Louis Armstrong may be considered the King of Jazz but, it is not widely known that Louis Armstrong considered another to be the king. Joe “King” Oliver was an instrumental figure in Louis’ career and helped introduce Louis to an audience outside of New Orleans. Most importantly Louis saw Joe Oliver as a mentor and fatherly figure. Today we will explore the life of a jazz pioneer and legend.
Joseph Nathan Oliver was born December 19, 1885 in Abend, Louisiana. Early in his youth, Oliver moved to New Orleans and began playing cornet in bands around the city. From the late aught’s of the 20th century to the late teens Oliver would play in various bands around New Orleans including the Magnolia Band, Superior Brass Band, Eagle Band, and the Onward Brass Band. Later Oliver would join the band of noted trombone player Kid Ory. Oliver would become lead cornet and eventually co-lead the band with Ory. Joe Oliver’s ability on the cornet is what led to his nickname the “King”. It is said that Oliver beat both Freddie Keppard and Manuel Perez in a horn battle, earning his place as the best cornetist in New Orleans. Oliver’s talent was highly lauded and in demand; Oliver played both high-end, white-only establishments and back-alley joints in Storyville, better known as the Red Light District. Once while performing at a club, a fight broke out leading to both the instigators and Oliver’s band getting arrested. In 1918, the closure of Storyville, in conjunction with previous incidents, would inspire Joe Oliver to seek a better living in Chicago. Oliver relocated with his wife and daughter like so many other African Americans did during the Great Migration.
Joe Oliver had colleagues already in Chicago, making his transition from New Orleans a much smoother endeavor. He began playing at various Chicago clubs; leading a band which included drummer Paul Barbarin, clarinetist Lawrence Duhe, and trombonist Roy Palmer. In the year 1921 Oliver took a group of musicians to California for a short stint, this group would become the foundation of what would later be renamed as King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band. In 1922 Oliver returned to Chicago with his group which featured both Johnny and Warren Dodds (clarinet & drums), Honore Dutrey (trombone), William Jones (bass) and pianist Lillian Hardin, who later married Louis Armstrong, becoming his second wife. In this same year, Oliver sent via telegram for Louis Armstrong to join him in his new band as his second cornet.
Oliver had a very profound impact on a young Louis Armstrong. He was a mentor, teacher and role model to Louis, so much that Louis often referred to Oliver as “Papa Joe”. When Oliver left for Chicago in 1918, he gave Louis his former position as lead cornet player in Kid Ory’s band. In 1952 Louis wrote an article for the periodical “The Record Changer” entitled “Joe Oliver is Still King”. This piece was a reflection of Louis’ memories of Oliver, and the admiration Louis wrote with is overtly apparent. Louis says of Oliver: “Joe Oliver has always been my inspiration and my idol. No trumpet player ever had the fire that Oliver had.” Louis continues “The way I see it, the greatest musical creations came from his horn- and I’ve heard a lot of them play”. Louis also recalled the years before Chicago when he was still a teenager looking up to Oliver. “I guess I was about 14. Joe gave me cornet lessons, and when I was a kid I ran errands for his wife.”
Joe Oliver is best known for helping to make jazz music popular outside of New Orleans, mainly due to the fact that his band was one of the earliest black ensembles to record, but Oliver is also noted for his use of mutes in his cornet playing. Oliver became a master of using the plunger as a mute and distorting sounds to create the famous “wah-wah” sound effect.
Although Oliver achieved success with the Creole Jazz Band, the group disbanded in 1924 due to disputes over money. Lil Hardin left the group and encouraged Louis to do the same, recognizing his talents as being superior to Oliver’s. Oliver continued to record and play around Chicago, eventually moving to New York in 1927 and gaining a residency at the Savoy Ballroom. The jazz epicenter had shifted from Chicago to New York during this era. Oliver was offered a position as a bandleader at the Cotton Club but refused the gig claiming he wasn’t offered enough money; this position would later be accepted by Duke Ellington. Joe Oliver was an immense talent and great bandleader but his career would derail due to gum disease which severely limited his ability to play–eventually ending his career. Oliver retired to Savannah, Georgia where he eventually passed away.