The Life and Career of Joe King Oliver

Louisianan by birth. Musician by circumstance. Imperious. Loathed by many. A bully who would break up a spitball fight with a pistol. The musically-revered Joe King Oliver charted his own path in the world of jazz and cared little what people thought of him.

When the authorities shutdown the whorehouses of Storyville near the French Quarter in 1917, Joe Oliver, along with hundreds of other musicians was faced with financial ruin. The parlors of the brothels paid good money, and the men cared little if their world was filled with hustlers, gamblers and roustabouts.

After all, a man’s gotta eat.

On June 19th, 1918, Oliver was playing with Kid Ory’s band at the Winter Garden on Rampart Street when the gendarmes raided the club. Oliver was led off in handcuffs and spent the night in jail before bonding out for $2.50.

That was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and soon enough Joe Oliver was on a northbound train.

Later that summer, Louis Armstrong’s future wife Lil Hardin had been at work at Mrs Jones Music Store for only two weeks when the New Orleans Creole Jazz Band walked in for an audition. They were already famous for their scorching sets at the much-vaunted De Luxe Cafe at 35th and State Street.

Hardin upon hearing the band “I nearly had a fit…they made goose pimples break out all over me!”

After the tryout, Mrs Jones, acting as a booker gets the band a gig at a nearby chop suey house but the lads were at loose ends without a pianist. Jones’ shop girl, Lil Hardin tries out with the New Orleans boys and bandleader Lawrence Duhé hires Lil raising her wage from $3 to $22.50 a week.

But storm clouds were gathering for Duhé’s outfit.

In 1918, cornetist Sugar Johnnie Smith dies of pneumonia and Duhé sends for Mutt Carey, a young hotshot who’d made a big name for himself in Kid Ory’s band. Mutt leaves his home at 604 Felicity Street in New Orleans to venture to the wild, big city. The youngest boy of 17 kids was accustomed to scuffling, and the City of Big Shoulders held immense appeal.

Reflecting back on woodshedding in the brothels of Storyville, Carey said: “A guy would see everything in those joints and it was all dirty”

He continued: “If you couldn’t blow a man down with your horn, at least you could use it to hit him alongside the head.”

In a strange turn of events, Mutt Carey soon leaves Duhé’s group to migrate west, and rejoin Kid Ory’s outfit. Lawrence Duhé hires Joe Oliver to replace Carey, and thereby seals his own fate.

In short order, the New Orleans Creole Jazz Band is roiled greatly when the barrel-chested Oliver demands that Duhé fire trombonist Roy Palmer for ‘sleeping on the job’

Duhé declines and instead leaves the group taking Palmer with him. Oliver seizes command of the band and renames it the King Joe Oliver Creole Band.

Machiavelli would’ve been proud of ‘the king.’

After scheming his way into control of the group, Oliver hires Honoré Dutrey to replace Palmer on trombone and adds Johnny and Baby Dodds on clarinet and drums respectively.

Jazz historian and player Doc Souchon speaking on Oliver’s play:

(he)…was hard-hitting, rough and ready, full of fire and drive. . . . It was rough, rugged and contained many bad chords. There were many fluffed notes, too. But the drive, the rhythm, the wonderfully joyous New Orleans sound was there in all its beauty.

The King Joe Oliver Creole Band played the better part of 1920 at ballrooms around Chicago before hitting the open road in May of 1921 for a series of gigs in California.

After a year on the west coast, the group took the long train ride back to Chicago for a residence at Lincoln Gardens. They would play there for two years under the watchful eye of the Garden’s bouncer “King” Jones.

I would delight delivering an order of stone coal to the prostitute who used to hustle in her crib right next to Pete La La’s cabaret….just so’s I could hear King Oliver play…oh that music sounded so good.

Louis Armstrong.

In July of 1922, Joe wired Louis who was gigging in New Orleans with Kid Ory’s Brownskin Band to come to Chicago, and join the band as second cornet, Louis saw it as a good opportunity to escape New Orleans.

His train left on August 8th 1922.

How primitive were those times in the big city? State Street saw electric lights come after young Armstrong’s arrival.

On April 5th 1923, with Ezra Wickemeyer recording, Joe Oliver took his outfit to the “shack by the track,” Starr Piano Company’s recording studio in Richmond, Indiana. They were so hot it was time to commit their music to phonograph records. The band laid down nine tracks in the same studio the KKK were using to record their then-popular blasphemies.

At the end of each session the King Joe Oliver Creole Band would take a train ride a safe distance from the Klan hotbed to retire for the evening.

The men polished off their work in two day-long sessions and made history with what music scholars consider two of the greatest recorded performances in the chronicles of jazz . This was to be the highlight of Joe Oliver’s career.

Little more than a year later, Louis Armstrong left his old teacher to join the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra in New York. Honoré Dutrey also departed as did the Dodds Brothers, and Lil Hardin, leaving the King without subjects.

The “hottest band to ever sit on a bandstand” had been dispersed to the four winds.

But the wily old master quickly drew a bead on another opportunity. In winter 1924 Oliver took a job playing as a sideman with Dave Peyton’s Symphonic Syncopators, and it wasn’t long before he’d muscled Peyton out and renamed the outfit the Dixie Syncopators.

The band would take a two year residency at the notorious Plantation Cafe at 338 East 35th Street, a wide-open, late-night speakeasy that local wags at the time claimed was controlled by Al Capone’s ‘family.’ When the Plantation was bombed, Oliver and his men decamped for a series of gigs around the midwest before relocating to New York City.

Luckily for Oliver he fell in with fellow displaced New Orleanian Clarence Williams, a prodigious publishing house magnate who wrote and took credit for writing hundreds of songs. This affiliation would provide steady gig work for Oliver as William’s sideman in addition to studio jobs that resulted in a handful of sides being released.

As is the tradition in the world of jazz, Joe “King” Oliver would fall from grace as his sound grew dated and offers from promoters slowly dried up. Oliver began to put on weight and suffered from a mouth disease known as pyorrhea. One of his sidemen, Clyde E. B. Bernhardt recalls his massive appetite

And man, could he eat. The only person that gave him competition eating was Fats Waller. Yesssss Lord. Oliver eat a dozen fried eggs for breakfast and then say how he could eat more. He take about a pound of bacon, fried real crisp, and chew it piece by piece, then drink down maybe 10 cups of coffee.

Eventually Joe King Oliver would lose his teeth to the dread disease and end up in Savannah, Georgia working as a janitor in a pool hall. He was battling high blood pressure and lacked the $3.00 it took to pay for the necessary medicines.

The one-time king of jazz, and early teacher of Louis Armstrong died of a stroke in Savannah on this day in 1938. In the final letter he wrote to his sister in New York City he asked “…should anything happen to me will you want my body?”

Joe “King” Oliver is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in New York City

Epilogue: Should you wish to explore the man’s music, the King Oliver and his Orchestra double CD on French RCA is superb; it’s a duplication of the former double LP on the same label. Crate diggers the world over rejoice if they can find the wax as it’s exceedingly rare.

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