Joseph “King Oliver” was born on May 11 1185 in the United States area of New Orleans, Louisiana.(Williams, 67) He was a very prominent jazz musician whose work most notably influenced the renowned Louise Armstrong who came to give him the nickname “Papa Joe”. When Louis was still very young, Oliver gave him a chance to work alongside him when his band was recording and playing in Chicago. Joe was really an icon in the jazz music world, and was known for his improvisation rather than sticking to the norm. This unique style led to the tag hot jazz which is usually used to refer to any jazz music that takes this direction. Perhaps his creativity skills were enhanced rather than hampered by the fact that he was partially blind. This amazing artist came to perfect his skills as a child by faithfully sitting against the wall and playing his music for hours. It is said that Joe used all manners of music instruments including bottles and cups that brought the additions he needed for his cornet. Apart from Louis Armstrong, another prominent person that is said to have fallen in love with the musician’s blend of music was Bubber Milley.
The early life of Joe was characterized by music life that led to him moving to New Orleans when he was just a teenager. While Joe was still in New Orleans, he worked with several well known bands which included The Original Superior, The Onward Brass Band and The Olympia. At around 1917, Joe had already created a name for himself as the next king of jazz in his hometown while he was singing with the kid Ory’s band. While he was here he was able to form a band by the name of Creole Jazz Band which was later to record hits such as Canal Street Blues and Dippermouth Blues in Chicago. (Barnhart, 22)
Indeed, the jazz maestro had an even bigger measure of success when he moved to Chicago with the Ory’s in 1919. Here he was to sing in the magnificent Dreamland Ballroom alongside the original Creole orchestra. His music journey from then on was characterized by tours across various states in the United States with constant returns to Chicago. During his stops in Chicago, Joe would make arrangements for a future own band. This culminated in the formation of the very successful King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band in 1922. (Barnhart, 27)
The formation of this jazz band is said to be the real turning point for his music as it finally catapulted him to his prime fame. With his newfound status as a band owner, Joe started courting new members and among his first recruits was his long time friend Louis Armstrong. Other members of this band included Baby Dodds, Johnny Dodds, Lil Hardin and others.
During his early musical careers, Oliver was to meet various challenges, the most significant one being the one that followed his refusal to take over the leadership role of the band at Harlem’s Cotton Club. This was around the great depression and as people were unable to purchase tickets for the music concerts, the musicians themselves went broke.
The final straw due to the effects of The Great Depression was the disbandment of Joe’s band in the months that followed 1927. Due to lack of funds, Joe and colleagues could not raise the amount of money needed to repair their tour bus which has broken down at Spartanburg, S.C. and each of them went their separate ways after this incident.
Though the curtains eventually finally fell down on Joe’s music journey in 1929, he had left a significant mark in the jazz music scene.
Oliver’s music is largely considered to have influenced subsequent jazz musicians in New Orleans to great extent especially regarding the styles they used. His notable style was the melodic style that was characterized by four square rhythms. This was much like the one adopted by cornetists who had come before him and completely different to what Armstrong and others would produce. Whether this contrasting music style was a deliberate attempt by Joe to appear different would form a debate. Additionally, his style of jazz was observed to have significant deviations in terms of pitch and rhythm which had a blend of blues style and theatrical sounds. Normally, Joe performed using timbre modifiers of various types which had given him the trademark relationship to the wa-wa effects. For his troubles, the musician is credited for having raised the standards of jazz through the famous short solo piece Dipper Mouth Blues (1923) which was a darling for many trumpeters in the early 1930s and led to the arrival of Sugar Foot Stomp. His vocal abilities are also evident through his contributions in blues for instance together with sippie Wallace.
Looking back to the times when Oliver was still in the Creole Jazz Band, we can say that he had the rare combination of an excellent leader and a vocalist as well. Putting him alongside other musicians such as Bunk Johnson and Freddie Keppard, it can be concluded that they lacked the discipline and hard work exhibited by Joe.
Of all the early cornetists from New Orleans, it is only him who had a superb ensemble and had recognizable recordings during the 1920s. It is believed that it is from his efforts that the New Orleans style was born, albeit after his death. Much of his recordings were discovered post humously in the 1940s. It is believed that his liking for sugarcane was to blame for the decline of his music quality after 1924. He started developing gum and tooth problems which enabled his competitors to produce better music than him. However, even close to his death, Joe would still produce good music if he played with a well arranged orchestra. As of now, most of the music available and associated to him is a reissuance.
Regarding his fame and the influence he has had on the jazz music platform, it would be difficult to ascertain. According to people close to him such as Souchon, the best music that Joe ever made was during his early days while still in New Orleans. Unfortunately, most of this music was never recorded and in 1925 when his recordings were available, there was a marked change in his style. Moreover, the style that Armstrong had brought to the scene had formed a veil on Joe’s productions. However, Joe had an unquestionable influence on bubber miley who was an associate of Ellington. On a smaller scale, Joe may have influenced the music of a white musician Muggsy Spanier. Also, there was some notable resemblance between his mute skills and those of Natty Dominique and Johnny Dunn who played the mute and the trumpet respectively. Surprisingly, not much has been said or written about how much Joe had influenced the life of Armstrong. Between these two, there is an unclear divide about just who composed some music labels which have been credited to Oliver.
It is evident that Joe’s music had a huge addition into the fame of jazz not only in New Orleans but across the United States and the world at large. Using his unique polyphonic ensemble, he was able to form an organism called the Oliver’s Creole Jazz band which even though consisting of seven different members worked as an inseparable unit. The group was so superb in its work such that not even the most accomplished solo artist in New Orleans could steal the limelight from them. There is another thing that could have contributed to the immense popularity of Joe’s music; his local roots. You could associate his music with the plantations, the modest church nearby, simple parades and concerts. To add to this, he had the uncommon ability to bring the allure of the blues touch into his jazz thereby endearing him to a cross section of music lovers. Joe was very good even during his twilight years. His recording musical career lasted a paltry eight years from 1923 to 1931 but his accomplishments during this time were immense. His significant success was realized while singing with the Creole Band for four years and later when he linked with the Dixie Syncopators. (Martin, 104)
Researching about Joe “King Oliver” was a very intriguing experience given that most of his accomplishments came to the fore after his demise. It came out clearly that the colorful musical journey of the legend had ups and downs which shaped the destiny of his music. The studies has confirmed the all familiar trend whereby great people in music or any other area of gifting get their accolades when they least need them; in death. However, it is better to get your recognition late than to never get it at all.