Though unquestionably a truly legendary figure in the history of jazz, the legacy of Joe Oliver has been overshadowed that of his foremost disciple: Louis Armstrong. But to some of us moldy figs, Joe Oliver is still king.
Joseph Nathan Oliver was born in Aben, Louisiana and moved to New Orleans in his youth. The date of his birth is uncertain, but December 19, 1881 is the most probable candidate; the same date in 1885, and May 11, 1885 have also been posited. At first taking up the trombone, Oliver soon switched to cornet. As a youth, Joe Oliver lost sight in his left eye in a fight, and often played with a derby hat tipped down over it. He won the title “King” of New Orleans cornettists, which had earlier belonged to Buddy Bolden, from Freddie Keppard one night in 1916. Oliver took up in Chicago in 1919 and founded his famous Creole Jazz Band, soon becoming a fixture in the Windy City. In 1922, he sent for his young protégé Louis Armstrong, who was back home in New Orleans, to join him in the city. King Oliver’s Creole Jazz band waxed their first phonograph record sides for the Starr Piano Company, makers of Gennett records, in their famous “shack by the track” in Richmond, Indiana on April 5, 1923. They made a total of thirteen sides for Gennett before moving on to record fifteen more for Okeh, four for Columbia, and three for Paramount, before breaking up in 1924. Thereafter, he recorded some landmark duets with Jelly Roll Morton for Marsh Labs in Chicago in 1925, and soon started a new band, the Dixie Syncopators, which began recording for Brunswick/Vocalion in 1926. The Dixie Syncopators, which at various times included Luis Russell, Kid Ory, Barney Bigard, and other luminaries, stuck together until the end of 1928, after which Russell took over the reins. In 1927, at the height of his success, Oliver was offered the position of house bandleader at Harlem’s Cotton Club, but he declined, hoping to hold out for more money. Instead, the gig went to Duke Ellington and his Orchestra. On the side, Oliver also recorded occasionally as a sidemen with jazz bands such as Clarence Williams’ various orchestras and Lonnie Johnson and Eddie Lang‘s Gin Bottle Five, and with blues singers like “Texas” Alexander, Victoria Spivey, and Lizzie Miles. Thanks in no small part to his penchant for sugar sandwiches washed down with a bucket of sugar water, Oliver by this time had developed gum disease, which limited his ability to play cornet. Nonetheless, he signed with Victor in 1929 to record with a new orchestra, which often featured his nephew Dave Nelson, though his own involvement was frequently relegated to directing. In 1931, Oliver went back to Brunswick for three final sessions, from which the last three titles were released on Vocalion under the pseudonym “Chocolate Dandies”, and he never recorded again. He continued to tour with a band until money ran out, leaving him broke and stranded, in a Savannah, Georgia, where he found work as a janitor in a pool hall. Joe Oliver died penniless of arteriosclerosis on April 10, 1938
Okeh 4918 was recorded June 23, 1923 in Chicago, Illinois. King Oliver’s (Creole) Jazz Band consists of Joseph “King” Oliver and Louis Armstrong on cornets, Honoré Dutrey on trombone, Johnny Dodds on clarinet, Lil Hardin on piano, Bud Scott on banjo, and Baby Dodds on drums.
A re-doing of the same tune King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band originally recorded for Gennett in April of 1923, “Dipper Mouth Blues”, composed by Oliver and Armstrong is certainly the group’s most famous efforts. Oliver famous cornet solo beginning one minute and seventeen seconds into the recording was hugely influential to the genre, and frequently imitated in subsequent years. After Louis Armstrong left the band, he took “Dipper Mouth” with him to Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra, and the piece was re-arranged by Don Redman and recorded as “Sugar Foot Stomp”. Henderson kept the piece in his repertoire after Armstrong’s departure and recorded it at least thrice more.
On the reverse of this disc is Lil Hardin and Louis Armstrong’s composition: “Where Did You Stay Last Night?”. Armstrong kept the tune in his repertoire and in later years performed it with his All-Stars.