King Oliver - Biography

By Stuart Kremsky


             Cornetist and bandleader Joe "King" Oliver left his imprint on the music world well beyond his role in early New Orleans jazz. Remembered  today chiefly as the man who brought Louis Armstrong up to Chicago in 1922, Oliver earned his “King” nickname as a master musician for his powerfully melodic lead trumpet lines and his use of a wide variety of mutes and other objects to create an array of expressive effects. The double-cornet breaks that Oliver and Armstrong introduced to the delight and astonishment of their audiences proved to be an important development in jazz as it progressed from an ensemble music to one dominated by soloists. In his autobiography, Armstrong wrote, “If it had not been for Joe Oliver, jazz would not be what it is today."


            Joseph "King" Oliver is usually said to have been born in or near New Orleans, Louisiana, on May 11, 1885, but jazz researcher Peter Hanley believes that Oliver was probably born near Aben, Louisiana, about fifty miles from New Orleans, on December 19, 1884. As a youth he started on trombone, then switched to cornet as a teenager. By 1907, while employed as a butler, he began to play with local brass bands that performed at dances, picnics and funerals. At night, he played at cabarets and dance halls all over New Orleans. Over the next decade, he appeared with various well-known groups including the Onward Brass Band, The Melrose Brass Band, The Original Superior and The Magnolia Band. As music historian Lawrence Gushee puts it, Oliver learned “…his horn and his repertory in a way similar to many New Orleans musicians: through a great many occasional playing engagements in a variety of musical groups.” Blind in one eye since childhood as the result of a practical joke gone wrong, Oliver established a reputation for stamina and power. By the middle of the decade, he’d attained enough stature that he was able to support himself completely through his music. He worked frequently with trombonist Kid Ory’s band in 1917 and 1918, sometimes billed as a co-leader.


            The brothels in New Orleans’s Storyville district were shut down by the federal government in 1917. Work for musicians tapered off, prompting many local jazzmen to decamp for points north. Oliver and clarinetist Jimmy Noone left New Orleans in February 1919 to join bassist Bill Johnson at the Royal Gardens in Chicago. Oliver also began playing with an orchestra led by Lawrence Duhé at the Dreamland Café. By 1920, he had taken over Duhé’s band and renamed it King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band. That was his first gig most nights, after which he had another regular engagement from one until six in the morning. The Creole Jazz Band headed for the West Coast in May 1921. They stayed for nearly a year, playing gigs in San Francisco and Los Angeles.


            Oliver returned to Chicago in late May 1922, and began performing with The Creole Jazz Band at the Royal Gardens, now renamed the Lincoln Gardens. He soon sent a telegram to Louis Armstrong, asking him to join the group on second cornet. The two men had been close in New Orleans, where Oliver acted as mentor to the younger player, giving him pointers and helping him along. When Oliver left the Ory band, Armstrong inherited the gig on his recommendation. Armstrong later recollected, “Couldn’t nobody else get me out of New Orleans but him! I wouldn’t take that chance.” Armstrong hadn’t heard Oliver’s band until he arrived in Chicago and went straight to the Lincoln Gardens. “When I heard it at the door I said ‘I ain’t good enough for this band, I think I’ll go back...’” But Armstrong stayed, saying “I fit right in there, sitting with Joe...I just went to work. No rehearsal.”


            When Armstrong joined the band in early August, the definitive line-up of the group was complete, with Lil Hardin (soon to be Mrs. Armstrong) on piano, Honoré Dutrey on trombone, Johnny Dodds on clarinet, Bill Johnson on banjo or bass and Warren “Baby” Dodds on drums. The drummer later remembered Armstrong's arrival by saying, "I was pleased because I had a chance to work with Louis again. Our music was appreciated in Chicago and it made you free and easy. We played so much music that I dreamed about it at night and woke up thinking about it." About the cornet breaks that the pair became famous for, Armstrong later noted that “We didn’t write it. He’d tell me while the band was playin’ what he was gonna play on top...And I’d pick out my notes and that’s why all the musicians used to come around to hear us do that...They thought that was a secret we had.”


            Oliver and the Creole Jazz Band started recording for the Indiana-based Gennett label in April 1923 (compiled on Louis Armstrong and King Oliver (1992 Milestone)). The group went on to record for OKeh and Columbia before the year was out, creating such classics as "Dipper Mouth Blues," "Canal Street Blues," “Froggie Moore” and “Snake Rag.” About the Creole Jazz Band’s records, jazz writer Martin Wiliams wrote, "The most immediately impressive characteristic... is its unity, the wonderful integration of parts with which the individual players contribute to a dense, often heterophonic texture of improvised melodies.” It’s a body of work that Gushee calls “indispensable to jazz history,” particularly in consideration of the fact that very few other working bands of the period were documented at all. The other well-known recordings of the banner year of 1923, including sides by Armstrong’s Hot Five and Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers, were made by groups that existed only in the studio.


            After a Midwest tour in early 1924 that included stops in Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin; Armstrong, urged by Lil Hardin, left the band to join the Fletcher Henderson orchestra in New York. Dutrey and both of the Dodds brothers had gone by then and Hardin followed suit in September 1924.  By the end of the year, with his group dispersed, Oliver took a job playing with Dave Peyton's Symphonic Syncopators. He had a memorable encounter in December with Jelly Roll Morton when the two recorded duets of “King Porter Stomp” and “Tom Cat.” Oliver started to transform the Peyton group by bringing a cadre of New Orleans musicians, including Kid Ory, reedmen Albert Nicholas and Barney Bigard, and drummer Paul Barbarin, into Peyton's band. Just like he’d done with Duhé’s group five years earlier, the trumpeter ended up taking over the band in 1925 and renamed it the Dixie Syncopators. Morton’s sister Frances remembers going to hear Oliver’s group at the Plantation Club in 1925. Morton, she declares in Oh, Mister Jelly (a 1999 scrapbook devoted to Jelly Roll) “was crazy about King Oliver...” Clarinetist Nicholas, in the same volume, recalled a night when the Oliver band was “…really blowing. Jelly came in, all sharp, and sat down in a corner while we were playing. Joe saw Jelly and we played a couple of his tunes...” When Morton “…sat down and got to ridin’, the band, with all respects to how good it was, it sounded better, for this man had something.”


            Oliver and his Dixie Syncopators went on to play a two-year stint at the Plantation Club, recording some two dozen tunes for Vocalion and Brunswick between March 1926 and April 1927. Oliver’s cornet break on “Snag It” was widely admired and frequently quoted by other brassmen. Other famous numbers from this period include “Sugarfoot Stomp,” “Doctor Jazz” and “New Wang Wang Blues.” When the police shut down the Plantation Club in 1927, Oliver and his band went on the road, playing short engagements in Milwaukee and Detroit before settling in for a two-week run at the Savoy Ballroom in New York City.


            Oliver’s brand of New Orleans-style collective improvisation was already considered old hat by the time he arrived in New York. With few opportunities, the band fell apart. Things might have turned out differently, both for Oliver and for jazz history, if he had not spurned a regular gig at the Cotton Club because it didn’t pay enough. A young and eager Duke Ellington got the job instead.


            Oliver used New York as his base of operations for the next few years, recording with some frequency for the Victor label leading pick-up orchestras. An association with pianist, composer and entrepreneur Clarence Williams dating back to 1924 got Oliver steady work in small groups accompanying singers including Victoria Spivey, Texas Alexander, Sara Martin, Lizzie Miles, Eva Taylor and others. He also recorded 21 titles with various Williams groups, including “In the Bottle Blues” in a quartet including guitar pioneer Eddie Lang, and the tunes “Bozo” and “Bimbo” in an octet that included clarinetist Buster Bailey.


            Oliver began having dental problems in 1929, and as a result played less and less. He toured with a ten or eleven piece orchestra in parts of the Midwest in 1930 and 1931, making his final recordings for Brunswick in early 1931. Over the next several years, Oliver managed to stay on the road as he struggled with declining health, personnel changes and the usual pitfalls that faced traveling musicians, magnified by the Depression. By 1935, Oliver’s bad health habits caught up with him, forcing him to stop playing the trumpet. By the end of 1937, he had moved to Savannah, Georgia, where, bankrupt and nearly forgotten, he spent the last year of his life running a fruit stand and working as a pool hall janitor. He died of a stroke in Savannah on April 8, 1938.


            The New Orleans revival of the mid forties, particularly the West Coast movement typified by Turk Murphy and Lu Watters, renewed interest in Oliver’s contributions when they made his songs the core of their repertoire. Many members of the Chicago school, like guitarist Eddie Condon and cornetist Muggsy Spanier, were directly inspired by their first-hand experience with Oliver and Armstrong when The Creole Jazz Band was the hottest group in town in the early twenties. Former Oliver associates like Ory, Nicholas and Baby Dodds had their careers reinvigorated in the late forties, and with the lasting example of Louis Armstrong – one of the greatest of all jazzmen – the King’s influence is secure.

Steve Earle and the Dukes
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