Oliver, King (actually, Joe)

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Oliver, King (actually, Joe)

Oliver, King (actually, Joe), seminal jazz cornetist, bandleader; b. on a plantation near Abend, La., May 11, 1885; d. Savannah, Ga., April 8, 1938. He was an uncle of Dave Nelson and of classical composer Ulysses (Simpson) Kay. There is some doubt about his birthplace, but he was certainly raised in New Orleans. Oliver began playing trombone before switching to cornet and worked at a young age in Walter Kinchin’s Band and the Melrose Band. During adolescence he permanently lost the sight in one eye through an accident. From 1908–17, he did parade work, gigs, and occasional tours with various bands including the Olympia, the Onward Brass Band, the Magnolia, the Eagle, the Original Superior, and Allen’s Brass Band. He was also employed as a butler. Oliver worked at the Abadie Brothers’ Cabaret in Richard M. Jones’s Four Hot Hounds (c. 1912), with Kid Ory at Pete Lala’s, and also led his own band at the same venue and at the 101 Ranch. In 1917, he acquired the nickname “King,” traditionally reserved for the leading New Orleans musician. He rejoined Kid Ory in 1917, left c. March 1919, and moved to Chicago to join clarinetist Lawrence Duhe’s Band, also doubling in a band led by bassist Bill Johnson. Later, he became leader of Duhe’s Band and played residencies at Deluxe Cafe, Pekin Cabaret, and Dreamland (1920 to May 1921). He took the band to San Francisco, led at the Pergola Dancing Pavilion (from June 1921), and later worked in Oakland, Leak’s Lake, etc.

After returning to Chicago in April 1922, Oliver led his own Creole Jazz Band at Lincoln Gardens starting in June 1922. In 1922, Louis Armstrong, who Oliver had known in New Orleans, joined the band. They subsequently toured and made their recorded debut on March (not April 1), 1923. The group’s 1923 recordings are among the most celebrated in jazz, in particular Oliver’s three chorus solos on two versions of “Dippermouth Blues” (named for and written with Armstrong). In keeping with the approach of the time, his solos are quite similar, but not identical. They also recorded the first and probably best-known version of “High Society” a New Orleans standard. After a solo visit to N.Y. (September 1924), Oliver returned to Lincoln Gardens until December 1924. He guested with Dave Peyton in December 1924, led his own Dixie Syncopators at the Plantation Cafe from February 1925 until Spring 1927, then played dates in Milwaukee, Detroit, and St. Louis; worked at the Savoy Ballroom, N.Y. in May 1927 and toured before disbanding in Fall 1927. He remained in N.Y., playing on Clarence Williams’s recording sessions (1928), leading his own studio bands for recordings, and occasionally forming bands for specific engagements, before reforming a regular band for touring in 1930. He left N.Y. and lived for a while in Nashville. Oliver formed yet another new band in 1931, made his last recordings that year, and recommenced touring, despite personnel changes and a series of misfortunes. King Oliver continued leading bands until 1937; he then ran a fruit stall in Savannah, Ga. before working as a pool-room attendant. He died in Savannah, but was buried in N.Y.


King Oliver (1950); King Oliver Plays the Blues (1953); King Oliver’s Uptown Jazz (1954); King Oliver Featuring Louis Armstrong (1956); King Oliver and His Orch.(1960); King Oliver in New York (1965); Complete Vocalion/Brunswick Recordings 1926–31 (1992).


W. Allen and B. Rust, King Joe Oliver (1955; London, 1957; revised ed. Chigwell, U.K., 1987); P. Bonneau, King Oliver (Paris); R. Bowman, “The Question of Improvisation and Head Arrangement in King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band” (thesis, York Univ., 1982).

—John Clinton (Who’s Who of Jazz)/Lewis Porter

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