Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Oliver, Joe 'King'

Cornetist Joe Oliver blew the blues through brass, and helped bring bottom-up swing to New Orleans at the turn of the century. He played a key part in turning that city's band music into what we now call jazz.

Like many early Louisiana musicians who came off the plantation, which Oliver almost certainly did, he had little formal musical education, nor did he show great musical promise in his youth. Yet the inchoate blasts of his cornet brought a new sound to the horn: a vocal quality, with his wa-was, growls, cries, and groans. Rock guitarists use electronics to achieve his effects - without ever knowing where they got the idea.

King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band

A trademark of the ensembles he led, King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band and King Oliver's Dixie Syncopators, was their whole-band, polyphonic sound of laid-back swing. In his recordings from 1923 into 1931, Oliver took the New Orleans brass band parade beat and made it move and breathe - the Frankenstein monster coming to life. Even today, when we hear "Dippermouth Blues," "Canal Street Blues" or "Chimes Blues", it is easy to understand why Oliver once said his band was "hotter than a forty-five."

Perhaps Oliver's greatest legacy can be found in the talent of Louis Armstrong, whom he mentored in New Orleans, then brought from the swamp to the swarming streets of Chicago. Starting there, the younger musician took Oliver's inspiration and turned it into a music the whole world would hear.

Yet despite these achievements, Joe Oliver died penniless and alone in a back room in Savannah, Georgia. It was 1938, the same year big band "swing" music, which he helped spawn, hit its pinnacle with Benny Goodman's Carnegie Hall concert.

Oliver was born around 1885 near Donaldsonville, Louisiana, a sugar-producing town and Mississippi river port about 60 miles north of New Orleans. His mother worked as a cook on the industrial-sized Saulsburg sugar plantation. He came to New Orleans before 1900 with no clear direction or talent - one more 'uptown' black in the Crescent City, who suffered the ignominy of his skin color at a time when Southern racism was in full bloom.

Yet since the end of the Civil War, black marching bands had appeared at political and social celebrations throughout the South. And on the plantations, many landowners had encouraged their slaves to perform musically, even for white social functions.

In New Orleans, the teenage Oliver got his musical start playing in a band for young people in his neighborhood led by Walter Kenchen, about whom little is known. Kenchen likely drilled his young troupers in reading exercises and march scores, following traditions set by rural band teachers of the era. He would have instructed the sections separately: first rhythm, then the brass, then woodwinds, without too much attention to individual players. The idea was to get the band up and running, making music together.

According to one story, Joe started on trombone, but Kenchen switched him to cornet "in defense of everybody's eardrums." While Oliver himself acknowledged he got off to a rocky start in music, the Kenchen trombone story does attest to the power of his playing, which later became a signature of his style. The New Orleans guitarist Louis Keppard claimed that Oliver was so powerful he could "blow a cornet out of tune," and that he "should have been playing tuba."

At one point, Kenchen took his young band upriver to Baton Rouge, and Oliver returned with a sizeable wound over his left eye, probably the result of a fight. The resulting scar stayed with him for the rest of his life and brought mockery from his peers, which undoubtedly left an internal mark on the impressionable boy.

Oliver took a job as a yard boy at a Jewish family home on tree-lined Magazine Street. The family allowed him flexible hours so he could continue to play music, and play in the city's numerous street parades. They also allowed the eminent hornman Bunk Johnson and the drummer Walter Brundy, both musicians who could read music, to tutor Joe at the house. Bunk and Walter did so gladly, even as they stole the boy's sheet music, which in those days was as precious to musicians as jazz records became twenty years later. This early repertoire likely included rags and marches such as Arthur Pryor's At A Georgia Camp Meeting, J. Bodewalt Lampe's Creole Belles, which was later popularized by Mississippi John Hurt, and Abe Holzmann's riff-based Smoky Mokes.

Oliver soon began to play weekends at the Eagle Saloon on Rampart Street with one of New Orleans' preeminent bands, the Eagle Band. Again he had a rough start; at first, the band sent him home because "he played so loud and so bad."

There was a reason: the Eagle Band musicians had played with the legendary cornetist Buddy Bolden before his mental breakdown. They continued Bolden's unleashed, bottom-up musical approach which depended not on reading or formalities, but on guts. At first, Joe could find "no direction home."

Joe stayed his course, and he eventually caught the ear of guitarist Louis Keppard, who one day around 1909 appeared at Joe's Magazine Street door and invited him to join his new band, the Magnolia. They played in New Orleans' "District," better known as Storyville, where prostitution was legal. Their lineup included Oliver on cornet, Keppard on guitar, and the notorious drummer Red "Happy" Bolton, who had sung on the street with a young Louis Armstrong. Also on board was the trombonist Honore Dutrey, whom Oliver would hire into his Creole Jazz Band over a decade later.

The Magnolia played taxi-dance numbers for sailors, roustabouts, and bar girls, and their repertoire included the era's popular hits, such as Bag of Rags, Frog Leg Rag, Maple Leaf Rag and Champagne Rag. Ragtime, in its heyday, was the baseline music for many New Orleans bands, and the Magnolia was no exception. Just as Miles Davis's In a Silent Way set the stage for Bitches Brew, so in its day did ragtime's syncopated structure beget American jazz.

In the teeming District, Oliver found himself surrounded by dance halls and honky tonks, and by some of the best musicians of the time. They included his two greatest musical threats, cornetists Freddy Keppard and Manuel Perez. Oliver, according to at least two good sources, had an "inferiority complex" which stemmed from his underdeveloped chops and scarred eye and so walked on shaky ground.

One night in 1911, he stood up for himself. In addition to his Magnolia gig, Oliver played other District venues as jobs came up. At a honky tonk called the Abadie Cafe, he worked sometimes with the pianist Richard M. Jones' "Four Hot Hounds" - one block plus a corner down Marais Street from Pete Lala's cafe, a District landmark and musician's after-hours joint. At Lala's, Freddy Keppard was pulling in large crowds, while Abadie's stood near empty.

In a defining moment, Oliver told Jones, "'Get in B-flat.' He didn't even mention a tune, just said, 'Get in B-flat.'" Then he walked into the street and, at the top of his lungs, "blew the most beautiful stuff I have ever heard," recalled Jones. Directly, the crowds moved from Lala's down to Abadie's, which then stayed full every night.

Jones went on to compose Jazzin' Babies' Blues, which evidence suggests was based on a folk strain common in New Orleans during the District days. Both Jones, on solo piano, and Oliver, with his Creole Jazz Band, recorded Jazzin' Babies' in June of 1923.

Oliver then moved over to Pete Lala's club and, for the next several years, held forth there and at the "Big 25" club - as well as with the Magnolia - and brought together some of the best players of the new jazz music. Of Oliver's Lala group, Armstrong recalled that it was "the hottest jazz band ever heard in New Orleans between the years 1910 and 1917."

He had thrown himself into the fray. Around this time, he joined - and possibly founded - the Melrose Brass Band, a smallish group that included Honore Dutrey from the Magnolia, as well as Bunk Johnson. He also joined the great Onward Brass Band alongside his second "challenge," the venerated Manuel Perez.

The Onward had come into existence in the 1880s as a black traditional brass band, playing standard march scores in straight time for concerts, dances, and parades. But with the new ragtime music, "legit" band leaders like Perez were looking for "hot" players who could improvise and swing. Oliver filled the spot. Never a great reader, he must have made a difference; the New Orleans drummer Paul Barbarin recalled the Onward as a "barrelhouse band" during the Oliver years.

Undoubtedly, Oliver received on-the-job training in musicianship from the technically accomplished Perez. He would get even more when, around 1914, he took over Freddy Keppard's spot in the Olympia Band, under the violinist Armand J. Piron. Violinists played often in early jazz bands, many of which tended to be string-based and could double as society orchestras. The violinist might be the only reader in the group, who depended on him to acquire and teach them new material.

Piron's band produced an arranged sound that would soon morph into the New Orleans ragged polyphony - reflective of the city's mixed cultural "gumbo." Excellent examples include Piron's Bright Star Blues and Louisiana Swing, recorded in New York in 1923 and 1924.

On New Year's Eve, 1912, an 11-year-old New Orleans waif named Louis Armstrong was arrested for shooting off a gun on Rampart Street. The Louisiana court placed him in the city's Colored Waifs' Home, where in his year and a half sentence, he received his first legitimate musical training. By the time he emerged in 1914, he was the leader of the Waifs' Home band. He started picking up bootstrap gigs in his immediate neighborhood - a squalid "branch" of Storyville, which sat just blocks away from where Oliver played the new hot music. Louis followed Oliver in parades with the Onward, idolizing him as a hero and holding his horn during breaks.

As one of New Orleans' few fully employed black musicians, Oliver made so many gigs that he occasionally needed someone to replace him. He invited Louis to sit in for him one night at Pete Lala's. At the same time, trombonist Kid Ory began to pay attention to Louis, who was known as "Dipper" in the neighborhood, and also used him as a sub - a good three years before Ory recruited the older Oliver. Louis was already beginning to send waves onto Oliver's sunny beach.

For years, Oliver had wanted to play with Ory's band, in part because the trombonist knew how to get gigs, but also because Ory was the epitome of gutbucket playing. His would be the first black New Orleans jazz band to record, in 1922. But he had been down on Joe's chops. Joe knew it, but he kept working and kept after Ory. Finally Ory recruited Joe, and the two worked together at Pete Lala's and other venues around the city for the next year or two. It was Ory who initially crowned Joe "King." In what became known as the Ory/Oliver band, Joe first played with the New Orleans clarinet icon Johnny Dodds.

But as though Joe were being forced out, in June 1918 the Ory/Oliver band was busted in an underhanded saloon raid. Oliver, feeling fed up with corrupt, racist New Orleans politics, accepted an offer to play at the Royal Gardens Café in Chicago. Within three months, he was gone from New Orleans, never to return.

Just after World War I, Chicago burgeoned with thousands of new black citizens, freshly arrived from the rural South. The city's South Side was coming of age as a black metropolis, with over 40 jazz venues and dance halls covering a 5 square mile area. New Orleans players, who had that crazy swing and "gully-low" sound, quickly co-opted local gigs, and before long South Side club owners were loath to hire anyone else.

In the Windy City, Joe Oliver blew into two gigs at once: one at the Dreamland Café with Lawrence Duhe's New Orleans Jazz Band, the other at the Royal Gardens with the bassist and banjoist Bill Johnson. Johnson had just returned from 5 years on the road with the Original Creole Orchestra, who had first brought New Orleans jazz to the country at large, through vaudeville. Freddy Keppard had toured with that band, after leaving his spot with the Olympia in 1914. He was now back in Chicago.

The clarinetist Duhe had come down the river to New Orleans with Kid Ory, with whom he had played on the plantation. His New Orleans Jazz Band had also started out in a vaudeville venue. Sidney Bechet, who had played with Duhe, called his group "the real music." But after two years, the Duhe group began falling apart due to shifting personnel. It was at this point that Oliver joined them - and that he met their pianist, Lillian Hardin, who would later marry Louis Armstrong.

These two groups and their Crescent City colleagues began to shake the South Side dance halls. They played rags and marches such as High Society and Panama, and likely some recent pop material such as Someday Sweetheart, Tony Jackson's Pretty Baby, and W.C. Handy's Loveless Love and Beale Street Blues. Both the Dreamland and the Royal Gardens were large dance venues, each supporting 700 to 800 hoofers.

Around 1920, Oliver took over the Dreamland band. He kept Hardin on piano and brought in two homeboys: Johnny Dodds on clarinet, and Honore Dutrey on trombone. He was assembling the core of his soon-to-be earthshaking King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band.

True to the New Orleans tradition, Oliver's Dreamland group played long hours, doubling after closing time at the Pekin Café, originally a legitimate musical theatre that had given up the ghost and become a gangster dive. Either because Oliver didn't like shootings, or because the Dreamland was up for sale, in 1921 he accepted a gig at the Pergola Dance Pavilion in San Francisco. The band moved to California and stayed for a year, playing up and down the coast, and taking on the shimmying drummer Warren "Baby" Dodds (John's brother).

After a year, Oliver returned to Chicago and reassembled his band at the Royal Gardens, now in new hands and renamed the Lincoln Gardens. There, he brought together Baby and Johnny Dodds, Honore Dutrey, Bill Johnson, and eventually Lil Hardin into his King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band. A few months later, he sent to New Orleans for his young protégé, Louis Armstrong, who boarded a train for Chicago almost as soon as he received Joe's telegram. He later conceded that he never would have left New Orleans had it not been for "Papa Joe."

The Creole Jazz Band, with some changes in personnel, lasted from June 1922 until around September 1924, using the Lincoln Gardens at 31st Street and Cottage Grove Avenue as its home base. The band pulled the same monstrous attention that Oliver had drawn at Pete Lala's, six years earlier. Up and coming musicians such as Mezz Mezzrow, Benny Goodman, Preston Jackson, and Eddie Condon would be permanently influenced by the Creole Band, which would establish Oliver as a near-legendary figure. The trumpeter Bubber Miley would bring Oliver's gutbucket New Orleans sound into the Ellington band, permanently rooting it in the jazz lexicon.

The guitarist Condon remembered the Creole Band from 1924: "It was hypnosis at first hearing. Everyone was playing what he wanted to play and it was all mixed together as if someone had planned it with a set of micrometer calipers. Notes I had never heard were peeling off the edges and dropping through the middle; there was a tone from the trumpets like warm rain on a cold day...It seemed impossible, so I dismissed it; but it was true."

The Creole Band recorded the first substantive collection of jazz sides by a black New Orleans band - some 37 tracks during nine months of 1923. The records put New Orleans jazz on the national map. They included such durable tunes as Canal Street Blues, which director Woody Allen used in the soundtrack of his film Sleeper, Riverside Blues, Snake Rag, and Chimes Blues, on which Armstrong laid down his first recorded solo. Dippermouth Blues became the band's signature tune, in part because of Oliver's elegant, beautifully constructed three-chorus blues solo that the era's most successful bands, such as those led by Fletcher Henderson and Benny Goodman still copied years later.

During the recording, those present - especially pianist Lil Hardin, the only legitimately trained musician in the bunch) - began to see that Armstrong could outplay Oliver. On stage, the two had initiated a program of duet breaks, where it seemed to audience members that the two read each others' minds. In any case, Louis began to upstage Oliver, though he never intended to: fifteen years' Oliver's junior, he worshiped "Papa Joe." But his talent could not be held down. In Ken Burns' Jazz documentary film series, writer Gary Giddins said that when you heard Louis' solo on Chimes Blues, "You heard the future."

The problem was one of time and space. Oliver had come out of the New Orleans "band" tradition and had always seen himself as a "band man": polyphony was more important than any one player. Indeed, early jazz was defined by its collective improvisation, not by solos. In that respect, it was eternally progressive.

But when Oliver jumped into Chicago's "bigger lake," he apparently began to forget his roots. After the Creole Band cut its 1923 sides, he began talking about it as "my band" rather than "our band." He began to take more control and see himself as the star. He began turning down gigs because the pay was too low. Maybe his inferiority complex was acting up. But where once the band had played with buoyant spirit, now his players began to quit. Worse, Oliver's gums began to go bad.

Ever the optimist, Oliver brought in new sidemen and held the band together for another year. By that time, Armstrong and Hardin, still with the band, had married. Oliver had confessed to Lil that Louis was a better player than he himself was. Lil knew Louis had bonded with Oliver, but she wanted to get him away from Joe, out on his own. In mid- 1924, with the support of Lil and other band members, Louis left Oliver and soon went with Fletcher Henderson in New York, where his star began to rise. For Joe, it may have seemed like losing his child; in his memoirs, Louis recalled that "Joe Oliver, as well as myself, felt that we were very close relatives."

After a period of slow business, the Lincoln Gardens burned at Christmas, 1924. A few days prior, Oliver had gone with Jelly Roll Morton into Marsh Laboratories in Chicago and cut two memorable duet tracks - Morton's King Porter Stomp and his lesser-known Tom Cat. The tracks are considered perhaps the earliest electrical jazz recordings. The session was really a jam, apparently completely improvised.

Shortly thereafter, Oliver swung back into action with a ten-piece band, the Dixie Syncopators, at the Plantation Café, just a few blocks from the Lincoln Gardens. Again, he used New Orleans top-rank players, including the drummer Paul Barbarin, the clarinetist Albert Nicholas, and the multi-reedman Barney Bigard, who would later join the Ellington band and co-compose Mood Indigo.

With a blown-up reed section, the larger Dixie Syncopators pushed out the walls in the direction of big band "section" music - but they weren't there yet. Oliver's sections played off each other like teams of boys dashing through the woods, tossing the ball back and forth. They played not so much apart, as would the later "swing" bands, but on top of each other. The effect comes through clearly on the out-chorus of Wa Wa Wa, recorded in Chicago, May 1926. As a capper, the chorus finishes with a riveting 4-bar "talking" cornet solo by Oliver. Also compare the Dixie Syncopators 1926 re-take of the Creole Band's Dippermouth Blues, retitled Sugar Foot Stomp.

The Dixie Syncopators occupied the Plantation from March 1925 until March 1927, when it, too, burned, most likely due to gang and race wars. In one form or another, Oliver recorded with this band for another year, all in all giving us such chestnuts as Morton's Doctor Jazz, Oliver's own Snag It, and a delightful, "sweet and slow" version of the New Orleans Rhythm Kings' Farewell Blues. If any of these recordings exemplify Joe Oliver's utterly laid-back sense of swing, it is the latter.

In a sense, the Dixie Syncopators and the Plantation were Joe Oliver's last great stand. In spite of his massive musical reputation in Chicago, his short-sighted business sense, combined with the changing times and coming Great Depression, became his Achilles' heel. Oliver never again had a permanent band or venue. After the Plantation fire, he took a band to New York for a three-month Savoy Ballroom engagement. But he demanded more money, the management refused, and his gig ended after two weeks. For the same reason, Oliver declined a Cotton Club gig, and it went instead to the upcoming Duke Ellington. Oliver's sidemen began drifting away, and he himself began accepting sideman studio sessions.

From May to December, 1928, he did some 22 of these sessions with his old friend, Clarence Williams, who had played with Joe around Louisiana and, at various times, managed both the Big 25 and Pete Lala's. Williams had become a music publisher, entrepreneur and early A&R man around New York. Seeing Oliver down on his luck, Williams used him as a backup player for several blues singers, including Lizzie Miles and the colorful Victoria Spivey.

With the latter, he recorded My Handy Man in September 1928, playing alongside the guitarist Eddie Lang. Although Oliver plays only fills here, his swing comes through clearly. In general, however, these blues sides reveal Oliver to be a weaker sideman than a leader. His gums had been worsening, and more than one first-hand observer noted that Oliver's prime had come fifteen years earlier, in New Orleans.

During the next couple of years, Oliver recorded a number of sides for Victor, using almost all pickup players, as the leader had no permanent band. His lip had deteriorated to the point where, when asked on gigs to play his recorded solos, he had to decline. On sessions, he began assigning his horn duties to subs. In January 1929, just two years before his recording career ended, he cut another version of West End Blues, with Louis Metcalf from the Ellington band handling the trumpet part. The next month he cut Can I Tell You? with George Mitchell, who had recorded with Jelly Roll Morton, on cornet.

Yet even as leader-only, and even though his concept had slid downhill from New Orleans polyphony towards organized section playing, Oliver still kept his band in the here-and-now, sounding as though they lay in grass on a summer's afternoon, looking at the sky.

Now in the Depression, the slide continued in May 1930, when Oliver departed for a tour of Midwestern and South-Central states. By fall, the band fell apart, stranded in Kansas City. In March 1931, Oliver assembled another band that, from a Wichita base, played a long series of one-night stands, many in white dance halls. Audience reception varied; even aside from racism, Oliver had lost celebrity, and his men kept falling away.

On successive tours through Virginia, Arkansas, Michigan, Kentucky, Tennessee and other states, Oliver's bands racked up many gigs and radio broadcasts. And for several months during 1933, Lester Young sat in Oliver's saxophone section. Yet the band's cars and busses broke down, their gigs were cancelled, and their revenue dropped, until one day in July 1934, eight men en masse left. Until the end, however, numerous sources report that Oliver could still play sweet and strong.

By 1937, with no band left, Joe Oliver would be found sweeping out a pool hall and selling vegetables on the streets of Savannah, GA. The next year, he died there of arteriosclerosis, too broke to afford treatment. Louis Armstrong, in Savannah for a gig, saw Oliver there just before he died. Twelve years later, Armstrong recalled, "There never was a trumpet playing in New Orleans that had the fire that Joe Oliver had. Fire - that's the life of music, that's the way it should be."

Recommended Reading

Brothers, Thomas, Louis Armstrong's New Orleans, New York, W.W. Norton, 2006

Marquis, Donald M., In Search of Buddy Bolden: First Man of Jazz, Louisiana, Da Capo Books, 1978

Ramsey, Jr., Frederick and Smith, Charles Edward, Jazzmen, New York, Harcourt, Brace, 1939

Rose, Al and Souchon, Edmond, M.D., New Orleans Jazz Family Album, Baton Rouge, Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1967

Shapiro, Nat and Hentoff, Nat, Hear Me Talkin' To Ya, New York, Dover Books, 1955

Williams, Martin, Jazz Masters of New Orleans, New York, Da Capo Books, 1967

Wright, Laurie, "King" Oliver, Essex, England, Storyville Publications, 1987

Select Discography

Early Syncopated Dance Music - Cakewalks, Two-Steps, Trots and Glides. Smithsonian Folkways FWRBF37. (For At A Georgia Camp Meeting, Creole Belles, and Smoky Mokes.)

King Oliver/Off the Record: The Complete 1923 Jazz Band Re-Recordings. Archeophone Records. (Recommended)

Louis Armstrong and King Oliver. Milestone Records.

Blues Singers and Hot Bands on Okeh 1924-1929. Frog UK.

King Oliver, I'll Still Be King. Fabulous Records.

King Oliver and His Orchestra, 1929-1930. JSP Records. (Recommended)

Contributor: Peter Gerler