Playlist: Five From King Oliver

[column size=one_half position=first ]In the 1920s, jazz just was becoming jazz. One of the key figures in this process was Joseph Nathan (King) Oliver. Oliver was important for several reasons. The Red Hot Jazz Archive gives him a lot of credit for creating a structural element of the nascent genre:

When we use the phrase Hot Jazz, we are really referring to his style of collective improvisation (rather than solos).

That is quite a statement. Even if Oliver did nothing else, it would have cemented his legacy. But there is more: Oliver was a composer whose works still are performed. He also pioneered the use of mutes on a trumpko5et. Oliver, the literature said, used all sorts of implements to change the tone of the instrument. (This is particularly evident in the song “Shake It and Break It” in the playlist.)

It’s a stellar career, and makes it a bit ironic — and, really, a touch sad — that the most important reason that Oliver is remembered is not about Oliver at all. It is about his protégé. King Oliver was the mentor to the young Louis Armstrong, the most important figure in the history of American music.[/column][column size=one_half position=last ]

  1. Riverside Blues (1923) 2:51
  2. High Society (1923) 2:58
  3. Four Or Five Times (1928) 3:19
  4. Shake It And Break It (1930) 2:27
  5. Canal Street Blues (1923) 2:31


The profiles describe early jazz musicians’ migration from the south to Chicago, New York, the west coast and elsewhere. King Oliver was part of the diaspora. He moved to Chicago, joined a band and toured. He returned to the city and started King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band. It became the house band at Lincoln Gardens, an important and huge dance hall. He sent for Armstrong and, as they say, the rest is history.

Oliver eventually developed serious gum and teeth problems and had to quit performing. One source said that he liked to snack on something with the frightening name “sugar sandwich.” One of the most important figures in jazz was working as a janitor in a Savannah, Georgia pool hall when he died in 1938. He was all of 56 years old.

The recordings from that era are as imperfect and, from today’s vantage point, sound as prehistoric as silent movies and old films of boxers and baseball players. The limitations of the technology, however, shouldn’t detract from the brilliance of the players.

One side note: The common roots of American music — played across the largely artificial genre boundaries we all are accustomed to by African-Americans, whites and people of other races and ethnicities — is no better illustrated than in a comparison of Jimmie Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel No. 9” and Oliver’s “Riverside Blues,” which is in the playlist. It’s essentially the same song. Rodgers was white and called “The Father of Country Music.” Oliver was African-American and a jazz player. Shortly before his death, Armstrong appeared on The Johnny Cash Show and told the story of recording of “Blue Yodel” in 1930 with Rodgers. He then performed it with Cash playing Rodgers’ part.

Posts on Louis Armstrong are here and here. In addition to The Red Hot Jazz Archive, Wikipedia and PBS were used for background for this post.