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The Blues Essence of King Oliver

It's not exactly news anymore if a hip-hop group samples an old jazz record, but I was still pretty stunned to hear the Creators, a British production collective, cutting up the haunting, chime-laden intro to Joe "King" Oliver's "St. James Infirmary" on a track released last year called "The Music." The original Victor 1930 recording, something of a hit in its day, had been my own introduction to the legendary New Orleans cornetist's music thirty-odd years ago; yet ever since, it's rarely been heard or reissued in this country.

And not without reason, for it belongs to a group of recordings that every so often embarrasses the jazz anthology compiler or disc jockey who unsuspectingly draws from it--it's a King Oliver-fronted record that doesn't feature Oliver. Not one, but two other fine trumpeters, ex-Ellingtonian Bubber Miley and Henry "Red" Allen, take solos on "St. James Infirmary," with Oliver thought merely to be playing lead on the last chorus.

Between 1923 and 1930, King Oliver recorded frequently under his own name, eventually hitting every major label of the time. He'd become a fairly big star and respected name in jazz, but already Oliver was past his prime and slipping away from the cutting edge. That's where instead you'd have found his former protege Louis Armstrong, who established his preeminence after he waxed Oliver's composition "West End Blues" in 1928.

Strangely, and maybe tellingly, Oliver responded the next year by releasing a soundalike cover version of Armstrong's, although Joe didn't play on the record himself: the Louis-created trumpet parts were recreated (under Oliver's "direction") by another ex-Ellingtonian, Louis Metcalf. (To add to the confusion, Muggsy Spanier told his biographer that he "remembered hearing Oliver play the introduction to 'West End Blues' well before Armstrong played and recorded it." Hmmm.)

The once-regal King commenced endless touring and gradually drifted into obscurity, dying alone and broke nine years later. Shortly afterwards a magazine article appeared carrying a list of Oliver's recorded solos, mistakenly including items like "St. James Infirmary" and "West End Blues."

By the 1940s, according to Oliver scholars Allen and Rust, "apparently very few knew what Joe's cornet sounded like on records. Opinions were sometimes ventured, to be sure, and some of them have turned out to be valid, but no one could say, on hearing a cornet solo on one of his records, `That is Joe Oliver's horn,' without fear of contradiction...There were acknowledged experts aplenty on Armstrong, Spanier, Beiderbecke, Nichols and many other jazzmen and bands, but none on Oliver; what's more, no one even *claimed* to be an Oliver expert."

While the situation has been rectified since, it still suggests the question: what could be so great or important about a musician once nearly unidentifiable on his own records? Didn't Louis Armstrong steal his crown in the 1920s, and redefine jazz as a soloist's art? Does King Oliver mean anything to us today apart from his role, as leader of the seminal Creole Jazz Band, in discovering and mentoring Louis?

Well, it might be argued that Armstrong never really surpassed his idol in certain respects. To appreciate this, one must listen and think beyond the stereotype of "brilliant" jazz soloing, for ultimately Oliver was more a master of blues expression than a genius improviser. Martin Williams characterizes Oliver's prowess on the horn as "a kind of savage energy sublimated and transmuted by conscious craft into a fearless joy of living."

Under Oliver's exacting standards, his 1923-recorded Creole Jazz Band operates as a well-balanced, hard-swinging ensemble. When Armstrong leads many of the same musicians as his Hot Five and Hot Seven, the group is often relegated to a less-inspired backing role, with Louis inevitably in the foreground. Armstrong the jazzman is all about individual expression, while Oliver epitomizes the blues musician's quest to articulate the universality of feeling.

Spanier, a great admirer of Oliver's, recalls being told by his idol, "You've got to play `Dippermouth Blues' like Joe Oliver, or you're not playing the `Dippermouth Blues.'" Rightly hailed by Evans and Rust as "probably the most widely copied solo ever played," Oliver's wa-wa feature on "Dippermouth Blues" reveals how the utterly simple (three successive choruses based on a six-note blues scale) can be rendered profound. "Oh play that thing!" indeed.

Oliver pulled it off again when he made "Snag It" (1926). As Albert Murray observes, the break that opens Oliver's solo on this blues "seems to have been considered as being in the public domain as soon as other musicians heard it, and has been used as a Buddy Bolden-like clarion call to revelry ever since, not only by other soloists but by arrangers as well." These archetypal passages weren't especially difficult to master, but they were such definitive blues statements that everybody wanted to play them.

Musicians still want to play them. In recent years Chicago's Franz Jackson revisited "Snag It" on his Delmark album of the same name. Jackson's been around long enough to remember a time when Oliver was still stomping on the South Side, yet incredibly he can still wow and delight an audience, like when I caught him this past April at the New Orleans Jazz Festival.

Just prior to Jackson's set, I followed a band parading through the grounds to a joyous funky beat. I couldn't quite make out which rap hit one second liner kept shouting out the chorus of, but there was no mistaking the phrase blasted in unison repeatedly by the two young trumpeters--it was a variation on the opening notes of Joe Oliver's "Dippermouth Blues" solo.

Long live the King.

Frank Youngwerth, musician, composer, writer, and longtime Bix Beiderbecke afficianado, works for Tower Records


The following King Oliver CD's are available at the Jazz Record Mart:

1923 Jazz Archives 157462 $11.99

1923-1926 Classics 639 $16.99

1926-1928 Classics 618 $16.99

1926/1928 vol.3 King Jazz 135 $11.99

1926/1930 Jazz Archives 159242 $13.99

1928 vol.4 King Jazz 136 $11.99

1928/1929 vol.5 King Jazz $11.99

1928-1930 Classics 607 $16.99

King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band-Complete Set (2 CD set from J.T. Davies transfers) Retrieval 79007 $32.99

1929/1931 vol.6 King Jazz 138 $11.99

1930-1931 Classics 594 $16.99

Dippermouth Blues ASV 5218 $11.99

Farewell Blues Frog 35 $16.99

Great Original Performances 1923-1930 Louisiana Red Hot 607 $24.99

The King and Mister Jelly Lord Parade 2303 $9.99

Shake it & Break it Jazz Hour 73536 $15.99

Sugar Foot Stomp Frog 34 $16.99