Thursday, 25 July 2013

5. King Oliver

This probably seems like we’ve lost chronological order, but that’s because jazz wasn’t put onto record in the right order. The recording industry was slow to catch up with jazz, so the first generation were recorded haphazardly.

Innovations with mutes

Joe Oliver was the third King of New Orleans jazz, having taken the crown from Freddie Keppard. He was active on the New Orleans scene from 1908 – 1917, when he took his band north to Chicago, part of the Great Migration of Southern blacks hoping to escape poverty and racism. He was a commanding, muscular player, with a style that was bluesier than Keppard’s, and he experimented with the use of mutes to imitate the human voice. He invented the Harmon mute (later favoured by Miles Davis), although it was patented by the white owner of the club at which Oliver played in Chicago, music and sports promoter Paddy Harmon (depriving Joe and his dependents of what would have been a decent royalty stream). A bowler hat wearer, one of Oliver’s early attempts to manipulate his sound was to use his hat as a mute. When we now think of Traditional Jazz*, we think of bowler hat mutes; Joe Oliver was the prototype.

Generous mentor

King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band were masters of the New Orleans ensemble polyphony, and highly influential on other musicians. Joe himself was remembered, in those early New Orleans days, as nurturing young talent. Louis Armstrong remembers that when Louis was an unknown kid blowing inexpertly on street corners, Oliver was always happy to stop and give pointers to him or anyone else he thought had a nascent talent.

Harmony improvising

In July 1922, Oliver wrote to Louis Armstrong in New Orleans, inviting him to Chicago to join the Creole Jazz Band on second cornet. What Oliver had in mind was the close harmony cornet improvising that was popular in New Orleans, but hadn’t yet been heard in Chicago. Here we can hear the sort of improvising that Jelly Roll Morton felt he had to write down for his pick-up musicians when he first left New Orleans (and, being a control-freak, kept doing even with high quality New Orleans improvisers). Although Armstrong could read and write music, this type of improvising was second nature to him and Oliver, and it caused a sensation in Chicago.

 Dippermouth Blues:

Listen to the bent notes and glisses and slides, Oliver’s famous Cry Baby lick on muted trumpet, and the stop-time section for Johnny Dodds’ clarinet solo. You can hear the extended ensemble improvisation after Dodds’ spot, from about 1:08, during which we hear Armstrong's cornet without Oliver's, and Oliver’s mute use can be heard most clearly from about 1:25, especially during the chorus which cumulates in his trade-mark Laughing Lick at 1:58. This is bluesy, improvised New Orleans polyphony at its best.

 Joe "King" Oliver on CD

Morton and Cook recommend King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band, The Complete Set on the Retrieval imprint. They write "The Creole Jazz Band sides were the first genuinely important recordings by black musicians. [...] for a shining moment, his group expressed to us everything that jazz was about". (p14, the Penguin Jazz Guide).

* A note on terminology. Generally speaking, "New Orleans Jazz" means early jazz styles played by black or Creole musicians. "Dixieland Jazz" means early styles played by white musicians. "Trad Jazz" means revivalist music played by British musicians. The longer "Traditional" Jazz is a term that covers all these. But some degree of term overlap is common.

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