OLIVER, Joe King: Oh, Play That Thing!

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KING OLIVER Oh Play That Thing!

Original 1923 Recordings with Louis ArmstrongWhen King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band made their recordings in 1923, they were by far the most significant and stirring jazz group to appear on records up to that point. The pacesetting band of the era, Oliver’s group was the epitome of classic New Orleans jazz, emphasizing group improvising with occasional brief solos and breaks. Unlike most of its predecessors on records, the band featured legato rather than staccato notes, relaxed phrasing and a solid sense of swing years before the word "swing" was applied to jazz. Although the group’s second cornetist, Louis Armstrong, would soon take jazz in another direction, towards becoming a vehicle for highly individual soloists, that step would not have happened so soon if King Oliver had not sent to New Orleans for his protégé to join his band in Chicago.

The seven musicians who comprised the Creole Jazz Band on 5 April 1923 were each making their recording début, and all of them could be considered giants at the time. Joe "King" Oliver (1885-1938) was on his way to becoming a major voice on his instrument as early as 1905. Within a decade he succeeded Freddie Keppard (who had earlier taken Buddy Bolden’s place) as the "king" cornetist of New Orleans, playing with trombonist Kid Ory’s group and in many parade bands. In 1919 he left his hometown to play in Chicago with bassist Bill Johnson’s band at the Dreamland Ballroom. Within a year he was heading his own group and, after spending some time in California, in 1922 King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band was based at Lincoln Gardens in Chicago.

Trombonist Honore Dutrey (1894-1935) played with King Oliver as early as 1907. His lungs were damaged in an accident while serving in the Navy during World War I, and sometimes he had difficulty breathing, but he was an asset to the Creole Jazz Band, being a strong ensemble player with an unusual tone. Johnny Dodds (1892-1940) was arguably the top clarinetist of the 1920s, playing with Ory and pianist Fate Marable in his earlier days. His cutting tone (which allowed him to be heard over louder instruments) and ability to be either the lead voice or the main harmonizing instrument made him a pacesetter. Pianist Lil Hardin (1898-1971) was the only member of the Creole Jazz Band who was not born in New Orleans, being a native of Memphis, and she (unlike the others) was classically trained. She worked with Freddie Keppard in Chicago and had her own band before joining Oliver. Bill Johnson (1872-1972) was originally a guitarist, became the top bassist in New Orleans, and left the South for California as early as 1909. He led the Original Creole Orchestra, helping to introduce jazz to Los Angeles, Chicago and New York although unfortunately that group never recorded. Best known as a bassist, he played banjo with Oliver. Baby Dodds (1898-1959), Johnny Dodds’ younger brother, was the first important drummer to record in jazz. Full drum kits could not be recorded in 1923 (they would drown out the other instruments) so Dodds made the most with the least, often recording with just a snare drum, woodblocks and a cymbal.

King Oliver’s band was already established in Chicago when he sent for Louis Armstrong (1901-71). Armstrong grew up in the poorest section of New Orleans and spent a couple years in a waif’s home when it was decided that his mother was unable to care for him properly. He loved to hear brass band music and was inspired to take up the cornet when he was ten. While at the waif’s home, he seriously studied the instrument and upon his release he began playing with local groups, idolizing King Oliver. Armstrong succeeded Oliver with Kid Ory’s band in 1919, played on riverboats with Fate Marable and probably would have stayed in New Orleans if Oliver had not sent for him in 1922. Although he was nervous at first, Armstrong fit in perfectly with Oliver’s band, playing second cornet behind his hero, instantly harmonizing two and four-bar breaks with Oliver and developing quickly as a soloist.

During April-December 1923, King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band recorded 33 songs plus four alternate takes for the Gennett, Okeh, Columbia and Paramount labels. Twenty of the very best performances are on this superior sampler, with the first eight selections being from 5 April. In listening to these selections, one has to get beyond the fact that the recording quality is quite primitive and just play the music loud so one can fully enjoy listening to the interplay of the four horns. Most notable on the initial session are Louis Armstrong’s first solo (on Chimes Blues), the introduction of the future dixieland standard Canal Street Blues, the early version of Weather Bird Rag (five years before it was recorded by Armstrong and pianist Earl Hines as a remarkable duet) and Oliver’s famous three-chorus solo on Dippermouth Blues.

The next five selections (from 22-23 June) have the same band except that Bud Scott (1890-1949), a fine rhythm banjoist, takes over from Bill Johnson. Snake Rag was the most famous of the Creole Jazz Band’s ensemble-oriented pieces and it includes several of the legendary harmonized cornet breaks. High Society Rag (as "High Society") became a standard while Jazzin’ Babies Blues is a particularly catchy number.

Alligator Hop and Krooked Blues from 5October has the four horns, Hardin and Baby Dodds joined by Stump Evans (1904-1928) on C-melody sax and banjoist Johnny St. Cyr (1890-1966) who became a permanent member of the band. The final five selections on this CD feature the same band during 25-26 October, except that the obscure Charlie Jackson is on bass sax and tuba, replacing Evans. Buddy’s Habit (which has Armstrong taking a slide whistle solo) and Riverside Blues are prime examples of King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band at its very best.

Oliver’s group began to change a few months later. A money dispute resulted in Johnny and Baby Dodds departing. Louis Armstrong and Lil Hardin (who became his wife) stayed into mid-1924 before Armstrong accepted an offer to join Fletcher Henderson’s big band in New York. After the Creole Jazz Band broke up later in 1924, Oliver led other worthy bands including the Dixie Syncopators and an underrated unit during his New York years. But no other group of his had the influence, importance and pure excitement of King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band.

Scott Yanow

— author of seven jazz books including Classic Jazz (which covers the 1920s), Swing and Trumpet Kings

Disc: 1
I Ain't Gonna Tell Nobody
1 Just Gone
2 Canal Street Blues
3 Mandy Lee Blues
4 I'm Going Away To Wear You Off My Mind
5 Chimes Blues
6 Weather Bird Rag
7 Dipper Mouth Blues
8 Froggie Moore
9 Snake Rag
10 Sweet Lovin' Man
11 High Society Rag
12 Where Did You Stay Last Night
13 Jazzin' Babies Blues
14 Alligator Hop
15 Krooked Blues
16 Buddy's Habit
17 Tears
18 Room Rent Blues
19 Riverside Blues
20 I Ain't Gonna Tell Nobody
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