King Oliver’s Last Will and Testament

King Oliver and his Orch

Many, many years ago, shortly after I met jazz critic Ralph Berton, I asked him about King Oliver’s famous Creole Jazz Band. The reason I asked him about them was not that I thought they were so terrific, but because I thought they sounded so bad on their records. Yes, yes, I know all about how Oliver and young Louis Armstrong improvised two-cornet breaks in thirds, to the amazement of other musicians, and I also loved clarinetist Johnny Dodds who was also in that band, but as a whole, as an entity, to me they simply did not swing. And I still don’t think they do. Listen to their records: the rhythm is mushy, and it’s not just the rhythm section (which, in addition to Baby Dodds on drums, had the drawback of Lil “Stone Hands” Hardin, certainly the least swinging of all black jazz pianists of her day). The ensembles sound unrhythmic and uninspired. They always sound as if they were feeling their way through a rehearsal of the pieces they played and not really getting into the music.

Ralph told me that they were MUCH hotter band in person, and ascribed their lack of spirit in the recording studio to the intimidation of white recording directors. So I asked him why Jelly Roll Morton and Duke Ellington weren’t similarly intimidated, to which he answered, “Are you kidding? Jelly Roll had an ego the size of Detroit, and Ellington wasn’t too far behind. They weren’t going to let anyone intimidate them. But Oliver was, deep down, a nice Southern gentleman, one of the kindest, most low-key people in the world, and he was easier to intimidate.”

Well, that answer satisfied me for a while, but then later on I discovered the Dixie Syncopators, Oliver’s next band that he formed after Armstrong and Dodds left. And that band was everything the Creole Jazz Band wasn’t: hot, tight, relaxed and swinging.

Oliver Orch 2Eventually, I finally got around to the later recordings made by Oliver for the Victor (1929-30) and Brunswick (1928 and 1931) labels, when he was in residence at the Kentucky Club, and was absolutely bowled over. For here was a band based on New Orleans style that was clearly taking it several steps forward. The two-beat feel of New Orleans jazz was at times subjugated to a more streamlined 4/4 beat; and moreover, the beat the band played was by now far less “jerky” than you usually hear from 1920s bands, despite the continued presence of banjo and tuba in lieu of guitar and string bass. Listen to virtually any well known jazz orchestra of the late 1920s (except Duke Ellington, who was pretty much operating in an alternate universe), and what you hear is a rather “jerky” beat, over which hot and heavy soloists were continually trying to blow their brains out. Fletcher Henderson, Chick Webb, McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, Earl Hines, even Whiteman much of the time were all were stiff and jerky sounding. The same was true of Cab Calloway’s fledgling band that played the Cotton Club in the early ‘30s—but not so Oliver’s orchestra. They had a nice, rolling, loping beat that propelled the music without sounding klunky. And, more interestingly, they played first-class arrangements that still sound fresh and interesting, peppered with solos that likewise remain interesting nearly a century later. In short, this was a hell of a band. The only other contemporary orchestra that played in a style similar to theirs was that of white leader Isham Jones.

Rhythm Club StompTo a certain extent, you might give credit—some of it, anyway—to Panamanian pianist Luis Russell, who was in the band for an extended period of time and perhaps set its style. He is heard on a large number of these Oliver discs, and although (as Morton pointed out) he wasn’t really a great jazz pianist, he was a first-class musician and knew his stuff. His most famous contribution to the Oliver orchestra was undoubtedly his modal composition Call of the Freaks, but many of the arrangements bear the stamp of his style and I get the feeling that much of what followed after he left was built around the principles he laid down.

What makes the musical success and esprit de corps of this band so amazing is that it all Someday Sweetheartcame at a time when Oliver was becoming less and less able to play the cornet himself, and a time when he was not doing well either financially or with the public. He had already made one band career decision after first arriving in New York in 1927 by disbanding in order to pick up freelance work for himself, but encroaching gum disease (caused, in part, by his lifelong habit of chewing sugar cane) eventually led him to hire other trumpeters once he re-formed his orchestra: Bubber Miley (before he went to Ellington), Louis Metcalf, Henry “Red” Allen, and eventually his nephew (some said his wife Stella’s nephew) Dave Nelson. Nelson became his strongest aide-de-camp, a sterling soloist and a spiritual sparkplug for a band that struggled to find an audience.

Oliver finally landed a long-term contract playing in New York’s Kentucky Club for pretty decent money, but made another bad decision when he passed up the chance to go to the newer Cotton Club because they paid less. Oliver unfortunately failed to take the powerful Struggle Buggyradio broadcasts into account, something that Ellington, and his manager Irving Mills, did not overlook. The result was that Ellington’s fame grew while Oliver’s diminished. Later he was hired by the Savoy Ballroom before Chick Webb took up residence, but was unsatisfied with the pay. He tried to wangle more money out of management, but the end result was that he lost the job. Webb moved in as Oliver finally just gave up and moved back to Savannah, Georgia, where he died prematurely in 1938, a month before his 53rd birthday. He spent his last years working as a janitor, cleaning floors and toilets—unable to convince the people he worked with that he had once been a major jazz star with his own band and the discoverer of Louis Armstrong. After he left New York, Nelson took over the band, renaming it “The King’s Men,” but without the magical Oliver name it didn’t last. This, too, was a shame, because Nelson was a wonderful, incisive trumpeter and deserved better.

But you’d never guess any of this from just listening to the records. Not everything is a gem, of course—I found some titles, like You’re Just My Type, I’m Watching the Clock and Got Showboat ShuffleEverything, to be rather drippy—but I’m sure that at least part of Oliver’s audience liked this kind of music which is why he played and recorded it. For the most part, however, these recordings are something very little ‘20s jazz is: delightful to listen to. Two or three tracks in, and you don’t even really notice the banjo and tuba so much, except when the latter takes a break or a short solo. And the other musicians, as I noted, all sound wonderfully relaxed and inventive: not only Nelson (and Oliver on those rare occasions when he could still play) but trombonist Jimmy Archey (or J.C. Higginmotham on a few sides), clarinetist Hilton Jefferson, saxists Charlie Holmes and Charles Frazier, pianists Russell, Don Frye and Hank Duncan and even the occasional drum solos. Everyone sounds unfettered, relaxed and swinging.

Herewith are some of my favorite tracks, with links to listen to them:

New Orleans Shout (12/30/1929)
One More Time (4/15/1931)
Rhythm Club Stomp (3/18/1930)
Shake It and Break It (9/10/1930)
Four or Five Times (8/13/1928)
Sobbin’ Blues (11/18/1927)
Who’s Blue? (1/19/1931)
I Must Have It (3/18/1930)
Too Late (10/8/1929)
Call of the Freaks (2/1/1929)
Nelson Stomp (9/19/1930)
Every Tub (4/22/1927)
Papa De Da Da (1/9/1931)
Showboat Shuffle (4/22/1927)
Edna (4/10/1930)
When I Take My Sugar to Tea (4/15/1931)
Stingaree Blues (9/10/1930)
Struggle Buggy (1/28/1930)
I’m Crazy ‘Bout My Baby (2/18/1931)
The Trumpet’s Prayer (2/1/1929)
Stop Crying (1/9/1931)
Olga (5/22/1930)
Don’t You Think I Love You? (5/22/1930)

Enjoy!

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Read my book: From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed history of the intersection of classical music and jazz

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