As Jazz developed nobody thought it was important enough to write down every fact for posterity. Jazz had no Herodotus. As a result, we are left with many recordings (without which we would be totally in the dark) and a rich legacy of legend and myth, some factual, some loosely based on fact and some purely the figment of someone's imagination. A fine example of classic Jazz folklore is pianist Richard M. Jones' account of the night Joseph Oliver was
crowned King of New Orleans Jazz. Interestingly, many other eyewitness accounts of these events are in close agreement with those
In 1916 Oliver was employed in Abadie's cabaret in the Storyville of New
Orleans, playing to small audiences while the then "King" of trumpets, Freddie Keppard, was packing them
in at Pete Lala's across the street. According to Jones :
"Keppard was playing in a spot across the street and drawing all the crowds. I was sitting at the piano and Joe Oliver came over to me and commanded in a nervous harsh voice 'Get in B-flat'. He didn't even mention a tune just 'Get in B-flat'. I did, and Joe walked out on the sidewalk, lifted his horn to his lips, and blew the most beautiful stuff I ever heard. People started pouring out of the other spots to see who was blowing all that horn. Before long our place was full and Joe came in, smiling, and said 'Now that S.O.B. won't bother me no more'. .....From then on, our place was full every night."
Joe "King" Oliver left New Orleans about 1919 and went on to become one of the great figures in classic New Orleans Jazz style. He is best remembered as the mentor of Louis Armstrong when he called for young Louis to join his legendary Creole Jazz Band in Chicago in 1923. Oliver wrote many Jazz standards and recorded one of the first extended Jazz solos on his masterpiece Dippermouth Blues (this name may have been derived from a blues song Keep your Eye on the Dippermouth , which served as musical navigation for slaves fleeing north under cover of darkness, advising them to follow The Big Dipper and hence the North Star). This solo was held in such high regard by future trumpeters like Louis Armstrong, Rex Stewart, Muggsy Spanier and Harry James, that when they soloed on this number, later renamed Sugar Foot Stomp, they followed Oliver's lines and ideas exactly!
After the decline on New Orleans style around late 1929, Oliver was granted the rewards afforded many a fallen American artistic genius, that is, he was totally ignored and allowed to languish in quiet oblivion. Oliver spent his last sad years touring the South in an old bus, working for peanuts. When the bus and Oliver's health gave out in 1937 and his band deserted him, he was rescued by Frank Dilworth and taken to Savannah. After being put back on his feet by Dilworth, but no longer able to play, Oliver served at various times as a fruit stand operator, an errand boy, a handyman, and finally a janitor in a pool hall. America likes dead heroes, however. When he died in 1938 King Oliver's body was sent for burial to New York, the city of Oliver's last triumphs. Reverend Adam Clayton Powell was the preacher at Oliver's funeral, attended by Louis Armstrong, W.C. Handy and many other Jazz legends.
King Oliver was honored in recent years by the Savannah's Coastal Jazz Association who inducted him as a charter member into their Jazz Hall of Fame.