22 July 2016


Some of the most important recordings in the history of our music were made in 1923. I am referring to the 14 tunes King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band recorded in April and October that year for Gennett Records in Richmond, Indiana.

You can enjoy all of the tunes on YouTube and I hope you will have great pleasure discovering them - or exploring them again - for yourselves. You could start by clicking here.

The Gennett Company had been set up only six years earlier and was still using fairly primitive pre-electric recording methods.

The tunes were:
Alligator Hop
Canal Street Blues
Dippermouth Blues (King Oliver was nick-named 'Dippermouth' because he used to keep on the bandstand a bucket of water with a dipper in it)
Chimes Blues
Just Gone
Snake Rag
Sugarfoot Stomp
Working Man Blues
Zulu's Ball
(all the above were composed or co-written by Oliver himself)
Froggie More
I'm Going Away to Wear You Off My Mind
Krooked Blues
Mandy Lee Blues
Weatherbird Rag.

We have only to read that list to appreciate what a contribution Oliver made to the history and repertoire of traditional jazz. (It is often forgotten that he also wrote Doctor Jazz. I have sometimes heard band-leaders, announcing this tune, wrongly say that it was composed by Jelly Roll Morton. We must also remember that it was Oliver who later composed those classics Snag It and West End Blues.)

But these Gennett recordings are also important because they are regarded as the first to document well an authentic black traditional New Orleans jazz band. (In fact, Kid Ory's band had made half a dozen recordings just  a few months earlier - for the Nordskog company.)

So who was Oliver?

Cornet player Joe Nathan 'King' Oliver was born on 11 May 1885. Unfortunately, he lost the sight of one eye in his childhood. But by 1908 he was playing in several bands in New Orleans, including the famous marching bands. He worked with Kid Ory and the two of them moved to Chicago in 1918. They joined Bill Johnson's Original Creole Jazz Band. Bill Johnson at the time was 47 years old. He played bass and banjo and was an elder statesman and entrepreneur in the music business. He had toured and made New Orleans jazz known outside the South. His band currently played at The Dreamland Ballroom in West Van Buren Street, close to the centre of the City of Chicago. (The building has long since disappeared.)

We have to remember that, in those days, the movies and radio were in their infancy; television and computers were things of the future. Most people went out for entertainment. So this was a boom time for dancing, for dance bands and for jazz bands. In Chicago there were plenty of cafés, bars, ballrooms and clubs where you could hear such bands.

As well as The Dreamland Ballroom, think of The Royal Gardens BallroomThe De Luxe CaféThe Sunset Café, Kelly's Stables, The Nest (later The Apex Club - of 'Apex Blues' fame), The Plantation and Friar's Inn. The Royal Gardens Ballroom (which regularly accommodated 1000 people) burned down and was replaced by The Lincoln Gardens; and that is where Oliver's Creole Jazz Band had its residency.
This was some way south from The Dreamland Ballroom - at 459 East 31st Street. As far as I can tell, the Lincoln Gardens Ballroom was bulldozed years ago and - with the help of Mr. Google - I find a glass office block on the site today. 
It seems that Bill Johnson was quite happy to hand on his own band to the younger man - King Oliver - to develop in his own way and then to evolve it into King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band.

Who played in Oliver's Creole Jazz Band?

Everyone thinks first of Louis Armstrong, because he went on to become a big star in the entertainment world and in the movies. He was to develop a phenomenal technique, a great tone, and virtuoso skill in improvising solo choruses. But in 1923, he was a junior member of Oliver's band - and we should not forget that. However, there's a clear and very enjoyable hint of future glories in the famous solo that Armstrong takes in Chimes Blues. Oliver had invited him to move to Chicago from New Orleans and this was the launching pad for Armstrong's stellar career. When you think of the energy and stamina needed for the band's performances (playing for dances long into the night), it is easy to understand why Oliver invited Armstrong to join and help him: it must have been a huge strain on Oliver's lip to sustain such long, hard gigs, with few breaks from playing.

But more important than Armstrong at the time, in my opinion, was the clarinet player Johnny Dodds (1892 - 1940). He had also worked with Kid Ory in New Orleans from 1912. Dodds made a huge contribution to the ensemble style and sound of Oliver's band: his fluency and his soulful, bluesy playing and tone have been an inspiration to generations of clarinet players. In a tune such as Canal Street Blues, his decorative runs around the melody and his memorable solo are outstanding. But listen for him even on lesser-known numbers such as Just Gone and Mandy Lee Blues and you will be impressed. I suppose it was Johnny's good fortune that the clarinet could be heard so clearly, despite the primitive recording process of the time.

Then there was Bill Johnson himself (1872 - 1972), the bass player and former leader who had achieved much even before King Oliver (at Johnson's invitation) became established in Chicago. It is said that he had to switch to banjo in the Gennett studio because the bass would record badly and spoil the sound.

Of enormous importance (and much under-rated by jazz history in my opinion) was the band's pianist Lil Hardin. She had been born in Memphis on 3 Feb 1898 and had worked for some time on the Chicago music scene: she had studied music at Fisk University, obtaining a diploma there (she also obtained a qualification later from the New York College of Music), and had played with various bands, including one of her own, even before her partnership with Oliver.
Lil Hardin's Band playing at The Dreamland Ballroom
I think hers must have been one of the principal 'brains' shaping the band's music-making. Lil was also the co-composer (with Oliver) of Alligator HopJust Gone and Working Man Blues. My guess is that she had a big say in the arrangements of the band's tunes and possibly even in organizing the many two-bar breaks that occur in several of them and which listeners have often thought to be magically spontaneous (such as the famous breaks involving Joe and Louis together in Snake Rag). Lil's playing throughout these recordings is a model for all later pianists in New Orleans-style bands - solidly providing the chords on the beat and yet capable of a pretty solo chorus if required, as in I'm Going Away to Wear You Off My Mind. And how moving it is to hear those piano chimes of hers coming to us across more than nine decades in Chimes Blues!

Within the next three years, after marrying Louis Armstrong, Lil composed (originally for Louis' Hot Five) such core tunes in our repertoire as Knee Drops, I'm Not Rough, Lonesome Blues, Skid-Dat-De-Dat, Two Deuces, Hotter Than That, Jazz Lips, Droppin' Shucks and Struttin' With Some Barbecue. Her other compositions include Perdido Street Blues, Papa DipTears, and Gatemouth. What an achievement!

Lil died on 27 August 1971.

The trombonist in Oliver's band was Honoré Dutrey (1894 - 1935). He had played in bands in New Orleans. He joined the Navy in 1917 and had an accident that damaged his lungs and eventually caused his premature death. Dutrey strikes me as just right for this band - keeping things simple but always accurate. A good clear illustration of his style is to be heard on Working Man Blues.

Warren 'Baby' Dodds, 24-years-old at the time of the recordings, is one of the all-time best drummers. He too had started in New Orleans and had played with Ory there, before working on the riverboats. He was of course the younger brother of Johnny Dodds. In these Gennett recordings, you do not hear the full range of his kit but his presence is strongly felt throughout. Enjoy his breaks on the wood blocks in Weather Bird Rag.

Other occasional band members (only on the October Gennett recordings) were Johnny St. Cyr (banjo) and the less-known Paul Anderson 'Stump' Evans (C melody sax).

The recordings were made without the benefit of electricity or microphones. The sound had to be picked up through a large megaphone-funnel. Certain musical instruments had to be omitted or restricted in use because their effect would spoil or unbalance the recording (Baby Dodds could use only part of his drum kit, and Johnson could not use his string bass). The players had to be positioned at various distances from the funnel, to achieve some kind of balance. This photo of a Gennett recording studio (alas, not of King Oliver's Band) gives some idea of the conditions. Note the funnel picking up the sounds.

Clearly, what we hear on the records is not exactly how the band normally sounded at Lincoln Gardens. But the wonderful polyphony and energy are captured really well.

The tunes are all multi-part, with tricky head arrangements, including introductions and codas. There's none of the simple repetition of one 32-bar theme, such as we are offered these days in most performances by traditional jazz bands. 

Oliver was proud and professional in his attitude to work and expected the  highest standards from his musicians. He was strongly self-disciplined. He drove his band hard. Baby Dodds in an interview years later  stated how strenuously all the band members worked at gigs: they would really exhaust themselves. Sure enough, all members of the band sound constantly so busy. Listen again to Dippermouth Blues and judge for yourself.

Oliver's personal interest in tone (he produced a throaty vocal sound on his cornet) and the use of mutes have had a massive influence on brass players ever since. You can sample his tone and his mutes throughout but of course they are specially conspicuous in Dippermouth Blues.

On top of all this, also in 1923, calling his band simply King Oliver's Jazz Band (drawn from a pool of players that included Barney Birgard, Paul Barbarin, Kid Ory, Luis Russell and others as well as those of the Creole Jazz Band), Oliver also recorded in Chicago for the Okeh, Paramount and Columbia labels a total of 23 numbers, such as Riverside Blues, Mabel's DreamSouthern Stomps, Tears, Buddy's Habit, Sweet Lovin' Man, High Society, Sobbin' Blues, and Camp Meeting Blues  - and others.

But Oliver's Creole Jazz Band of 1923 was short-lived. It disintegrated the following year. Oliver went on to play in various combinations and bands (sometimes run by himself). His struggles and decline have been well documented. And it is sad to think he died in poverty on 10 April 1938.

Listening to all these Gennett recordings again has made me realise what an example to us all King Oliver's band of 1923 was. That's the way to do it. Many others have set out to emulate  his music. But there's nothing quite like the originals.
Reader Barrie Marshall sent me this email:
Hi Ivan,

King Oliver was the mute master. Considering Louis' massive respect for his playing, I have never heard Louis use a mute.