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Joe Oliver was born on December 19, 1885, in Abend, Louisiana. He moved to New Orleans in his youth and is often credited with being born in that city. During his childhood, he lost the use of one of his eyes in an accident. This medical condition did not diminish his musical ability in the least. Between 1908 and 1917, he played in several local bands around New Orleans. These bands included: The Olympia Band, The Onward Brass Band and The Original Superior Band.
Joe Oliver started off playing the trombone, but he soon switched to playing the cornet. The trumpet playing of Buddy Bolden originally influenced his style of play. Oliver soon developed his own personalized style of playing the trumpet. It was with this modified style that he would gain his recognition and fame. King Oliver is reported to have been the first cornet player to play with mutes, cups and bottles. The use of mutes allowed King Oliver to produce new and unusual sounds on his cornet and to present these sounds to his audiences. This technique gave his music a distinctive sound and has been copied by cornet players throughout the world. Bubber Miley s style of play is reported to have been inspired by this unique array of sounds.
While in New Orleans, Joe Oliver played in a band with Edward Kid Ory. In 1917, Kid Ory gave Joe Oliver the moniker King. According to legend, Oliver was playing his trumpet while walking through the red-light district of New Orleans. He played the most varied and fanciful improvisations (while) defiantly pointing the mouth of his trumpet toward the cabarets and honky-tonks His playing began to draw people outside and he soon had a large crowd following him. The crowd ended up at the Aberdeen Caf where Joe Oliver was scheduled to play. Kid Ory named him King because of this event.
While in New Orleans, King Oliver became a mentor to an unknown yet talented musician named Louis Armstrong. King Oliver gave Louis Armstrong a cornet after Armstrong was released from the Colored Waifs Home in New Orleans and encouraged him to play. Louis Armstrong once said, Joe Oliver has always been my inspiration and my idol. No trumpet player ever had the fire that Oliver had. Man, he could really punch a number no one ever created as much as Joe.
Despite being well known and respected by jazz audiences throughout the South, King Oliver was arrested while playing a gig in a New Orleans dance hall in 1919. A fight had broken out in the audience during his set and Oliver and his band were arrested along with the participants. This unpleasant incident prompted both Joe Oliver and Kid Ory to leave New Orleans and move to Chicago. While there, he and Kid Ory played in Bill Johnson s Band, The Original Creole Orchestra. Oliver left Chicago the following year to play gigs in California. He stayed in California for two years and then, in 1922, he returned to Chicago.
Upon his return to Chicago, Oliver started his own band, called King Oliver s Creole Jazz Band. The band often played at Lincoln Gardens in Chicago. King Oliver recruited his prot g Louis Armstrong to join his band of impressive musicians. King Oliver s Creole Jazz Band included many other talented jazz musicians of the era, including: Johnny Dodds, Honore Dutrey, Lil Hardin and Baby Dodds. During this time, Oliver was the most important personage in the jazz world, surrounded by his own handpicked galaxy of sidemen. The band s energetic sessions helped to launch the career of Louis Armstrong. Despite the wide array of talent in the band, it dissolved in 1924. During that same year, King Oliver recorded two duets with famed pianist Jelly Roll Morton.
The move from New Orleans to Chicago had a strong impact on the world of jazz. The music that was played in New Orleans was not often recorded. However, the Chicago music scene had a prolific recording industry. The early recordings of King Oliver s Creole Jazz Band are considered some of the best representations of black New Orleans combo jazz. Unfortunately, some critics claim that King Oliver s raw New Orleans style had been altered for the Chicago scene. Edmond Souchon, a regular listener of Oliver s playing, reports that he [Joe Oliver] had acquired a technique that was much more smooth, and that his band was adapting itself to the white dances By the time Oliver had reached Chicago and the peak of his popularity, his sound was not the same. It was a different band, a different and more polished Oliver, an Oliver who had completely lost his New Orleans sound. The style also moved away from a collective approach to playing and evolved to more improvised solos that would highlight the depth of talent in his band. Garvin Bushell, a clarinet player, and Bubber Miley, a trumpet player, both heard Oliver s Creole Jazz Band play in Chicago. They were both highly impressed. Garvin Bushell said, I was very much impressed with their blues and with their sound. The trumpets and clarinets in the East had a better legitimate quality, but their sound touched you more. It was less cultivated but more expressive of how the people felt. Bubber and I sat there with our mouths wide open.
According to Eric Hobsbawm, author of The Jazz Scene, nothing went right for the great King Oliver after 1928, and his simple goodness and modest Christian resignation only make the story of his last ten years more pathetic. During the late 1920 s, dental problems and gum disease began to effect King Oliver s trumpet playing ability. Oliver had a notorious sweet tooth and was famous for eating sugar sandwiches. This habit caused his gums to decay which made playing his cornet very painful. He also turned down the chance to be the main band at the Cotton Club. That gig went to a young Duke Ellington. During the 1930 s, King Oliver was financially ruined when a Chicago bank failed. Oliver lost all of his savings. Despite all of his bad luck, Oliver continued playing until 1937. He eventually found work as a janitor in a pool hall. Joe King Oliver died in Savannah, Georgia, in 1938. He was buried in New York. In 1994, the New Jersey Jazz Society organized a campaign to honor his grave with a headstone.
Despite his dying in obscurity, Joe King Oliver had a huge impact on the world of jazz music. His innovative use of mutes has become a standard technique for modern-day jazz musicians. He is also remembered for his impressive mastery of tonal improvisation. Oliver was able to get a seemingly infinite variety of tones from his instrument. Some famous examples of this talented style of play include his duets with Jelly Roll Morton and the widely acclaimed chorus on Dippermouth Blues.
The music of Joe King Oliver acts as a benchmark for today s musicians. With his innovative style of play and amazing gift for attracting top talent, Oliver had an amazing career. His recordings and arrangements continue to delight jazz lovers to this day. Martin Williams, author of Jazz Heritage writes I have been listening to Oliver s music for over twenty-five years, and yet on no occasion do I return to it without the rewards of discovering something new.
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