Joe “King” Oliver was born in Abend, near Donaldsonville, Louisiana, and moved to New Orleans in his youth. Oliver played cornet in the New Orleans brass bands and dance bands and also in the city’s red-light district, Storyville. The band he co-led with trombonist Kid Ory was considered New Orleans’ hottest and best in the 1910s. Oliver achieved great popularity in New Orleans across economic and racial lines and was in demand for playing jobs from rough working-class black dance halls to white society debutante parties.
According to an interview at the Tulane University Hogan Jazz Archive with Oliver’s widow Stella Oliver, in 1919 a fight broke out at a dance where Oliver was playing, and the police arrested Oliver and the band along with the fighters. This made Oliver decide to leave the Jim Crow South.
After travels in California, by 1922 Oliver was the jazz “King” in Chicago, with King Oliver and his Creole Jazz Band performing at the Royal Gardens (later renamed the Lincoln Gardens). Virtually all the members of this band had notable solo careers, notably, of course, Louis Armstrong. Recordings made by this group in 1923 demonstrated the serious artistry of the New Orleans style of collective improvisation or Dixieland music to a wider audience.
In the mid and late 1920s, Oliver’s band transformed into a hybrid of the old New Orleans style jazz band and the nationally popular larger dance band, and was christened “King Oliver & His Dixie Syncopators.” Oliver started to suffer from gum disease, which started to diminish his playing abilities but remained a popular band leader throughout the decade.
Unfortunately, Oliver’s business acumen was less than his musical ability. A succession of managers stole money from him. He demanded more money for his band than the Savoy Ballroom was willing to pay, and lost the gig. In a similar fashion, he lost the chance for an engagement at New York City’s famous Cotton Club when he held out for more money—young Duke Ellington took the job and subsequently catapulted to fame.
The Great Depression was harsh on Oliver. He lost his life savings when a Chicago bank collapsed and he struggled to keep his band together on a series of hand-to-mouth gigs until the band broke up and Oliver was stranded in Savannah, Georgia, where he worked as a janitor and died in poverty. His body was put to rest at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, NY, next to other jazz greats.
The Creole Jazz Band
There unfortunately are no recordings from Joe Oliver’s New Orleans period, where he was reportedly at his zenith. However, his first recordings, made in Chicago with his famous Creole Jazz Band in 1923 display his full potential as a soloist and a band leader, in addition to revealing young Louis Armstrong as an emerging giant. Personnel was Oliver on cornet, his protegé Louis Armstrong, second cornet, Baby Dodds on drums, Johnny Dodds on clarinet, Lil Hardin (later Armstrong’s second wife) on piano, Honore Dutrey on trombone, and Bill Johnson on bass and banjo.
It is immediately clear that Oliver had perfect control over his band, which certainly was an important reason for his success, in addition to the quality of his musicians. Collective improvisation here means that most of the time, all instruments can be heard playing simultaneously, with short solos or “breaks” mixed in-between, rather than having extensive solos as the main ingredient. It does not mean everyone simply plays on the inspiration of the moment. Even though the word “arrangement” could hardly be used for these early recordings, close listening actually reveals very sophisticated preparation of the ensembles, using each instrument for maximum effect. The rhythm is square, with an emphasis on regular rather than jagged rhythmic patterns, but a feeling of monotony does not arise, due to the melodic creativity.
The extent of Oliver’s mastery is astonishing when one remembers that he and his musicians were barely literate musically. Sammy Stewart, a contemporary musician, remembers: “King Oliver’s gang used to go down to the record shops and play the records of the tunes that they wanted to use. They’d hum the songs over and over until they got them into their heads. It was comical. But if you set music down in front of them, they’d be lost. … But those cats were artists when they were blowing” (reported by Arnett Howard, Red Hot Jazz Archives).
The Dixie Syncopators
In the late 1920s, when Joe Oliver brought together his second band, he was already somewhat removed from the limelight of mainstream jazz developments. This does not mean that the music was second-class, however. The recordings from these years have a very particular quality. When Oliver himself plays on them, he can be heard far better than in his earlier recordings (due to the advent of the electrical recording technique). Some of his solos are extremely beautiful and give a sense of deep nostalgia. These pieces have a down-home and down-south quality that is quite unique. Occasionally, they can be a little sleepy, like testimonies of a distant past.
Overall, they are a great witness to Oliver’s music and to the early period of jazz history. Though there was no Louis Armstrong in his new band, it nevertheless counted a number of high-quality players, including Hilton Jefferson and Otto Hardwicke on alto, Barney Bigard, Darnell Howard, Albert Nicolas, Omer Simeon and Johnny Dodds on clarinet, Paul Barbarin on drums, J.C. Higginbotham, Jimmy Archey and Kid Ory on trombone, and Benny Waters on tenor—enough to be a cause of envy for most other bands.
King Oliver also frequently recorded with Clarence Williams at that time, in bands that had a similar composition and were nearly indistinguishable from his. In the last years of his life, Oliver’s health made it increasingly difficult to play the trumpet. Often, it is difficult to figure out if he is playing on a particular recording or if it is one of his many successors.
As a player, Oliver was strongly interested in altering his horn’s sound. He pioneered in the use of mutes, including the plumber’s plunger, derby hat, and bottles and cups in the bell of his horn. His recording “WaWaWa” with the Dixie Syncopators can be credited with giving the name wah-wah to such techniques. Though comical intent was part of the game, Oliver’s mute never sounded vulgar. Often, his playing had a deeply moving, almost tragic quality. The same was true of his open horn playing, which was determined and powerful, though without the victorious quality that would characterize his instrument after the advent of Louis Armstrong. Especially in the early years, the role of the trumpet was that of the lead instrument, i.e., that of stating the melody, while the clarinet and trombone would add their artistry around the main theme.
This would give the trumpet a sense of dignity, but at the same time prevent it from fully developing long creative segments, something Louis Armstrong would pioneer. Oliver performed mostly on the cornet, an instrument that is virtually identical to the trumpet but with a less flamboyant tone. Early trumpet players, including Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke, played cornet before switching to the trumpet. Some, like Rex Stewart, never changed.
King Oliver finds his natural place on the historical list of the greatest jazz trumpet innovators, next to Buddy Bolden, Louis Armstrong, Roy Eldridge, Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis. Oliver’s influence lived on in trumpeters like Bubber Miley and many others who further developed his muted playing style. His early recordings in particular would also serve as a model for later New Orleans-style players adept at collective improvisation. During Joe Oliver’s time in Chicago, a great number of white jazz musicians became involved in the “hot” New Orleans style of playing, and there is no doubt that Oliver’s music was a major influence on them.
Oliver was also noted as a composer, having written Armstrong’s early hit, “Dippermouth Blues,” as well as “Sweet Like This,” “Canal Street Blues,” and “Doctor Jazz,” the latter virtually the theme song of Jelly Roll Morton, a frequent collaborator. Finally, it is clear that the hot but well-organized way of playing influenced Fletcher Henderson in the creation of swing-style big band jazz through Armstrong’s 13-month tenure with Henderson directly after he left King Oliver’s orchestra: it was not just Armstrong who revolutionized Henderson’s playing, it was also Oliver’s legacy.
Louis Armstrong nicknamed Oliver, calling him “Papa Joe.” Oliver gave Armstrong the first cornet that Louis was to own. Armstrong called Oliver his idol and inspiration all his life. In Armstrong’s autobiography, “Satchmo – My Life in New Orleans,” he writes about Oliver: “It was my ambition to play as he did. I still think that if it had not been for Joe Oliver, Jazz would not be what it is today. He was a creator in his own right.”
The Creole Jazz Band (all 1923): Chimes Blues (1923, Louis Armstrong solo), Snake Rag (1923), Sobbin’ Blues (1923), Chattanooga Stomp (1923), Dippermouth Blues (1923 King Oliver’s classic muted solo), High society Rag (1923), Jazzin’ Babies’ Blues (1923), Sweet Lovin’ Man (1923), Workingmans Blues (1923), Tears (1923, with breaks by Louis Armstrong). More than 40 recordings total. All recommended. Later recordings: Snag it (1926), Too Bad (1926), Aunt Hagar’s Blues (1928), and St. James Infirmary (1930). Duo with Jelly Roll Morton: King Porter Stomp (1924); with Clarence Williams: Bozo (1928, splendid mute solo by King Oliver), Speakeasy (1928).