Big Joe Oliver looked good fronting his band at the Lincoln Gardens with “little Louis” Armstrong at his side. Oliver wore a derby hat tilted over one eye and a bright red undershirt sticking out of his open collar. After knocking out a marathon hot blues for over a thousand dancers on the floor of the South Side’s largest ballroom, it’s said Joe would mutter, “Hotter than a forty-five!”
His folks said he was “slow to learn music,” and Bunk Johnson told people that Joe Oliver was “a poor cornet player for a long time.” He was sent home from his first job with the Eagle Brass Band for playing “so loud and so bad.” But when he finally got the hang of playing cornet, Joe Oliver got about as good as anybody ever did.
When he crossed Canal Street from his home turf in the Garden district and joined the Onward Brass Band, he became the reigning King of New Orleans jazz, beating out Freddie Keppard and Manuel Perez in horn-to-horn combat.
According to Pops Foster, by 1905 Joe Oliver had a date book that was “thicker than a Bible.” Oliver came into his own, musically, in New Orleans but it was in Chicago that he hit the big time. Led by his good business sense and a powerful vision of the kind of band he wanted to lead, he knew that Chicago was the place for him to be. In 1918 he moved north.
Joe Oliver was a prolific letter writer and many—sent to friends, family and business associates—have survived for decades. These letters chronicle Oliver’s tragic career path—from tremendous success on the early 1920s Chicago jazz scene to obscurity, poverty and declining health a decade later.
This week’s broadcast is an encore presentation featuring theater legend William Warfield. In a performance recorded in 1992, Mr. Warfield brings Joe King Oliver’s rich correspondence to life.
And The Jim Cullum Jazz Band joins forces with two long-time leaders of the traditional jazz scene—Bay Area-based cornetist Leon Oakley and Chicago-based tuba player Mike Walbridge—to celebrate the legacy of King Oliver’s recorded work as a composer and groundbreaking bandleader.
King Oliver’s great contribution to jazz is his assemblage and leadership of the greatest band that ever played in the New Orleans tradition of the improvised jazz ensemble. The resulting synergy—captured in 1923 on such classic recordings as “Dippermouth Blues” and “Camp Meeting Blues”—has never been equaled.
Jim Cullum, a life-long Oliver fan and disciple says, “The music itself is really simple folk music. It’s not in any way complicated. It was what King Oliver and his band did with the tunes that were great. Louis Armstrong described it as ‘fire.’ He said ‘no one else had the fire that Joe Oliver had.’”
Photo credit for Home Page and Recent Radio Broadcast Page:
Joe ‘King’ Oliver. Photo NEA-Jazz in Schools
Text based on Riverwalk Jazz script by Margaret Moos Pick ©2012