Joe “King” Oliver and the Role of Creole Culture in Jazz

by Tyler Fisher on April 23, 2015

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Tracing where jazz truly first emerged and came into existence as a genre is a question that has been hotly debated by music historians for close to a century. Tracing the various styles that compose the genre is not so difficult. The rhythms of indigenous African and Caribbean culture combined with classical European song and melodic structure, played with the emotion of sacred music found in slave states in southern America and the French colony in Saint Domingue. Thomas Fiehrer says that “The prosopography of early jazz reveals at its core a tight-knit Creole establishment of classical orientation, descended from the ancienne population, at least two dozen performers of Caribbean and Mexican origins, and a small but influential contingent of Sicilians.” (Collier, 1995) These various ethnic components all seem to converge in New Orleans, which served as a geographical intersection point where the elements of English, Spanish, and French society came into contact to form a distinctive Creole culture.

Many popular African-American artists from New Orleans were raised within this subculture of America that valued artisanship and musicianship highly and were fortunate enough to grow up in a location where it was possible to be taught musical techniques that many other African-Americans living in other states did not have access to because of prejudice. James Collier stated the musicians “had been born in the ragtime era before jazz existed, but were playing the jazz as it was developing out of what had gone before.” (Collier, 1995) By providing an environment that fostered cultural expression and exchange, New Orleans directly contributed to the development of jazz. Many musicians throughout history have been credited as being the creators of jazz. Joe “King” Oliver, pioneer cornet player and mentor to Louis Armstrong, is one of the individuals who can justly lay claim to being the king of jazz, his solo stylings and innovative techniques shaped the diverse genre and established it as American music.

storyville new orleans

The red light district of New Orleans (known as “Storyville” at the time) offered many venues for White and African-American performers to come together, and the clientele associated with many of the clubs were very diverse for the time. Joe Oliver played in various sites across New Orleans and amassed a large fan base of various ethnicities; he is also credited as being one of the first artists to employ the technique of muting an instrument to achieve a different sound. Oliver used plungers, hats, bottles, and various other instruments to alter his horns sound. Muting instruments would soon become a trademark sound of the genre and commonplace amongst jazz performers. What truly sets Oliver apart are his solos, which are advanced beyond their time and are more indicative of what future jazz players would play, as indicated here, where the seemingly free stylings of his solo are evident.

The rise of Jim Crow legislation and the legal persecution of many African-American performers within the area (Joe Oliver included) ultimately culminated with Storyville being closed in 1917. Following the district’s closing, Joe Oliver and many other jazz musicians migrated to Chicago. While in Chicago Oliver started his second band, King Oliver and his Creole Jazz Band, which included his ward Louis Armstrong. Oliver’s influence upon Armstrong is evident when hearing the two play alongside one another, the solos follow similar patterns and both use complex rhythms that are seemingly signature of their styles. Being that Louis Armstrong is considered to be one of the most influential jazz players in history, by association much credit should also be given to Joe Oliver. A medical condition known as periodontitis would handicap him later in life and hinder his ability to perform. The disorder coupled with his being taken advantage of by his management ultimately affect his legacy, if not for these unfortunate circumstances Joe “King” Oliver would be regarded as such by more individuals.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Jonathon Roberts April 30, 2015 at 11:43 pm

My wife’s family is from New Orleans and I have had the opportunity to witness the jazz culture (that is still very strong and alive) first hand. Everywhere we walk, in the French Quarter particularly, jazz is heard and being played. Usually, it is a two or three person band using both your typical jazz instruments, but also random things you would find lying around in your house. The energy on the streets is exciting. It is hard to believe that this musical ecstasy produced by musicians like Joe Oliver was once limited by the oppression of African American musicians in the early 20th century. Joe Oliver does deserve more credit in the jazz world, and this article proposes just that.

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Brooke Eichenlaub April 30, 2015 at 8:19 pm

Nice job explaining some of the origins of jazz; it was very comprehensive and easy to read. I didn’t really know much about Joe Oliver before this article, and I certainly didn’t know how much influence he had on Louis Armstrong. I like how you incorporated a hyperlink to demonstrate their similarities. I maybe could have used a few other hyperlinks to explain some of your references, but great job!

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Miles Brown April 30, 2015 at 4:44 pm

Comment: It’s tragic how great artist of the past are denied their right to legacy due to the selfish actions done unto them by the people controlling their music. Listening to Oliver, it is strikingly obvious to me that louis Armstrong payed homage to him every time he picked up a horn. I also admire his creativity in manipulation sound. Using plungers to mute and warp his horn sound, similarly to how modern instruments, foremost example synthesizers, warp sine waves through ASDR envelope manipulation. He was a man ahead of his time.

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