Personalities | King Oliver | Twenties | Jazz & Blues

One of the cornet kings of early New Orleans – along with Buddy Bolden, Freddie Keppard and Bunk JohnsonJoseph ‘King’ Oliver helped to define the bravura spirit of hot jazz through his work in Chicago during the 1920s with his Creole Jazz Band. He is said to have earned the sobriquet ‘King’ by besting Keppard in a cutting contest one night in Storyville.

A King And His Mute

Born in Abend, Louisiana on 11 May 1885, Joseph Oliver began working around New Orleans as a cornettist in 1907 with the Onward Brass Band and later with the Eagle Band. By 1917, he became the star cornettist in a popular band led by Kid Ory. One of the early masters of the mute, Oliver created a whole lexicon of vocal effects on his horn during his two-year stint with Ory’s band, which influenced a generation of musicians including trumpeter Bubber Miley and trombonist Tricky Sam Nanton – both of whom would play decisive roles in the Duke Ellington Orchestra in the 1930s. When Oliver went north to Chicago in February 1919, Ory hired his 18-year-old protégé Louis Armstrong as his replacement on cornet (Armstrong idolized Oliver and always referred to him as ‘Papa Joe’).

Oliver Rocks Lincoln Gardens

In Chicago, Oliver established himself in Bill Johnson’s band at the Dreamland Ballroom. Following a year-long stay in California, he returned to Chicago in June 1922 and started playing regularly with his Creole Jazz Band at the Lincoln Gardens on Chicago’s South Side. The original line-up of the Creole Jazz Band included trombonist Honoré Dutrey, bassist Bill Johnson, clarinetist Johnny Dodds, drummer Baby Dodds and pianist Lil Hardin. In July he sent for Louis Armstrong, who joined the group in Chicago on 8 August. Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band made its first recordings in April 1923 at the Richmond, Indiana studios of Gennett Records. Included in the batch of Oliver originals that they cut that day were ‘Snake Rag’, ‘Zulu’s Ball’, ‘Just Gone’, ‘Chimes Blues’, ‘Canal Street Blues’ and ‘Dippermouth Blues’, which showcases Oliver’s wah-wah technique.

Oliver Loses His Protégé

Lil Hardin and Louis Armstrong were married in February 1924 and Hardin had plans for her new husband, advising him on various matters and ultimately convincing him to leave his mentor’s side and join Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra in New York. Shortly after Armstrong’s exit, the Creole Jazz Band fell apart; in December 1924 Oliver recorded a pair of piano-cornet duets (‘King Porter Stomp’ and ‘Tom Cat Blues’) with Jelly Roll Morton for the Autograph label. In 1925, he took over Dave Peyton’s band, which had a residency at the Plantation Café, and renamed it the Dixie Syncopators. From 1927–28, the Dixie Syncopators recorded prolifically for the Vocalion and Brunswick labels, and when the Plantation Café was destroyed by fire in 1929, the band went to New York and worked at the Savoy Ballroom. Oliver unwisely turned down an offer to become the house band...

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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Jazz & Blues, founding editor Howard Mandel


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