Oliver, Joe “King” 1885
Joe “King” Oliver 1885–1938
Jazz musician, composer, bandleader
Joe “King” Oliver was one of the most important figures in jazz. As an influential cornet player and leader of one of the classic early New Orleans jazz bands, Oliver is a link between the earliest New Orleans incarnation of jazz and the achievements of a generation of brass players who developed their style in Chicago in the 1920s, including Oliver’s protege, Louis Armstrong. “By almost any measure—historical, musical, biographical,” wrote critic Ted Gioia in The History of Jazz, “he stands out as a seminal figure in the history of the music.”
Joseph Oliver was born on May 11, 1885. Some accounts establish his place of birth as a plantation near Donaldsville, Louisiana, where his mother worked as a cook, while others cite a house on Dryades Street in New Orleans. Little is known of his early years, and of his father. His mother, who may have worked as a servant for various white families, moved her children to several new addresses in New Orleans during Oliver’s childhood. His older half-sister, Victoria Davis, took charge of him when their mother died in 1900.
Oliver found employment as butler to a white family in New Orleans when he was about seventeen, a job he kept for the next nine years. He was already active as a musician. Around 1899 he joined a children’s brass band, formed by a Walter Kenehan, and performed on the trombone, and later the cornet, at funerals and parades. One of his eyes was damaged during a childhood accident, earning him the early nicknames of “Bad Eye” and “Monocles,” and he often played with a hat tilted over the eye to disguise it.
Oliver played in a number of marching bands and, around 1910, started appearing in the nightclubs of New Orleans’ red-light district, Storyville, the vibrant heart of the city’s musical life. These early years of jazz saw intense competition in the raucous neighborhood’s numerous clubs, cabarets and gambling den. As a performer at the Abadie Cabaret, Oliver attracted big audiences, and soon took over the job of his rival, Freddie Keppard, at Pete Lala’s saloon club, a notorious meeting place for pimps, prostitutes and musicians. Oliver became leader of the Olympia Band around 1916 and also began playing with acclaimed trombonist and band leader Kid Ory, who claimed to have given Oliver the nickname of “King” as a tribute to his musical prowess.
At a Glance…
Born on May 11, 1885, in New Orleans, LA; died on April 8, 1938 in Savannah, GA; married Stella Oliver.
Career: Jazz musician, 1899-1938; butler, 1902-11; Olympia band, leader and coronetist, 1916-17; King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, 1922-25; recording artist 1923-31; Dixie Syncopators and other bands, leader and coronetist, 1926-29; Savoy Ballroom and other New York venues, bandleader and entertainer, 1927-31; toured in the South, 1931-35; janitor, 1935-38.
The young Louis Armstrong was one of Oliver’s most avid fans, spending time at Oliver’s house and enjoying the cooking of Oliver’s wife, Stella. Oliver, known for his good nature and generosity, became a father figure to his young disciple, offering musical advice and professional support, and even giving him one of his old cornets. “I prized that horn and guarded it with my life,” said Armstrong, quoted in Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life. Oliver, he said, “was always willing to come to my rescue when I needed someone to tell me about life.”
In 1917 city officials closed the bars and brothels of Storyville. Oliver, like hundreds of New Orleans musicians, decided to head north to lucrative opportunities in Chicago. When Armstrong was asked to replace Oliver in Kid Ory’s band, he was excited “to have a try at taking that great man’s place,” as he remembered in “Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans,” reprinted in Literary New Orleans. In his first gig with Ory, Armstrong concentrated on “doing everything just exactly the way I’d heard Joe Oliver do it,” including wearing a bath towel around his neck. In an era of great players like Bunk Johnson and the fabled Buddy Bolden, creators of a new musical idiom, “Papa Joe” Oliver, according to Armstrong, “was the sweetest and most creative.”
Oliver arrived in Chicago in early 1918, responding to invitations from two bands, Lawrence Duhe’s Band at the prestigious Dreamland Café, and Bill Johnson’s at the Royal Gardens. In January of 1920 Oliver formed his own band: the initial line-up included pianist Lil Hardin, Louis Armstrong’s future wife. They played at the Dreamland Café every night until one a.m., and then at the Pekin Cabaret, a gangster favorite, until dawn. After a year of engagements in California, Oliver returned to Chicago in 1922 to launch King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band at the Lincoln Gardens. He was eager to add a second cornet to his band, so he sent a telegram to New Orleans, summoning his young protégé, Armstrong. Arriving in Chicago, Armstrong went straight from the train station onto the stage of the Lincoln Gardens.
Oliver’s new line-up “made momentous musical sense,” according to critic Gary Giddons in his book Visions of Jazz. “The band was a sensation, and its most widely noted effects were double-cornet breaks, seemingly improvised on the spot, yet played in perfect unison.” Ted Gioia, in The History of Jazz, suggested that the Creole Jazz Band lacked the finesse of some New Orleans-bred, Chicago-based musical ensembles, but “its hot, dirty, swinging sound comes closest to the essence of the jazz experience.” Other musicians crowded into Lincoln Gardens to hear them play.
When he invited Armstrong to join his band, Oliver was almost past his prime as a soloist, although his playing was still so powerful he was reputed to blow his horns to pieces every few months. By this time, Oliver’s achievements as an individual musician, Giddon contended in Visions of Jazz, were secondary to his great gift as a band leader. Noted for his self-discipline as a player (he claimed to have spent ten years refining his tone) and his tough style of leadership, Oliver made strict demands of professionalism of his band. Driving “an ensemble that specialized in improvised polyphony,” wrote Giddons, Oliver “created a music that is at once the apex of traditional New Orleans style and so far beyond its norm that there is little to compare with it.”
But there is no doubt that Oliver left an important legacy as a player. Famous for his expressive, blues-inflected style of playing and skill at tonal improvisation, including an innovative use of mutes to create a ‘wa-wa’ sound and other theatrical effects, Oliver’s bold New Orleans sound influenced a whole generation of jazz musicians. “His throaty, vocal sound inspired many imitators,” said Gioia, “and represented, both conceptually and historically, a meeting ground of earlier and later jazz styles.”
Oliver was slow to embrace the relatively new industry of recorded music. It offered little financial reward for musicians, and the finished product rarely captured the live energy or improvisational fire of its featured performers, because primitive technology meant each song had to be curtailed. On the bandstand, Oliver was wary of the possibilities of artistic theft, removing titles from music to ward off copycat bands attending his shows, and playing with a handkerchief over the valves so other musicians couldn’t watch his fingerings. Recordings simply offered more opportunity for rival ensembles to plagiarize his signature sound.
But on April 5, 1923, King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band made its first recordings in the Gennett recording company’s studio in Richmond, Indiana. The band—Oliver and Armstrong on cornet, Johnny Dodds on clarinet, Honore Dutrey on trombone, Lil Hardin on piano, Bill Johnson on banjo, and Baby Dodds on drums—spent two days in a hot room with poor acoustics, playing into a giant megaphone. These groundbreaking recordings included a show-stealing Armstrong in his first significant recorded solo (on the Oliver composition, “Chimes Blues”). Oliver’s own plunger-muted solo in “Dippermouth Blues,” was much imitated; under the title “Sugar Foot Stomp,” the song became a jazz standard.
Many of Oliver’s own compositions made high technical demands on musicians: Walter Allen and Brian Rust, in King Oliver, suggested that it is significant that, except for “Dipper Mouth Blues,” “none of his early numbers were ever recorded by his contemporaries.” His biggest hit, “Snag It,” was written in the mid-19205, and he co-wrote a number of popular tunes with his nephew, Dave Nelson, later in the decade, many of which were recorded for Victor. Popular versions of some of his songs were recorded by other artists, like Jelly Roll Morton (“Doctor Jazz”), Fletcher Henderson (“Snag It”), and Armstrong (“West End Blues”).
The Gennett recording sessions helped build the band’s profile, and soon they were recording for rival ‘race records’ label, OKeh, as well as Paramount and Columbia. But internal dissent over Oliver’s paternalistic handling of salaries saw the ensemble splinter. Lil Hardin convinced Armstrong that his mentor was holding him back. In a 1950 interview with Downbeat magazine, excerpted in Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life, Hardin remembered Oliver admitting “that Louis could play better than he could. … He said, ‘As long as I keep him with me, he won’t be able to get ahead of me, I’ll still be the King.’”
At Hardin’s urging, Armstrong left Oliver early in 1925, moving to New York at Fletcher Henderson’s invitation. When he returned to Chicago, it was to star billing at the Dreamland Café, across the street from Oliver’s new theater, the Plantation Café. The two musicians briefly reunited in 1926, after Armstrong separated from Hardin, but they were no longer close friends. Armstrong’s fame had eclipsed that of the man he called “Papa Joe.”
In the early years of the Depression, with clubs closing and many musicians out of work, Oliver realized he needed a new professional strategy. He formed a new band, the Dixie Syncopators, in 1926 and together they made a number of popular dance recordings for the Vocalion ‘race’ series, as Oliver tried to adapt his performance style to the emerging big band era.
Oliver, already stricken with the severe gum disease that would end his playing life, was forced to delegate many of the cornet solos. In 1927 he moved his band to New York—in Armstrong’s opinion, too late in his career. He worked at the Savoy Ballroom and recorded for the Victor Company in 1929 and 1930. But he lost his savings when a Chicago bank failed and made the error of turning down work at the Cotton Club in 1927 (an engagement that made Duke Ellington famous) because he thought the pay too low. In 1931 Victor canceled his recording contract and Oliver made his last known recordings for Brunswick and Vocalion, before forming a new band to take on the road.
Touring in the depressed South was not an easy way to make money, and Oliver suffered a number of setbacks, missing gigs whenever his moribund tour vehicles broke down. By 1935 Oliver had lost all his teeth and found it difficult to perform. He kept touring with a third-rate band, many of whom mutinied over low pay, avoiding the big cities where he had a musical reputation to maintain. Armstrong was shocked to bump into Oliver in Savannah, Georgia, in 1937, stooped and poorly dressed, working as a peddler in the street; Armstrong and his band gave him money to buy new clothes.
For the last few years of his life, Oliver lived in a boarding house and worked fifteen hours a day as a janitor at a pool hall in Savannah. He had separated from his wife, Stella, many years earlier. Letters to his sister testify to his demoralization and extreme poverty, as well as his stubborn pride: he refused to appeal for help to the musical community, and kept hoping to save enough money to return to New York.
Discontinuing medical treatment for his high blood pressure because of the cost, Oliver fell into deep decline and died of a cerebral hemorrhage on April 8, 1938. He was just 52 years old. His sister used rent money to pay for his body to be shipped to New York for a funeral attended by many musicians, including Clarence Williams and Louis Armstrong, who always maintained that Oliver died of a broken heart. He was buried without a headstone at Woodlawn cemetery in the Bronx. Despite his neglect by the jazz world during the last years of his life, almost all of Oliver’s recordings are available on reissues, testimony to his significant musical legacy.
(With King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band) “Chimes Blues,” Gennett, 1923.
(With King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band) “Dipper Mouth Blues,” Gennett, 1923.
(With King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band) “Chattanooga Stomp,” Columbia, 1923.
(With King Oliver’s Jazz Band) “Sweet Baby Doll,” OKeh, 1923.
(With King Oliver’s Jazz Band) “The Southern Stomps,” Paramount, 1923.
(With King Oliver and his Dixie Syncopators) “Doctor Jazz,” Vocalion/Brusnwick, 1926.
(With King Oliver and his Dixie Syncopators) “Snag It,” Vocalion/Brunswick, 1926.
(With King Oliver and his Dixie Syncopators) “West End Blues,” Vocalion/Brunswick, 1926.
(With King Oliver and his Dixie Syncopators) “Showboat Shuffle,” Vocalion/Brunswick, 1927.
(With King Oliver and his Orchestra) “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” Victor, 1929.
(With King Oliver and his Orchestra) “Stop Crying,” Victor, 1930.
(With King Oliver and his Orchestra) “I’m Crazy ’Bout My Baby,” Brunswick, 1931.
(With the Chocolate Dandies) “One More Time,” Vocalion, 1931.
Allen, Walter C., and Brian A.L. Rust, King Joe Oliver, Sidgwick and Jackson, 1958, pp. 2-3, 6-10, 28-29, 40-42, 63.
Bergreen, Laurence, Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life, Broadway Books, 1997, pp. 105, 106, 121, 176, 203, 210, 213, 232-234, 261, 388-392.
Dictionary of American Biography, Supplement 1-2: To 1940, American Council of Learned Societies, 1944-1958.
Giddons, Gary, Visions of Jazz: the First Century, Oxford University Press, 1998, pp. 77-83.
Gioia, Ted, The History of Jazz, Oxford University Press, 1997, pp. 47-48, 50, 52.
Long, Judy, ed. Literary New Orleans, Hill Street Press, 1999, pp. 142-143.
Williams, Martin, King Oliver, A.S. Barnes and Company, 1960, pp. 8-9, 28-33.
“After a life at the top of the jazz world, Joe ‘King’ Oliver lived his last year scraping by in Savannah,” Savannah Now, www.savannahnow.com/features/jazz/ (August 22, 2003).
“Joe ‘King’ Oliver,” PBS, www.pbs.org/jazz/biography/artist_id_oliverJoe_king.htm (August 22, 2003).
“Joe Oliver,” Red Hot Jazz, www.redhotjazz.com/kingo.html (August 22, 2003).
“Joseph Oliver,” Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (August 22, 2003).
“King Oliver,” All Music Guide, www.allmusic.com/(August 22, 2003).
“King Oliver,” Froggy’s New Orleans Jazz, www.geocities.com/infrogmation/JOliver.html (October 12, 2003).
—Paula J.K. Morris
Billed as the “World’s Greatest Cornetist,” Joe “King” Oliver reigned as the premier trumpeter of jazz during the early 1920s. The famed musical mentor of Louis Armstrong, Oliver is perhaps best remembered for bringing the young New Orleans hornman to Chicago in 1922. With Armstrong on second cornet, Oliver performed double-cornet breaks that sent shock waves through the jazz world. Years later, Armstrong paid tribute to his elder, noting, as quoted in the liner notes to King Oliver “Papa Joe” (1926–1928), that “if it had not been for Joe Oliver, jazz would not be what it is today.”
Joseph “King” Oliver was born around New Orleans, Louisiana, on May 11, 1885. Over the next several years, his family moved a number of times, primarily throughout New Orleans’s Garden District, a section filled with large antebellum homes and high-walled courtyards. After the death of his mother in 1900, Oliver was raised by his older half-sister, Victoria Davis. He first performed on cornet with a children’s brass band under the direction of a man named Kenhen, who frequently took the ensemble on out-of-state tours. While on the road with the band, Oliver got into a fight that left him with a noticeable scar over his left eye. (The white cataract on the same eye was supposedly caused by a childhood accident.)
Like most New Orleans musicians in the early twentieth century, Oliver could not support himself solely by music. While working as a butler, his employers allowed him to hire an occasional substitute so that he could play with local brass bands that performed at picnics, funerals, and dances in the area. For over a decade, he appeared with a number of march-oriented brass bands, including the Eagle Band, the Onward Brass Band, the Melrose Brass Band, the Magnolia Band, the Original Superior, and Allen’s Brass Band. As a member of these ensembles, Oliver established connections with a number of musicians, many of whom, like fellow Melrose bandmate Honoré Dutrey, would become members of his famous Chicago-based group.
In the evenings, Oliver played at cabarets and dance halls throughout New Orleans. Early in his career, he performed with pianist Richard M. Jones’s Four Hot Hounds at the Abadie Cabaret. In 1911 society bandleader-violinist A. S. Piron took over leadership of the Olympia Band and hired Oliver to fill the band’s trumpet chair, which was formerly occupied by departing leader Freddie Keppard. Over the next decade, Oliver worked at Billy Phillip’s 101 Ranch and at Storyville establishments like Pete Lala’s Cafe and the Big 25. In an interview for Jazz Panorama, a resident of New Orleans
For the Record …
Born May 11, 1885, in New Orleans (some sources say Donaldsville), LA; died April 8, 1938, in Savannah, GA.
Cornetist, trumpeter. Began playing in children’s brass band; while a youngster worked as a yard boy and later as a butler; performed with a number of New Orleans brass bands, including the Eagle, Onward, Melrose, Magnolia, and Original Superior; played at nightspots in and around Storyville, LA; went to Chicago with Jimmy Noone to join bassist Bill Johnson’s band and doubled in a band led by Lawrence Duhé, 1918; led own band at the Dreamland, 1920; took his band to San Francisco to play the Pergola Dance Pavilion, 1921, and also played gigs in Los Angeles; returned to Chicago in April of 1922 and led own Creole Jazz Band at the Lincoln Gardens; recruited Louis Armstrong to play in the band, 1922; briefly joined Dave Peyton’s Symphonic Syncopators, 1924; led his Dixie Syncopators at Plantation Cafe, 1925–27; performed on recordings with Clarence Williams, 1928; formed another band and toured, 1930–37.
named Edmond Souchon recalled seeing King Oliver outside the Big 25: “I’ll never forget how big and tough he looked! His brown derby was tilted low over one eye, his shirt collar was open at the neck, and a bright red undershirt peeked out at the V. Wide suspenders held up an expanse of trousers of unbelievable width.”
Oliver’s musical reputation soon began to match his imposing stature, and by 1917 he became a formidable figure on the New Orleans music scene. His forceful melodic phrasing and use of assorted trumpet mutes earned him the title of “King.” In his autobiography Pops Foster, New Orleans bassist Foster related how “Joe had all kinds of things he put on his horn. He used to shove a kazoo in the bell to give it a different effect.” Because of Oliver’s unorthodox use of objects to mute his horn, trumpeter Mutt Carey, as quoted in Hear Me Talkin’ to Ya, referred to Oliver as a “freak trumpeter” who “did most of his playing with cups, glasses, buckets, and mutes.”
Along with his passion for music, Oliver possessed an equally voracious appetite for food. His diet consisted of sugar sandwiches made from whole loaves of bread, which he chased down with a pot of tea or a pitcher of sugar water. Foster recalled how Oliver would eat six hamburgers and a quart of milk in one sitting or how— with one dip of a finger—he would pull out an entire pouch of tobacco and chew it while blowing his horn. Affectionately known as “Papa Joe” by musicians, he was also called “Tenderfoot” because of the painful corns that covered his feet.
In 1918 bassist Bill Johnson invited Oliver to join his band at Chicago’s Royal Gardens. He accepted the offer and left for Chicago with clarinetist Jimmy Noone. Housed in a large building on 31st Street, the Royal Gardens—soon to be renamed the Lincoln Gardens-had an upstairs balcony and a spotlighted crystal chandelier that reflected on the dance floor. While playing the Gardens, Oliver doubled in another group at the Dreamland Cafe led by Lawrence Duhé. By 1920 he was leading King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band at the Dreamland and playing a second engagement from one till six in the morning at a State Street gangster hangout. During the following year, his band played a brief engagement at the Pergola Dance Pavilion in San Francisco. From the Pergola, the band traveled southward to perform in Los Angeles.
Returning to Chicago in 1922, Oliver booked his Creole Jazz Band at the Lincoln Gardens. That autumn he decided to add a second cornet to his band and sent a telegram to Louis Armstrong in New Orleans, inviting him to join the group. A devout student of the Oliver style, Armstrong went north to play with the band in 1922. In Selections from the Gutter, Oliver’s drummer, Baby Dodds, recalled the impact of Armstong’s arrival: “I was pleased because I had a chance to work with Louis again. Our music was appreciated in Chicago and it made you free and easy. We played so much music that I dreamed about it at night and woke up thinking about it.” Musicians from Paul Whiteman to Guy Lombardo came to study the music of Oliver’s ensemble. Some musicians even took notes on their shirt sleeves.
“From the testimony of musicians (and fans) who heard the 1922–1924 Oliver band live,” wrote Dan Morganstern in the liner notes to Louis Armstrong: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, 1923–1934, “its most potent attraction was the unique cornet team.” Though Oliver and Armstrong’s double-breaks appeared to exhibit a natural sense of spontaneity and interplay, they “were in fact worked out in a most ingenious way: at a given point in the preceding collective band chorus, Oliver would play what he intended to use as his part in the break, and Armstrong, lightning-quick on the up-take, would memorize it and devise his own second part—which always fit to perfection.” As Armstrong explained in his autobiography, Louis Armstrong —A Self Portrait, “Whatever Mister Joe played, I just put notes to it trying to make it sound as pretty as I could. I never blew my horn over Joe Oliver at no time unless he said, ‘Take it!’ Never. Papa Joe was a creator—always some little idea—and he exercised them beautifully.”
On March 31, 1923, the Oliver Band entered the Gennet Recording Company Studios in Richmond, Indiana. Along with trumpeter Armstrong, clarinetist Johnny Dodds, pianist Lil Hardin, bassist Bill Johnson, and drummer Baby Dodds, Oliver created some of the most memorable sides in jazz history. The Gennet session produced several classics, including the legendary “Dipper Mouth Blues,” a title taken from Armstrong’s nickname. In describing the Gennet sides, Martin Williams wrote in Jazz Masters of New Orleans, “They do not have merely historical or documentary interest, and their emotional impact cuts across the years.” Williams added, “The most immediately impressive characteristic of the music of King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band is its unity, the wonderful integration of parts with which the individual players contribute to a dense, often hetero-phonic texture of improvised melodies. The tempos are right, the excitement of the music is projected with firmness and ease, and the peaks and climaxes come with musical excitement rather than personal frenzy, with each individual in exact control of what he is about.”
In 1924 Oliver’s band toured the Orpheum Theater circuit throughout the Midwest, including stops in Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Urged on by his then-wife and fellow Oliver bandmember Lil Hardin, Armstrong left the group in June to join the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra. Then, on Christmas Eve of the same year, the burning of the Lincoln Gardens resulted in the disbanding of Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band. Oliver took a temporary job at the Plantation Club with Dave Peyton’s Symphonic Syncopators. Soon thereafter, he brought a number of talented New Orleans musicians— including reedmen Albert Nicholas and Barney Bigard, drummer Paul Barbarin, and trumpeter Tommy Ladnier—into Peyton’s band. By 1925 Oliver had taken over the band. Billed as the Dixie Syncopators, the band was reorganized; with the addition of three saxophones, the Syncopators began a two-year job at the Plantation Club.
Despite the band’s wealth of talent, the Dixie Syncopators experienced problems as they expanded. After 1925 the group relied primarily on stock arrangements. In the studio, the larger band—once able to rely on intuitive group discipline—faced the problem of allowing for more individuality among members. As Williams observed in Jazz Masters of New Orleans, “The Syncopators’ rhythms are usually heavy, the horns and percussion are often unsure, the ensembles are sometimes sloppy. One passage will swing beautifully, the next will flounder.” On record the band did experience occasional moments of brilliance, especially with the presence of saxophonist-arranger Billy Paige, who contributed to the 1926 sides “Too Bad” and “Snag It.”
After the police closed down the Plantation Club in 1927, Oliver and his band played short engagements in Milwaukee and Detroit. These appearances were followed by a two-week stint at the Savoy Ballroom in New York City. Though the newspapers hailed Oliver’s visit, the Syncopators did not take the city by storm. The band received a warm reception, but Oliver’s invasion of the East had come too late. After the arrival of Armstrong and others, New York City’s music scene began to lose interest in authentic New Orleans music. Though he was offered a job at the soon-to-be famous nightspot the Cotton Club, Oliver, dissatisfied with the financial arrangement, declined the engagement. The position went to a young pianist named Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington.
After the visit to New York, Oliver sustained himself and his bands with money from a recording contract he had established with the Victor company in 1928. Unlike his earlier label, Vocalion-Brunswick, which allowed him a great deal of creative freedom, Victor limited Oliver’s creative input. By 1930 the contract with Victor had expired, and the group disbanded.
In 1931 Oliver assembled another band composed of younger musicians and toured the South and Southwest. For the next several years, he struggled with personnel changes, broken-down buses, canceled engagements, and jobs played without compensation. A proud man, Oliver always made sure his band took the stage neatly dressed and organized. But behind the scenes, his health began to decline. By 1935 he could no longer play the trumpet: pyorrhea had caused the loss of his teeth and painful bleeding of his gums. The next year, he moved to Savannah, Georgia. Unable to play his horn, he is said to have appeared at his last engagements sitting in a chair—often wearing slippers. Bankrupt and nearly forgotten, Oliver spent the last year of his life in Savannah running a fruit stand and working as a poolhall janitor. He died in Savannah on April 8, 1938.
Oliver’s body was taken to New York for burial, where his stepsister spent her rent money to pay for the funeral— an occasion that attracted Armstrong and a number of musicians who never forgot their debt to Papa Joe Oliver.
With time, perhaps Oliver’s musical legacy will overshadow the story of his tragic downfall and early death— and once again bring recognition to a man who ruled New Orleans and Chicago’s South Side as the king of the jazz trumpet. Though his recordings remain crude by today’s standards, they represent moving portraits of sound that provide the listener with audible passages into American cultural history. As musician and writer Gunther Schuller wrote in Early Jazz: Its Roots and Musical Development, “Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band represents one of jazz’s great achievements. It is worthy of our close attention, not only for its own merits, but for the lessons it can still teach us.”
King Oliver and His Dixie Syncopators: Sugar Foot Stomp, MCA & GRP Records, 1992.
Jazz Classics in Digital Stereo: Vol. 1, New Orleans, Smithsonian Folkways.
Jazz Classics in Digital Stereo: Vol. 2, Chicago, Smithsonian Folkways.
King Oliver “Papa Joe” (1926–1928), Decca.
Louis Armstrong and King Oliver, Milestone Records.
RCA-Victor Jazz: The First Half Century—The Twenties through the Sixties, RCA.
The Riverside History of Classic Jazz, Riverside.
Sound of the Trumpets, GRP Records.
Armstrong, Louis, Louis Armstrong —A Self Portrait: An Interview by Richard Merryman, Eakins Press, 1971.
Foster, Pops, Pops Foster: The Autobiography of a New Orleans Jazzman As Told to Tom Stoddard, University of California Press, 1971.
Hear Me Talkin’ to Ya: The Story of Jazz As Told by the Men Who Made It, edited by Nat Shapiro and Nat Hentoff, Dover Publications, 1955.
Jazz Panorama: From the Birth to Dixieland to the Latest “Third Stream” Innovations —The Sounds of Jazz and the Men Who Make Them, edited by Martin Williams, Collier Books, 1964.
Schuller, Gunther, Early Jazz: Its Roots and Musical Development, Oxford University Press, 1986.
Selections from the Gutter: Jazz Portraits from the “Jazz Record,” edited by Art Hodes and Chadwick Hansen, 1977.
Williams, Martin, Jazz Masters of New Orleans, Macmillan, 1967.
Williams, Kings of Jazz: King Oliver, A. S. Barnes and Company, 1961.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from the liner notes to Louis Armstrong: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, 1923–1934, by Dan Morganstern, Columbia/Legacy, 1994, and the notes to King Oliver “Papa Joe” (1926–1928), Decca, by Panassté Hugues.