and the remarkable woman who owned it from the early 1920’s until her death in 1971.

For about half a century, this classic Chicago greystone on 44th Street was the home of a rare woman who in the 1920s helped shape jazz as a popular musical form, who played a crucial role in launching one of the first great jazz soloists in America, and whose compositions have been mined for new pop ideas as recently as 2014. She was a pioneer as a woman and as a musician.

Lil Hardin Armstrong owned this greystone from the mid-1920s until her death in 1971. In between, she would shape and launch the stellar career of her second husband, Louis Armstrong. Both working with him and not, she composed dozens of jazz numbers—including one from 1936, Just for a Thrill, that Ray Charles recorded in 1959. Another of her 1936 compositions, called Brown Gal, became the Ringo Starr song Bad Boy—with only those words changed_in 1978. And one she wrote in 1938 called Oriental Swing that in 2014 re-appeared as heavy samples in Parov Stelar’s Booty Swing. There’s a city park named for her two blocks east of her house, but her real monument is her music.

When she bought it, she had recently married Louis Armstrong, a New Orleans musician who came to Chicago in 1922 in search of a higher profile.

There’s a charming love story between them: He would only stay in Chicago about seven years—on and off—but in that time, Lil groomed his nascent star quality by taking him shopping to improve his wardrobe, changed his hair style, and took him to church to learn sacred music. Together, they organized the Hot Five recordings that would set the stage for jazz musicians for decades—and even rehearsed for the recordings in this house. Lil was the pianist on most of the recordings, wrote more than a dozen of the pieces herself and co-wrote two with Louis. At one point, she was the bandleader he played for.

Steps leading up to the historic address at East 44th Street. (Jason Marck/WBEZ)

Steps leading up to the historic address at East 44th Street. (Jason Marck/WBEZ)

They separated in 1931 and divorced in 1938, several years after he moved to New York, but remained friendly for the rest of their lives. She even performed sometimes as Mrs. Louis Armstrong, and  When Louis died in July 1971, Lil went to New York to ride to the funeral in his family’s car. Seven weeks later, she was playing the piano in a televised tribute to Louis, when she threw her hands in the air and died, with the cameras rolling.

Let’s go back to how Lil got to Chicago in the first place, because in many ways it’s emblematic of the Great Migration. Lil was born in Memphis in February 2, 1898. Her father died of tuberculosis when she was three, and Lil was raised by her mother and grandmother in a strict religious household, and learned to play classical music on the piano at Fisk University, a historically black university in Nashville. In 1918, Lil moved with her mother to Chicago, where her stepfather was starting a small trucking company.

(A lot of this comes from old Saturday Review articles and blog posts by New York jazz journalist Christiern Albertson, who in the years before Lil’s death was working with her on her autobiography. But after she died, with no children or other heirs, her notes and manuscript disappeared from her house, and he was never able to finish it without her.)

I haven’t determined exactly where they lived, but it was in the Black Belt around what’s now the Illinois Institute of Technology, an area where a lot of blacks who came north lived. Everything changed fast for Lil. A few weeks after arriving, she walked into the black-owned Jones Music Store and got a job demonstrating sheet music. The store was at 3409 1/2 S State, where IIT has a parking lot now. She was being paid $3 a week.

When she hadn’t been there two weeks, Jelly Roll Morton came into the store and played some music. The Joneses were also talent bookers for nightclubs and restaurants in the neighborhood. The staff said he ought to hear their Lil play, so he said ok. She was intimidated, so she didn’t try to play popular music. She played Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C-sharp minor. But she later said that she had absorbed a lot of what Jelly Roll did, and it came in handy in a few weeks. A six-piece band from New Orleans came to the store to audition for Mrs. Jones (Jenny). They were great, but they had no pianist. The Chinese restaurant where Jenny wanted them to play insisted that a band have a pianist, so she tapped Lil, who had no experience. In old interviews, Lil says she tried to channel everything she’d seen Jelly Roll Morton do. It worked; she was asked to stay with the band.

Lil’s income went up from $3 a week to $22.50, and she never worked in the music store again. For a while, she was telling her She was in a succession of better combos playing at higher-level clubs, all scattered around the neighborhood where IIT is now. She’d been performing almost non-stop on the Chicago music scene for almost four years by the time Louis Armstrong came to town. He’d been doing music only part-time in New Orleans, and was brought up to Chicago by King Oliver to work full-time playing with his band at Dreamland, 3520 S. State (a few doors south of where there’s a Starbucks now). The pianist in the band was Lil Hardin.

Lil and Louis were both married to other people, but in less than two years they were married to each other, wed on Feb. 5 1924. She had taken Louis under her wing to help him become more sophisticated, and she eventually urged him to leave King Oliver’s band because she felt he could do better.

Around this time, she bought the house at 421 E 44th Street. The public records aren’t entirely clear, but she appears to have bought the house herself, not with Louis. Imagine a black woman—and a musician!—buying a house in the mid-1920s.

The greystone was about 40 years old at the time, built in the mid-1880s as part of a block of somewhat ornate attached homes for middle-class Irish and Scottish whites. The neighborhood was called Grand Boulevard, because of South Park Boulevard, which ran from the South Loop down to 115th Street. (It’s now Martin Luther King Boulevard.)

By the time she and Louis divorced in 1938, he was on his way to mega-stardom. They never had kids and she didn’t marry again, but she held onto the house, even though she lived for a while in Milwaukee and for about three years in Paris. She was back living in the house full-time in 1962, when at 64 years old she started writing her autobiography. Albertson, who was working on the book with her, wrote that he felt she kept the house as a memorial to the time she’d had with Louis, whom she never stopped loving. He wrote that she still wore rings that Louis gave her, decades after he had remarried.

In August, 1971, the 73-year-old Lil went out to New York to play the piano on a televised memorial to Louis, who had died in early July. She died onstage.

The latest performance by Lil that you can find on YouTube is in 1959, when she was 63 years old, and she’s making that piano work hard. She’s playing Heebie Jeebies, a piece that she first recorded with Louis and the Hot Five in February 1926—possibly after rehearsing it in the greystone at 421 E 44th Street.