The 52nd New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival will honor the centennial of King Oliver’s 1923 Creole Jazz Band recordings as one of the featured exhibits in the festival’s Grandstand Exhibit space.

In April 1923, Joseph “King” Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band recorded the first of 37 songs that remain among the greatest and most influential examples of New Orleans-style jazz. The historically significant recordings were made in Richmond, Indiana, and Chicago in a dozen sessions between April 5 and October 16, 1923. They were released by the Gennett, Okeh, Colombia, and Paramount record companies.

Photo portrait of Joe “King” Oliver Credit: Photographer unknown/Public domain

King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band was a regularly working unit consisting of New Orleans-area musicians who moved north during the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to cities like Chicago. 

Oliver left New Orleans in 1918 after the lucrative Storyville district cabarets, where his band played, closed. He worked with several groups in Chicago before eventually starting his own band. By the early 1920s, King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band was a main feature at the Lincoln Gardens dance hall on the South Side of Chicago. 

The band was a rousing success that drew crowds of Black fans, dancers, and musicians of all colors who marveled at and learned about New Orleans music.

Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band made the first recorded major body of the authentic African American New Orleans jazz ensemble style created by uptown New Orleans cornetist Charles “Buddy” Bolden and others during the 1890s. 

Prior to Oliver, jazz was first heard on record in 1917 by the imitative white Original Dixieland Jazz Band. The first Black New Orleans jazz band on record was led by trombonist Edward “Kid” Ory who recorded in Los Angeles, California in 1922.

King Oliver’s 1923 recordings mainly featured a seven-piece ensemble consisting of two cornets, a clarinet, a trombone, a piano, a banjo and a drum set. 

King Oliver, known as the “father of the modern trumpet style,” was a stellar cornetist who influenced many early jazz horn players with his melodic phrases and blues feeling. He often made his cornet “talk” by using several mutes that allowed for growling, vocal, and wah-wah sounds. 

King Oliver was the main inspiration and mentor for Louis Armstrong, who is considered the most influential of all jazz musicians. Armstrong joined Oliver’s band in Chicago in 1922 as second cornetist.  Another stellar Oliver band member was clarinetist Johnny Dodds, whose full bluesy clarinet tone, vocal-sounding harmonies, and fast rhythmic phrases, made him the most widely recorded New Orleans jazz clarinetist of the 1920s. 

Louis Armstrong and King Oliver record cover

Other musicians on the King Oliver recordings included drummer Warren “Baby” Dodds, trombonist Honore Dutrey, and banjo player Johnny St. Cyr. Lil Hardin was also featured on the King Oliver recordings.  Hardin was a much sought-after jazz pianist and one of the few female jazz musicians in the Chicago music scene at the time. Hardin later married Louis Armstrong and helped him achieve worldwide fame.

The Creole Jazz Band songs — several composed by Oliver — are improvised instrumental versions of ragtime songs, blues, marches, and stomps played with an appealing zest and excitement. 

Among the most important Oliver Creole Jazz Band recordings is “Dippermouth Blues, a driving up-tempo 12-bar blues highlighted by Dodds’ clarinet solo and Oliver’s often imitated wah-wah cornet solo – which influenced the growl-style horn playing featured later in Duke Ellington’s Orchestra. 

“Chimes Blues” is a slower-paced blues song that contains Armstrong’s first recorded solo. The song demonstrated Armstrong’s ability to improvise exciting rhythmic phrases, great timing, and his compelling muted cornet tone. 

“Weatherbird Rag” became the basis for one of Armstrong’s greatest recordings, a 1928 duet with pianist Earl Hines called “Weatherbird.” The main section of Oliver’s “Froggie Moore,” was used to form Armstrong’s 1927 classic “Potato Head Blues.” 

The Creole Jazz Band recordings also include the first recording of the popular traditional jazz march “High Society,” complete with the often-repeated Johnny Dodds clarinet solo. And the main theme of Oliver’s “Campmeeting Blues” was used a few years later as the melody of Duke Ellington’s standard, “Creole Love Call.” 

King Oliver continued to lead bands and record until 1931. He fell on hard times because of the Great Depression and poor business choices. Oliver also had difficulty playing the trumpet due to gum disease. Like Armstrong, he had switched from the cornet to the trumpet in the late 1920s. 

King Oliver, the leader of what was once one of the world’s greatest jazz bands, died in Savannah, Georgia in 1938 — stranded, broke, and largely forgotten. 

Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band musicians, like Johnny Dodds and Lil Hardin, continued to play with many groups, record, and lead their own bands. 

Oliver’s main protegee, Armstrong, went on to change the course of jazz and popular music with his dynamic trumpet playing and vocal phrasing. Throughout his long career, Armstrong carried Oliver’s influence into becoming one of the world’s most popular entertainers.

King Oliver’s compositions, cornet playing, and band style influenced many early jazz groups, swing era big bands of the 1930s and 1940s, and later popular American music. The music of King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band is still played today by traditional jazz groups in the United States and around the world.

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Dr. Michael White is an award-winning New Orleans-born jazz clarinetist, composer, band leader, and historian. He is also a professor and Endowed Chair at Xavier University of Louisiana.