By Rheta Grimsley Johnson
NEW ORLEANS – Nobody ever accused me of being a scholar, though I’m generally a quick study and reasonably competent in my field.
But academic treatments of things that give me a visceral thrill tend to get on my nerves. I like reading Faulkner, not analyzing his water imagery. I like wishing upon a star, not mapping the galaxy. And, given the choice, I’d just as soon hear music as dissect it.
Nonetheless, I was at the Old U.S. Mint to hear Library of Congress archivist and jazz trombonist David Sager talk about Louis Armstrong’s early recordings when he played second cornet with the King Oliver Creole Jazz Band. The music at the annual Satchmo Summerfest was a day away, and the U.S. Mint is air-conditioned. Did I mention it was 98 F outside?
It was a good talk, mostly because Sager was so enthusiastic that even I could follow the finer points he made by using musical scores projected on a screen, waving his hands when we got to the measure that mattered.
The best thing I took away was a curiosity about Armstrong’s mentor, the Chicago bandleader Joe “King” Oliver. I never knew much about him before.
Born in Louisiana, reared in New Orleans, Oliver quickly rose to popularity in this most musical of cities. He’d been inspired by musical pioneer Buddy Bolden, who some argue invented jazz. But in 1919, when a fight broke out at a dance, Oliver was arrested, along with his band, and the cornet player decided to leave the Jim Crow South.
By 1922, Oliver was the undisputed jazz king in Chicago, performing at the Royal Gardens. He was an innovative musician and composer, and music scholars give him credit for popularizing the use of mutes – plungers, hats and cups. He put the wah-wah in Dixieland jazz.
Oliver’s story gets sad. Managers stole from him; Duke Ellington got the Cotton Club gig Oliver turned down. Oliver eventually lost his life’s savings when a Chicago bank collapsed during the Depression. He would end up a janitor in Savannah, Ga., and die in a rooming house when he couldn’t afford treatment for arteriosclerosis.
If you’re the man who handed Louis Armstrong his first cornet, you deserve to be remembered.
And Oliver was remembered by Satchmo, who said in his autobiography, “It was my ambition to play as he did. I still think that if it had not been for Joe Oliver, jazz would not be what it is today.”
On the walk back to the apartment, I thought about the luck involved with life, no matter the degree of an individual’s talent. Buddy Bolden’s jazz life was cut short by illness. He died in a New Orleans asylum and was buried in a pauper’s grave.
If Buddy Bolden had gone insane sooner rather than later, Oliver might never have felt a compulsion to play. And Oliver himself might well have languished in a hot New Orleans jail; in those days such things happened. And without Oliver’s tutelage, Louis Armstrong might never have blown a horn.
Lucky for us, the dominoes of fate fell in another, more cheerful direction. And any way you study and parse it, that’s a good thing.
Syndicated columnist Rheta Grimsley Johnson lives near Iuka. Contact her at Iuka, MS 38852. To find out more about her books, visit www.rhetagrimsleyjohnsonbooks.com.