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King Oliver in the Groove(s)

King Oliver in the Groove(s)


Nat Hentoff

Updated July 25, 2007 11:59 pm ET

When I was in my teens, reading about the storied sites of early jazz, I envied the Chicagoans of the 1920s who were hip enough to spend nights at the Lincoln Gardens café where King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band was in residence, recently joined by Oliver's young New Orleans protégé, Louis Armstrong. But the few recordings I could find sounded as if time had worn the music down and dim, including the clicks and scratches of those used early discs.

Now, however, in a remarkable feat of sound restoration, 'King Oliver/Off the Record: The Complete 1923 Jazz Band Re-Recordings' (, also at makes it very clear to me why among the regulars in the audience back then were the young white jazz apprentices who -- according to Lil Hardin (the pianist in the band) -- thronged to hear King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band whenever they played in Chicago:

"They'd line up 10 deep in front of the stand -- Muggsy Spanier, Dave Tough, George Wettling -- listening intently. Then they'd talk to Joe Oliver and Louis." (Also among them were Eddie Condon and 14-year-old Benny Goodman.)

Drummer George Wettling described the excitement in the club in "Hear Me Talkin' to Ya, Dover, " a book published in 1955 that I co-edited with Nat Shapiro: "Joe would stand there, fingering his horn with his right hand and working his mute with his left, and how they would rock the place! Unless you were lucky enough [to be there], you can't imagine what swing they got. "

Now we can. David Sager (a recorded sound technician at the Library of Congress) and Doug Benson (a teacher and recording engineer at Montgomery College in Rockville, Md.) created their Off the Record label last year to bring King Oliver's Creole Band back to life. Working on rare original recordings supplied by collectors, Mr. Benson, writes his partner, "began to capture onto the digital domain clean, smooth transfers of the discs, using a wide array of styli. " The actual music was deep in the original grooves -- though until now poorly reissued and reproduced. The 1923 sounds had to be excavated.

While there were distinctive soloists in the band -- clarinetist Johnny Dodds, trombonist Honore Dutrey and, of course, the leader and the newcomer from New Orleans who would eventually swing the world -- this was essentially a dance band.

In his exceptionally instructive notes, Mr. Sager explains: "That the Oliver band's sound was replete with marvelous invention, and a superior 'hot' sound, was the added premium. The principle, however, was rhythm. "

Joe Oliver never had to announce the next number. As trombonist Preston Jackson recalled, "He would play two or three bars, stomp twice, and everybody would start playing, sharing with the dancers the good time they were having. "

"After they would knock everybody out with about forty minutes of 'High Society,'" Wettling said, "Joe would look down at me, wink, and then say, 'Hotter than a forty-five.'"

Years later, I would hear from musicians who had been at the Lincoln Gardens about the always startling, simultaneous "hot breaks" Armstrong and Oliver played. (A "break"" is when the rhythm section stops and one or more horns electrify the audience for a couple of measures.)

Among the 37 numbers in the two-disc set, these legendary "breaks" can be heard on "Snake Rag, " "Weatherbird Rags, " "The Southern Stomps, " and "I Ain't Gonna Tell Nobody. "

Energized by joining the players and dancers at Lincoln Gardens, I remembered a night long ago at Preservation Hall in New Orleans where, in another "hot" dance band, trombonist Jim Robinson lifted me into joy. What Oliver and Armstrong brought from New Orleans to Chicago, and then to the rest of the planet, exemplified how Robinson also felt about his New Orleans birthright: "I enjoy playing for people that are happy. If everyone is in a frisky spirit, the spirit gets into me and I can make my trombone sing. If my music makes people happy, I will try to do more. It gives me a warm heart and that gets into my music. " Oliver and Armstrong felt the same way.

Since the members of King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band were driven by the desire to keep the dancers and themselves happy, hearing them as they were at Lincoln Gardens provides a keener understanding that this music began in the intersecting rhythms of the musicians and the dancers' pleasure.

And in all the different forms jazz has taken since, when it ain't got somewhere that makes-you-want-to-move swing, it may impress some critics with its cutting-edge adventurousness, but it's not likely to make anyone shout -- as King Oliver's banjoist, Bill Johnson, did one night at Lincoln Gardens -- "Oh play that thing! "

In his deeply researched article on King Oliver in the Summer 2007 issue of the invaluable American Legacy: The Magazine of African-American Life and Culture, Peter Gerler notes that after Lincoln Gardens was destroyed in a fire on Christmas Eve, 1924, Joe Oliver brought a new band, the Dixieland Syncopaters, into the Plantation Café, which like Lincoln Gardens "was a 'black-and-tan' club, where crowds of blacks and whites mingled, danced, and enjoyed the music of top black bands. " A Variety review of the new King Oliver band exclaimed: "If you haven't heard Oliver and his boys, you haven't heard real jazz. . . . You dance calmly for a while, trying to fight it, and then you succumb completely. "

Now that Messrs. Sager and Benson have brought us inside the Lincoln Gardens, their coming attractions on their Off the Record label include 1922 recordings by Kid Ory, the New Orleans king of the "tailgate trombone"; long unavailable sessions by Clarence Williams's Blue Five (with Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet); and the classic Bix Beiderbecke sides on the Gennett label. There are more to come.

Messrs. Benson and Sager have been friends since junior high school, where both played in the trombone section of the school band. Mr. Benson also plays bass and piano, and is a composer and arranger. They have now parlayed their lifelong enthusiasm for this music into a permanent sound library of historic jazz performances freshly retrieved from inside the original grooves.

With regard to what's ahead on their label, Mr. Sager says eagerly: "It will be interesting to see what technology enables us to do in the coming years. " I yearn to listen to Bix Beiderbecke directly, so I can hear what Louis Armstrong heard: "You take a man with a pure tone like Bix's and no matter how loud the other fellows may be blowing, that pure tone will cut through it all. "

Mr. Hentoff writes about jazz for the Journal.

The image links to Archephone Records, where you may get your own copy of these re-recordings. You'll want to check out the Bix Beiderbecke release as well. You can hear samples, but Bix can't be purchased from Archephone anymore. Sometimes you find a copy on the used market.

When Jazz was Cool
And Beetles were Bugs


When Jazz was Cool
And Beetles were Bugs

Hear me talking to you

This student in his 1950s era dorm room, may have listened to jazz, as did many college students, but he was probably completely unaware of the effect jazz was having on the other side of the Iron Curtain, in Poland, as described at the above link.

In the muffled Wayback of the 1950s, jazz was the essence of college cool. More than a musical choice, it was a root-soil of personal identity. Jazz was the only original American art form, its adherents believed, and its social residues enriched literature, television and personal attitude. It signaled the sublime worldview of the not-quite-adult soul, coloring spirituality, morality, and intellectual development. The jazz social constructs of beatniks, rebels and nonconformist alienation were perfectly tuned to the nearly-blossomed mind during the cold-war heuristics.
Hard to believe now, but in 1960 jazz was the essence of college chic, and by extension, every-man chic. In those days-long-since, idyllic in memory, jazz was the college-sapient’s caduceus, as unknown to post-Vietnam pupilage as spats. The student cognoscenti of the 50s biased toward saxophone and trumpet, the way youth now worship the guitar. Furthermore, there were intricate variations of status and personal taste, similar to those that now attach to the nuances of our many contemporary subcultures.

Charlie Parker biography.

Dizzy Gillespie biography.

There were strict social divisions along the fault lines of the great jazz schism: BBD and ABD, before and after Bird and Diz. Bird, of course, was Charlie Parker, saxophonist phantasmal, who discovered, within the twelve-tone chromatic scale, unlimited harmonic routes to any desired key-change, thereby freeing improvisation from its European rules. Diz was John “Dizzy” Gillespie, musical prodigy, brainy intellectual, and consummate showman, the Robert Oppenheimer of jazz, who, taking the traditional mantle of trumpet virtuoso from Roy Eldridge, exploded into harmonic complexities seldom dreamed, and never equaled. Every subsequent saxophone player has played Bird. The trumpet players dabble with Miles and play mostly Bird, because no one can play Diz. Together Bird and Diz invented bebop, the Cro-Magnon of modern jazz. All after was ABD.

Buddy Bolden Biography by National Park Service

Link to the Miles Davis Official Site

Before the harmonic innovations of the 1940s, jazz had evolved as a polyphonic, think Mozart and Bach, melody-conscious music. It started sometime in the early twentieth century, by conventional reckoning in New Orleans. It was the invention of African American musicians, who combined traditional rhythmic improvisations and European instruments. Open-air concerts, street parades, and sporting houses were its populous front, and the powerful trumpet was its archon basileus. Royalty traces back to the first remembered jazz trumpeter, King Buddy Bolden, who helped pioneer syncopation from the standard marching rhythm. The crown was claimed by many, but truly belonged only to trumpet players. Freddie Keppard came next, then Joe Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Roy Eldridge, Diz, and, in some tellings, Miles Davis, who may or may not have been the last trumpet king.

Link to the Duke Ellington Official Site

If Buddy Bolden recorded, it would have been on early Edison technology, in New Orleans. Here's a link to the National Park Serive at Edison's Museum.

Jazz comes to us mainly as a recorded music, although composers and notational transcriptions do exist. Most of the pioneers were recorded. One notable exception was long thought to be Buddy Bolden, the man at the very front of the evolution, but now we find recordings might have been made. At least, that’s the rumor. Were Edison cylinders of Buddy Bolden found in a trunk once belonging to a New Orleans Edison salesman? Did the trunk surface in the hands of a career paperboy in a remote New Mexico, mountain village? One thing is certain. Since the man’s death, the recordings have not been seen. Are they stored in a secret underground vault on a nearby Army base, beyond discovery? You can’t make this stuff up.

Jazz aficianados of the 50s knew how to build their own stereo system or at least how to bluff it. Here's a link to a standard resource.

The Boston Globe published the linked obituary for Dave Brubeck

Among the jazz aficionados of the 50s, the mainstream consisted of those who worshipped the New Testament, ABD. These straked off into numerous subcultures depending on the artists favored, their geographical region, and the influences that stimulated them. All the affectations, and manufactured irony of the knowledgeable young, found expression in the myriad tonal flavorings. As with all cultural constructs, paradoxes were the sign of true devotion. It was possible for a young man in 1960 to disparage the piano playing of Dave Brubeck as “the polite plinking of a parlor musician,” behind the improvisations of his stellar saxophonist, while never missing one of his albums, especially “Take Five.”

Even a young man proud of his Garrard turntable, twelve inch

This link to Stereo Review will tell you how to balance your system.

Saxophonist Lester Young was called the President, or Prez, and he called singer Billie Holiday, Lady Day. Prez was inspiration to the Allen Ginsberg and his beat generation.

speakers, and ten-tube amplifier, might, in a secret moment, eschew his Yardbird Suite for a moment with Armstrong's Wild Man Blues. Once, when the campus radio station played a Hot Five number by decidedly BBD Armstrong, the abashed DJ spent the next half hour justifying his selection to those calling in to punish his apostasy. He recovered by playing some Duke Ellington, a name synonymous with "jazz composer," and one of the few jazzfolk welcomed by all congregations.

The truly cool on campus had a relationship to stereo technology similar to that of the less cool with cars. Some built hot rods, although that practice was becoming passé by 1960. Others built, or at least wired together, stereo components, assembling speakers, amplifiers, turntables, tuners and such with the care of a physicist building a cyclotron. Everyone, even the uncool, had to have a passing ability to bluff through a conversation about sound equipment. Woe be unto the novice who couldn't get the verb "drives" in proper sequence with the nouns, "amplifier" and "speakers." Countless cynical eyebrows arched over that gaff.

Frank Teschemacher was a clarinetist with the Austin High Gang, one of the seminal jazz movements from Chicago, described at the above link.

This picture of Kid Ory links to a history of traditional jazz from Tulane University.

Although the ABD congregations claimed the "cool" mantle, they were not alone. You can't have cool without the uncool, and there were plenty of admirers of BBD jazz. You could spot them by their dispositions. There were the somber-faced young men who reveled in the history of New Orleans jazz, collecting hard-to-get recordings of early heroes like Johnny Dodds, Kid Ory, Joe Oliver, and, of course, the commercially successful Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, and others. Then there were the bright-faced extroverts who loved Chicago jazz, as defined by the Austin High Gang, Bud Freeman, Eddie Condon, Frank Teschemacher, Benny Goodman, Bix Beiderbecke and the boys. There were even unabashed enthusiasts for Dixie Land jazz, Bob Crosby, Dukes of Dixieland, Pete Fountain and their imitators. Although the term today has become synonymous with all BBD music, at the time it was reserved for popular, vaudevillian syncopation, and its adherents were so clueless they didn't even know where the cool table was.

Joe "King" Oliver led the most influential band in early jazz history. When King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band played at the Lincoln Gardens Café future icons of jazz thronged around the bandstand and learned their future trade. The picture (l-r: Baby Dodds, Honoré Dutrey, King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Bill Johnson, Johnny Dodds, Lil Hardin) links to a recent description by Nat Hentoff of remastered recordings of the band's 1923 recording session. We will never get closer to the original sound than these magnificent auditory excavations.


This picture links to Steven A. Cerra's blog giving us the lowdown.

Learn about Kane's famous photo and identify the particpants at the above link (now via the Wayback Machine Archive). Also see Willie The Lion Smith, who was "resting" nearby during the famous shot.

An event now iconic occurred in 1958 Harlem when Art Kane collected 57 (would have been more, but there was a neighborhood bar nearby) jazz muscians for a photograph. Much has been written about it, and another book was published in November 2018. The website, Empty Kingdom, linked through the picture at left via the Wayback Machine (be patient), gives the outlines of the story, plus some outtake pictures. Several notables are missing (Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, for example) but many are there. That's Dizzy Gillespie sticking out his tongue, and Count Basie sitting on the curb. The full list and photo ID is on the web site. Surviving saxophonist Benny Golson was there and tells us about the event in a linked interview, below, and on his website, also linked below. Benny tells us how Willie the Lion Smith happened to be out of the frame when the shutter clicked.

Above is a link to Steven A. Cerra's blog, which also features a post about the picture, along with years of heavy thinking, and devout attitude about American Jazz. Steven doesn't look old enough to have enjoyed the 50s Jazz ambience, but he ably fans its breezes.

This picture of Benny Golson links to an interview on the Harlem pictures.

This picture of Art Kane links to The Vinyl Factory article on his famous picture.

Benny Golson's picture links to his web site.

Picture links to The Guardian account.

This picture of Allen Ginsberg in Paris is linked to a blog about him and Young. It hints at a version of the famous "kneeling" story about their meeting.

The picture is the cover of Allen Ginsberg's history of himself, but the link is to a Ginsberg oriented blog featuring a post on Lester Young.

American intellectuals loved jazz, or at least the idea of it. The popular manifestation of intellectualism in the era, the Beat Generation (think Ginsberg, Kerouac, Ferlinghetti, San Francisco coffee houses, berets, and goatees) worshipped jazz musicians. By 1960 beats were all ABD of course, but a decade earlier, it's important to remember, they could be iconoclasitc with Benny Goodman's "Sing, Sing, Sing." The most idolized of the 1950s musicians became Lester Young, whose improvisational number, "Lester Leaps In," inspired an ethereal response from Ginsberg and his friends. An apocryphal sounding story involves a pilgrimage by Ginsberg shortly before Lester Young's death in 1957. Ginsberg, so the story goes, swept into the great man's presence, fell to his knees, and began reciting poetry about this-or-that aspect of life's great mysteries. Mr. Young, flumoxed for a moment, finally inquired, "Hey man, what are you doing on your knees?" The answer has not come down to us.

At this point you might be eager to hear "Lester Leaps In," the defining Lester Young recording.

Everyone expects the trajectory of their youth to continue. We expect the weather tomorrow to be the same as today. Of course, it always is until it isn't. Then we wonder if it ever was. The 50s echoed all the way to 1964, then they vanished. They've not been seen since, except as on-stage caricatures, and slap-stick literature. What was all that about? Another answer that has not come down to us.

What a time. What a time that was.

What does Cool even mean? Here's an answer from "Humanities," the magazine of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Some music links.


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