Jazz Music and Musicians

Who was King Oliver?

Joe “King” Oliver (1885–1938) was born in Abend, Louisiana, and started his career playing the trombone, but switched to the cornet. He began playing with the Melrose Brass Band in 1907 and played with several other brass bands as he perfected his skills. Oliver first earned the sobriquet “King” in 1917, after establishing himself as the best cornetist against the likes of Freddie Keppard, Manuel Perez, and a host of other early New Orleans jazz musicians. Oliver soon teamed up with Kid Ory and organized what would become the leading jazz band in New Orleans. During the Storyville era of the early twentieth century, Oliver met and befriended Louis Armstrong. Lacking a son of his own, Oliver became Armstrong’s “unofficial father,” sharing with him the musical knowledge that he had acquired over the years. In return, Armstrong treated him with great respect, referring to him as “Papa Joe.” In 1922 Oliver summoned Armstrong to Chicago to play in his Creole Jazz Band as second cornetist; a year later the band made the first important recording by a black jazz group. The work of Oliver and Armstrong put Chicago on the jazz map of the United States. However, changing tastes caused Oliver’s music to decline in popularity, and by the time he moved to New York, in 1928, his best years were behind him.


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