Lillian Hardin Armstrong was a pianist, composer, and entertainer. She traveled around the world and entertained numerous fans with her music. Originally from Memphis, Tennessee, Armstrong went to Fisk University for a year, rose up through the ranks in the music industry to play with King Oliver’s Creole Jazz band, and eventually had her own band, Lil Hardin Armstrong and Her Swing Orchestra. Recently her unfinished autobiography, personal photos that were once in scrapbooks, and other documents were donated by the Jazz Foundation of America from Chris Albertson’s estate. Chris Albertson was an author, jazz historian, critic, and friend of Lillian Hardin who was helping her to write her autobiography.
The Lillian Hardin Armstrong and Chris Albertson Collection is the newest collection at the Louis Armstrong House Museum Archive. Acquired earlier this year, the collection gives insight into Armstrong’s early years and how she honed her talent with various groups. The Lillian Hardin and Chris Albertson collection adds depth to a woman who many associate with Louis but don’t know much about her. Her life and inner thoughts are important to create an image of her and give insight into why Louis fell in love with her. Other collections that are available on our collections website are the Jack Bradley Collection, Satchmo Collection, and the Louis Armstrong Collection.
The most interesting acquisition from the Lillian Hardin and Chris Albertson is the unfinished autobiography that Armstrong began writing. Titled Memphis to Paris (On a Piano Stool), the autobiography covers the time from Armstrong’s childhood and ends before she meets Louis in 1922. From her writings, one can gauge her personality, such as when she states her dislike of the nickname ‘Lil’ or her determination to continue with music against her mother’s wishes. Lillian Hardin Armstrong was a strong willed woman who wanted to tell her story her way and her writing style reflects that. She is a storyteller who knows how to tell the audience what they want to hear and does it without being salacious. Even though Armstrong stopped writing, the 3 chapters that she wrote beautifully capture the most pivotal time in her life.
Armstrong’s personal items being preserved is important because her life is really fascinating and having her belongings is special. When people discuss Hardin they often refer to her as Louis Armstrong’s second wife, and this is a disservice to her. Lillian Hardin Armstrong not only made music, she also started her own clothing line and is one of the few famous black female pianists. Louis wore a few of Hardin’s suit designs while performing and her clothing line was astonishing because she started the line on her own. Hardin paved the way for other pianists like Hazel Scott, Nina Simone, Mary Lou Williams, Valerie Capers, Alicia Keys, and many more to come. Her story is crucial not only jazz history but to the history of music overall.
Armstrong’s story needs to be told because not many women accomplished what she did as a black woman in the early 20th century. From performing with the biggest names in jazz, to recording multiple songs, and then having her own band; Lillian Hardin Armstrong did it all and now that her items are in possession by the Louis Armstrong House Museum Archives, her legacy can be preserved. Armstrong’s items are currently being digitized by archival staff.