Friday, December 19, 2014

King Oliver: The First True King of the Cornet

Joe “King” Oliver is among the seminal figures in the history of jazz music. Oliver was an influential musician in the early days of jazz whose hot cornet playing influenced all those who followed in his footsteps including Louis Amstrong, Oliver’s student, charge and employee. It was Oliver who convinced Armstrong to leave New Orleans for Chicago, and play second cornet in Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band took the first steps on a journey that would see Armstrong revolutionize jazz and American popular music.

Oliver was born in New Orleans in 1885 and was blinded in one eye as a child. He often played cornet while wearing a derby hat in such a way as to obscure his bad eye. Oliver was one of the first cornetists to use a mute to alter the sound of his cornet. Using a mute, he was able to produce a wide variety of sounds including the whinnying of a horse.

Oliver started his professional career in New Orleans around 1908. He was a member of several marching bands, and he worked at various times in Kid Ory’s band. Ory began referring to him as “King” Oliver around 1917.

In 1919, Oliver moved to Chicago with Kid Ory and played in Bill Johnson’s band at the Dreamland Ballroom. Oliver formed “King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band” in 1922, and landed a residency at Chicago’s Lincoln Gardens. His new band featured some of the best jazz musicians of the time including clarinetist Johnny Dodds, trombonist Honore Dutrey, pianist Lil Hardin, drummer Baby Dodds, and Louis Armstrong on second cornet.

King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band 1923 recording sessions for the Gennet label produced some of the best-ever recordings of jazz with “Chimes Blues,” “Just Gone,” “Dippermouth Blues,” and “Snake Rag.” These recordings revealed the brilliant dual cornet playing of Armstrong and Oliver, and introduced Armstrong’s virtuosity to the world. Armstrong soon headed to New York City to join Fletcher Henderson Orchestra and the Creole Jazz Band would cease to be in 1924.

Oliver took over Dave Peyton’s band in 1925, renamed it the “Dixie Syncopators,”and moved the band to New York in 1927. Once in New York, Oliver passed up a chance to have the Dixie Syncopators become the house band at the Cotton Club. Duke Ellington took the job and went on to fame and riches. In 1929, Luis Russell took over the Dixie Syncopaters and changed their name to “Luis Russell and his Orchestra.”

Oliver recorded until 1931, but his New Orleans hot jazz style was falling out of fashion. Oliver finally settled down in Georgia, where he worked as a poolroom janitor until his death in 1938.

Oliver’s classic sides are available on the following compilations: “King Oliver’s Jazz Band 1923” (1975), “King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band: The Complete Set” (1997), and the series, “The Chronological Classics: King Oliver” (1991).
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