Joseph Nathan Oliver (December 19, 1881 – April 10, 1938) better known as King Oliver or Joe Oliver, was an American jazz cornet player and bandleader.
He was particularly recognized for his playing style and his pioneering use of mutes in jazz.
Oliver found employment as butler to a white family in New Orleans when he was about seventeen, a job he kept for the next nine years.
He was already active as a musician.
Around 1899 he joined a children’s brass band, formed by a Walter Kenehan, and performed on the trombone, and later the cornet, at funerals and parades.
One of his eyes was damaged during a childhood accident, earning him the early nicknames of “Bad Eye” and “Monocles,” and he often played with a hat tilted over the eye to disguise it.
From 1908 to 1917 Oliver played cornet in New Orleans brass bands and dance bands, and also in the city’s red-light district.
A band he co-led with trombonist Kid Ory was considered to be New Orleans’ hottest and best in the late-1910s.
Oliver achieved great popularity in New Orleans across economic and racial lines, and was in demand for music jobs from rough working-class black dance halls to white society debutante parties.
In 1922 Oliver and his band returned to Chicago, where they began performing as King Oliver and his Creole Jazz Band at the Royal Gardens cabaret (later renamed the Lincoln Gardens).
In addition to Oliver on cornet, the personnel included his protégé Louis Armstrong on second cornet, Baby Dodds on drums, Johnny Dodds on clarinet, Lil Hardin (later Armstrong’s wife) on piano, Honoré
Dutrey on trombone, and William Manuel Johnson on bass.
Recordings made by this group in 1923 for Gennett, Okeh, Paramount, and Columbia Records demonstrated the serious artistry of the New Orleans style of collective improvisation or Dixieland, and brought it to the attention of a much wider audience.
In the later 1920s, Oliver, struggling with difficulties in playing trumpet with his gum disease, began employing other trumpeters to handle the solo work, including his nephew Dave Nelson, Louis Metcalf, and the young, up-and-coming New Orleans trumpeter Henry “Red” Allen. Eventually he could no longer play and just fronted the band.
Unfortunately, the Creole Jazz Band gradually fell apart in 1924.
Oliver went on to record a pair of duets with pianist Jelly Roll Morton that same year, and then took over Dave Peyton’s band in 1925, renaming it the Dixie Syncopators.
Oliver moved the band to New York in 1927, where he made some lousy business decisions, like turning down the regular gig at the Cotton Club, that went on to catapult Duke Ellington to fame.
Oliver had a lifelong sweet tooth.
He was famous for his love of sugar sandwiches; this of course led to dental problems that made playing his cornet very painful.
On top of that he was suffering from a bad back. In 1929 Luis Russell took over the Dixie Syncopators and changed the name to Luis Russell and his Orchestra.
The Great Depression brought hardship to Oliver.
He lost his life savings to a collapsed bank in Chicago, and he struggled to keep his band together through a series of hand-to-mouth gigs until the group broke up and Oliver was stranded in Savannah, Georgia, where he worked as a janitor at Wimberley’s Recreation Hall (526-528 West Broad Street); “…he died there [Savannah] of arteriosclerosis, too broke to afford treatment.” Oliver died in poverty at a rooming house (508 Montgomery Street), on April 10, 1938.