Louis Armstrong called him ‘Papa Joe’ and said that no other trumpet player in New Orleans had the fire of Joe Oliver. By the early 1900s, Oliver was “the King” of New Orleans trumpet men. And in 1920s Chicago, he proved himself to be a bandleader of extraordinary vision—and a highly capable composer.
Born upriver from New Orleans in 1885, Joseph Oliver belonged to a first generation of jazzmen that included Kid Ory, Sidney Bechet and Jelly Roll Morton. Even before World War I, these innovators brought the spirited, soulful sound of New Orleans jazz to national audiences in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles.
If Sidney Bechet was the first great soloist in jazz, and Jelly Roll Morton its first great composer, then the genius of King Oliver lay in his skill at building and inspiring a band that reached the zenith of the art of the improvised jazz ensemble. With outstanding sidemen like clarinetist Johnny Dodds, pianist/arranger Lil Hardin, and later the young prodigy Louis Armstrong, King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band played almost entirely in the classic New Orleans ensemble style. The entire group improvised together on tune after tune as a well-coordinated team. In Oliver’s band, solos were limited to brief two-bar breaks—some of them spectacular Oliver-Armstrong cornet duets.
Oliver arrived at his own highly individual cornet style while he was making a name for himself in New Orleans dance halls and nightclubs. He is believed to be the first in jazz to make extensive use of mutes in order to achieve a vocal-like effect in his playing, at times taking on a “sobbing” quality.
This week on Riverwalk Jazz, trumpeter and bandleader Duke Heitger joins The Jim Cullum Jazz Band for Sobbin Blues: Joe Oliver, “The King” of New Orleans Trumpet. Together they perform classic tunes King Oliver first recorded in the early 1920s, including W.C. Handy’s “Aunt Hagar’s Blues” and Oliver’s own compositions “Camp Meeting Blues” and “Working Man Blues.”
Photo credit for Home Page and Recent Radio Broadcast Page: Joe Oliver.
Text based on Riverwalk Jazz script by Margaret Moos Pick ©2006