Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b Joseph Oliver, 11 May 1885, Louisiana; d 10 April 1938, Savannah GA) Cornettist, composer, bandleader; perhaps the greatest artist of all in the classic style of New Orleans jazz. He is said to have been born on a plantation, where his mother was a cook; he lost the sight in one eye in a childhood accident. He began on trombone, learned some cornet from Bunk Johnson and played in various bands, with Kid Ory and then led his own bands 1912-17, rejoined Ory, left New Orleans in 1919, worked in Chicago, then California, returned to Chicago and led the Creole Jazz Band at Lincoln Gardens from April 1922, sending to New Orleans for Louis Armstrong to play second cornet. He toured, visited New York solo in 1924, and returned to the Winter Gardens.

Jazz was already a nationwide fad when Oliver began recording; the white Original Dixieland Jazz Band made the first jazz records in 1916, but Oliver was already the King before he left New Orleans, the nickname allegedly bestowed by Ory; and the recordings of the Creole Jazz Band, all made in 1923, were the best examples of the New Orleans style to be captured, despite the limitations of the acoustic recordings (drummer Baby Dodds had to play woodblocks instead of his usual kit). The lineup was Oliver and Armstrong, cornets; Honoré Dutrey, trombone; Johnny Dodds, clarinet; Lil Hardin Armstrong, piano; Arthur 'Bud' Scott or Johnny St Cyr, banjo; Charlie Jackson on bass sax (on five tracks), Paul Anderson 'Stump' Evans (b 18 October 1904, Lawrence KS; d 29 August 1928, Douglas KS) on C-melody sax (on four). Four sides made by Columbia have (probably) Ed Atkins on trombone and Jimmie Noone on clarinet. (Audiences were astonished at the time: how could Oliver and Armstrong have played apparently improvised breaks in unison? Years later Armstrong revealed that Oliver would secretly show him the fingering before the break.) Forty-one tracks were recorded (including three alternative takes) on four different labels; four were rejected and are lost; two Paramount sides have survived on only one copy of the 78rpm original. The collection is a cornerstone of 20th-century American popular music.

[Reissues of the acoustic 1923 recordings have usually sounded like historical artifacts, but the two-CD set Off The Record: The Complete 1923 Jazz Band Recordings, on the Off The Record label in 2006 and distributed by Archeophone Records, is a miracle. Producers Doug Benson and Davis Sager, using 78s from several collectors and  remastered by Benson, have removed surface noise without removing any music, making pitch corrections and dubbing the tracks with a uniform flat response, so that one can listen to track after track without any listening fatigue. Go here to order the set.]  

Francis 'Frank' Johnson (1792-1844) was born in the West Indies and came to the USA in 1809; he was the first black American to publish his own music (in 1818) and seems to have been the first American bandleader of any race to tour overseas, where Queen Victoria gave him a silver trumpet. In his 'Philadelphia Fireman's Quadrille' his horn could be heard to 'distinctly cry ''Fire! Fire!'' ', according to contemporaries. Johnson became a legend, and the vocal-like human communication possible with brass instruments was already an established tradition when King Oliver came along. Like Bach, Oliver was essentially a conservative, the Creole Jazz Band summing up the mixture of blues, ragtime and pop songs that became jazz; yet to all this he added the qualities of a complete jazz musician, never playing anything the same way twice, the rich honesty of his style and the human warmth of his muted crying tones making him one of the founding fathers of American music. On the two recordings of his own tune 'Dippermouth Blues', Max Harrison wrote, 'Oliver builds around the flat third, whose exact pitch he shifts constantly, often placing the notes between, rather than on, the beats; the colour of the notes is varied, too, with the mute.' Louis Armstrong made it clear that Papa Joe was his primary influence and the only one he ever needed. (Retitled 'Sugar Foot Stomp', 'Dippermouth' remained a hit through the Swing Era.)

Oliver recorded with Jelly Roll Morton, Clarence Williams, Butterbeans and Susie, and accompanying singers Katherine Henderson, Eva Taylor, Victoria Spivey, Hazel Smith, Elizabeth Johnson, Lizzie Miles, Sippie Wallace and Texas Alexander; his various lineups recorded in 1926-8 as the Savannah Syncopators, Aurora Aristocrats, Dallas Dandies etc but the records are compiled as by King Oliver and his Dixie Syncopators. This was a somewhat larger band, electrically recorded and a step away from the classic New Orleans style; its 'Farewell Blues', 'Willie The Weeper', 'Every Tub', 'Someday Sweetheart', and many others are heartbreakingly beautiful. The band included variously Bigard, Evans, Ory, Scott, Omer Simeon, Johnny Dodds, Luis Russell, Albert Nicholas on clarinet (b 27 May 1900, New Orleans; d 3 September 1973, Switzerland), Jimmy Archey on trombone (b 12 October 1902, Norfolk VA; d 16 November 1967, Amityville, NY), drummer Paul Barbarin (b 5 May 1899, New Orleans; d there 10 February 1969), Lawson Buford on tuba, and others. The band made nearly 50 sides for Vocalion and Brunswick, recording in NYC from mid-1927.

[Austalian-born engineer Robert Parker made good transfers from this era, two volumes on his CDS Records; a Decca set of 22 tracks produced by Orrin Keepnews and Stephen Lasker is also very good. The first few tracks are loaded with distortion, because Vocalion, instead of the Western Electric technology adopted by everyone else, used an electrical recording method of their own in 1926, a 'light-ray' technique, the details of which are now lost.]

Oliver recorded for Victor 1929-30; his last records were made for Brunswick/Vocalion in 1931, mostly as King Oliver and his Orchestra, the last two (Vocalion) sides as the Chocolate Dandies. By this time he was suffering from serious dental trouble; finally pyorrhoea forced him to have most of his teeth removed and his gums were usually bleeding. Beginning with the Victor records he did not always play and rarely took solos. The Bluebird CD King Oliver: The New York Sessions (1929-1930) included all the tracks on which Oliver played; he is strong on 'I'm Lonesome, Sweetheart', muted and delicate on 'What Do You Want Me To Do?' and 'Frankie And Johnny'. Although his music was considered old-fashioned he was still a strong bandleader; the sidemen included his nephew Dave Nelson (b 1905, Donaldson LA; d 7 April 1946, NYC), sometimes Red Allen and Bubber Miley on trumpets; Archey, Hilton Jefferson on alto sax, James P. Johnson on piano; he also played on two delightful sides by Jimmy Johnson and his Orchestra in 1929 with Nelson, Archey, James P., Fats Waller, and others including a male vocal trio: 'You've Got To Be Modernistic' and the lovely 'You Don't Understand', both written by Johnson, the latter also recorded by Bessie Smith.

Lester Young worked for Oliver in 1932; there was a disastrous tour of the South in 1935. He died destitute and broken-hearted, working as a janitor in a pool hall, unable to get medical treatment because of welfare department red tape; by the time of his death collectors were paying higher and higher prices for his out-of-print records. The unique (if not entirely reliable) reference book Pop Memories says that several Oliver records were big hits: 'Dipper Mouth Blues' and 'High Society' 1924, 'Someday Sweetheart' and 'Willie The Weeper' 1927, 'Four Or Five Times' 1928 and 'St James Infirmary' 1930 (with Miley). He copyrighted 'High Society', a New Orleans classic; among the many new classics he wrote or co-wrote were 'West End Blues', 'The Chimes' and 'Snag It'. A classic bio-discography King Joe Oliver by Brian Rust and Walter C. Allen was published in 1955; a new edition in 1987 edited by Laurie Wright was a massive update. Dippermouth Blues on ASV is a single CD compilation.