The Great 'King Oliver.'



Joseph "King" Oliver (1885-1938) was born in Abend, Louisiana but 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 (in common with many New Orleans-based jazz musicians of the time). The band he co-led with trombonist Kid Ory was considered New Orleans' hottest band in the 1910s. Oliver achieved great popularity in New Orleans even 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's 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. Apparently, this made Oliver determined to eventually leave the Jim Crow South, for Oliver had no interest in violence or crime, his love being entirely reserved for the cornet. After travels in California, by 1922 Oliver was the jazz "King" in Chicago (see: Jazz royalty), 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. Personnel was Oliver on cornet, his protegé Louis Armstrong, second cornet, Baby Dodds, drums, Johnny Dodds, clarinet, Lil Hardin (later Louis Armstrong's wife), on piano, Honore Dutray on trombone, and Bill Johnson, bass and banjo. 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.

King Oliver

King Oliver, who died in 1938, was without doubt a jazz innovator and a major influence on the young Louis Armstrong.

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". But around this time, Oliver started to suffer from serious mouth ulcers which started to diminish his playing abilities, yet he remained a popular band leader through the decade.


Oliver's business sense frequently let him down and a succession of managers effectively robbed him. Eventually, he demanded more money for his band from the Savoy Ballroom manager but he was refused and subsequently lost the gig. He also lost the chance for an engagement at New York City's famed Cotton Club when he held out for better money, only for a young Duke Ellington to step in, take the job and subsequently catapult himself to fame.


Oliver was one of the victims of The Great Depression in which he lost a considerable amount of money (some believe his life savings), when a Chicago bank collapsed.
His final sad years were spent touring in an old bus, working for very little reward as his health grew progressively worse. A benefactor called Frank Dilworth assisted him in 1937 but the 'king' was by then no longer even able to play. During his last tragic months, Oliver somehow managed to continue to work, as a fruit stand operator, an errand boy, and finally as a janitor in a pool hall. But Oliver - one of the earliest jazz trumpet 'greats' - died just weeks later, in 1938, in abject poverty.

King Oliver's Band

King Oliver's Band. The lady seated at the piano is almost certainly Lil Hardin who later married Louis Armstrong.


As a player, Oliver was extremely 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.


Many think (though not all agree) that Oliver should be counted in the historical list of the greatest ever jazz trumpet innovators, alongside such names as Buddy Bolden, Louis Armstrong, Roy Eldridge, Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis.
The 'king' 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."


Louis Armstrong greatly admired Oliver calling him "Papa Joe" and it is believed that Oliver gave Armstrong his very first cornet.
Robin A. Brace, 2006.

King Oliver's Band

King Oliver with his ten-piece 'Dixie Syncopators' of the mid/late 1920s.