King Oliver Biography

11 May 1885, Abend, Louisiana, USA, d. 10 April 1938, Savannah, Georgia, USA. Raised in New Orleans, cornettist Joe ‘King’ Oliver became well known through appearances with local marching and cabaret bands during the early years of this century. After playing with notable early jazzmen such as Kid Ory and Richard M. Jones in 1918, he left for Chicago and two years later was leading his own band. After a brief trip to California, Oliver returned to Chicago and performed an engagement at the Lincoln Gardens. This was in 1922 and his band then included such outstanding musicians as Johnny and Baby Dodds, Lil Hardin and Honore Dutrey. Not content with being merely the best jazz band in town, Oliver sent word to New Orleans and brought in the fast-rising young cornettist Louis Armstrong. His motives in hiring Armstrong might have been questionable. Hardin, who later married Armstrong, reported that Oliver openly stated that his intention was to ensure that by having the newcomer playing second cornet in his band he need not fear him as a competitor. Whatever the reason, the Oliver band with Armstrong was a sensation. Musicians flocked to hear the band, marvelling at the seemingly telepathic communication between the two men. The band’s glory days did not last long; by 1924 the Dodds brothers had gone, dissatisfied with their financial arrangements, and Armstrong had been taken by his new wife on the first stage of his transition to international star.

Oliver continued leading a band but he quickly discovered that his example had been followed by many, and that even if his imitators were often musically inferior, they had made it harder for him to obtain good jobs. His own judgement was also sometimes at fault; he turned down an offer to lead a band at New York’s Cotton Club because the money was not good enough and lived to see Duke Ellington take the job and the radio exposure that went with it. In the early 30s Oliver led a succession of territory bands with a measure of local success but he rarely played. He was suffering from a disease of the gums and playing the cornet was, at best, a painful exercise. By 1936 he had quit the business of which he had once been king and took a job as a janitor in Savannah, Georgia, where he died in 1938. An outstanding exponent of New Orleans-style cornet playing, Oliver was one of the most important musicians in spreading jazz through his 1923/4 recordings, even if these did not gain their internationally accepted status as classic milestones until after his death. His role in the advancement of Armstrong’s career is also of significance, although, clearly, nothing would have stopped the younger man from achieving his later fame.

Stylistically, Oliver’s influence on Armstrong was important, although the pupil quickly outstripped his tutor in technique, imagination and inventiveness. Setting aside the role he played in Armstrong’s life, and the corresponding reflected glory Armstrong threw upon him, Oliver can be seen and heard to have been a striking soloist and a massively self-confident ensemble leader. He was also a sensitive accompanist, making several fine records with popular blues singers of the day.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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