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"Still the King:" Dave Greer on the life and legacy of Joe "King" Oliver

Photo portrait of Joe "King" Oliver, circa 1915.
Photo portrait of Joe "King" Oliver, circa 1915.

This week on NiteTrane, Dave Barber hosted a special, one-hour feature about the life and legacy of bandleader and cornet player Joe “King” Oliver. Musician Dave Greer joined Barber to discuss Oliver, whose 1923 recordings with his protege, Louis Armstrong, inspired this 100th anniversary special. The segment features Dave Greer’s Classic Jazz Stompers performing songs written by Oliver, recorded in WYSO’s studios, alongside original 1923 recordings Joe Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band. In the interview, Barber and Greer talk about Joe Oliver’s origins in New Orleans, his successful career in gangster-ridden Chicago, and his influence on Louis Armstrong.

Joe Oliver was born in Aben, Louisiana in the early 1880s, though the exact year is disputed. As a young man he moved to New Orleans, where he began playing cornet. It was in the city's red light district, Storyville, that he first made a name for himself as a hot-shot Jazz musician, playing alongside trombonist Kid Ory. But Storyville's bustling nightlife came to a screeching halt 1917 after new law made prostitution illegal, and, with it, jobs for musicians like Oliver dried up. A year later, he left Louisiana for Chicago, Illinois.

According to Dave Greer, a Joe Oliver aficionado, Oliver’s move to Chicago was part of a broader trend of top New Orleans jazz talent flocking to the city. Greer says the migration was spurred by Chicago’s booming underworld, which needed entertainers to fill its nightlife establishments, coupled with the collapse of New Orleans’ music economy. “The pull-in was Capone and all those people in Chicago,” he said. “They wanted New Orleans musicians, because that was the real thing in those days, not just some white guys imitating them.”

Oliver found success playing in Chicago’ gangster-owned establishments. After a brief tour in California in 1921, he returned to Chicago and started making it “big time,” according to Greer. King Oliver and his Creole Jazz Band became regulars at Lincoln Gardens, a prestigious venue, and, in 1922, he invited a relatively unknown cornet player from New Orleans to join the band: Louis Armstrong. Greer said that Armstrong's addition was the necessary ingredient for true musical innovation of King Oliver’s band, the sound of two spirited cornets dancing around each other.

“The story was that Oliver would kind of nudge Louis and say, ‘We're going to do “da-da-da-da-da”’ or whatever it's going to be. And then they'd do those wonderful little two bar breaks in unison or in harmony. It was a great ensemble sound with the little hot breaks from the muted clarinet or the two cornets—there's just nothing quite like it.”

Armstrong went on to become one of the best-known American entertainers of the 20th century. While his stint with Oliver was short–he left the band in 1924 to play with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra in New York City–it left an enduring impression on his musicianship.

“I think if you listen to the records that Armstrong made in the early ‘20s, accompanying blues singers, where the cornet is just kind of doing fill at the breaks in the lines—he learned all that stuff from King Oliver. It's those little short breaks, little rhythmic things. He picked all that up on the bandstand with King Oliver. And Louis, of course, always referred with reverence to Joe Oliver, even when Joe was in the sad state in which his life ended. Louis Armstrong never had a bad thing to say about Joe Oliver. ‘Joe Oliver's still king,’ was what he would always say.”

The end of Joe Oliver’s life was less than happy. His career-long dental problems, likely exacerbated by his habit of sipping sugar water “for energy” during performances, made it increasingly difficult to play the cornet. He lost his life savings in a bank collapse during the Great Depression, and spent the last years of his life touring with bands of increasing obscurity. Greer recounted the final chapter of Oliver’s life:

“He's working in a pool hall trying to make enough money to buy an overcoat so he can get back to New York in the wintertime. And he never makes it. He dies, and there's no money to bury him. Louis Armstrong comes up with enough money to take his body up to New York, where his sister is living, but she can't afford a grave for him. So they bury him on top of his nephew in a cemetery in New York City, and he's pretty much forgotten.”

Dave Greer's Classic Jazz Stompers performing the songs of Joe Oliver in WYSO's studios.
Dave Barber, 2023.
Dave Greer's Classic Jazz Stompers performing the songs of Joe Oliver in WYSO's studios.

While Joe Oliver may be largely forgotten in the popular consciousness, his influence as one of great performers, composers, and bandleaders of the 1920s was profound, according to Greer. In addition to his tutelage of Louis Armstrong, Greer said, he inspired a generation of jazz musicians growing up in Chicago, including the Austin High School Gang. Today, his compositions are still performed by musicians like Dave Greer’s Classic Jazz Stompers, who play live at Dayton’s Jimmie’s Ladder 11 on the first Tuesday of every month. Information on the Stompers, including performance dates, is available on Facebook.

Text by Peter Day, based on an interview by Dave Barber, originally aired on Monday, December 11, 2023.

Recordings of Dave Greer’s Classic Jazz Stompers used in this segment were organized by Dave Barber and engineered and mixed by Evan Miller, Tom Duffee, and Peter Day. 

Dave Barber has hosted programs on WYSO dating back to 1977. A Dayton native, Barber got involved with the station after listening to YSO and learning about all kinds of music from programmers such as Art Snyder, Larry Blood, Jon Fox and many others. He's also a graduate of WYSO's Community Voices training program.
Peter Day writes and produces stories for WYSO’s music department. His works include a feature about Dayton's premiere Silent Disco and a profile of British rapper Little Simz. He also assists with station operations and serves as fill-in host for Behind the Groove. Peter began interning at WYSO in 2019 and, in his spare time while earning his anthropology degree, he served as program director for Yale University’s student radio station, WYBC.