Joe “King” Oliver, Chicago, c. 1923.
Courtesy of the Frank Driggs Collection.
Born May 11, 1885, in or near New Orleans, LA
Died April 8 or 10, 1938, in Savannah, GA
Cornetist Joe “King” Oliver was a showman in the swaggering street-wise tradition of his mythic Crescent City predecessor, Buddy Bolden. But it was his craft that helped earn him his regal title. A master of mutes, he used an arsenal of water glasses, buckets, kazoos—anything that would fit in or near the bell of his horn—to make it crow like a rooster, cry like a baby, or shout like a preacher on revival day. And his celebrated three-chorus 1923 solo on “Dippermouth Blues” was memorized by a generation of trumpet hopefuls.
His Creole Jazz Band brought increased richness and sophistication to the joyful rhythms and textures of New Orleans jazz and taught aspiring musicians the difference between polyphony and cacophony. His band could play so softly the drummer Baby Dodds remembered, “that ... you could hear the people’s feet dancing.... And then when we put a little jump into it, the patrons just had to dance.”
Oliver was fiercely competitive, a stern disciplinarian and “rough as pig iron,” according to his friend, the trombonist Kid Ory, but his gruff exterior belied the patience and generosity of a lifelong mentor. “I loved Joe Oliver,” his prize pupil Louis Armstrong said. “He did more for young musicians than anyone I know of.”
Listen to more music at Jazz at Lincoln Center Radio: www.jazzatlincolncenter.org/jazzcast/program.asp?programNumber=73