A Prince Remembers King Oliver in Exile

lib.mg exclusive feature
Shawn Chandler Bingham {Tampa, Florida}

"If you haven't heard Oliver and his boys you haven't heard real jazz. It is loud, wailing and pulsating. You dance calmly for a while, trying to fight it, and then you succumb completely, as King makes his trumpet talk personally to you – and the trumpet usually doesn't say nice things. Hip dancing is carried out wholesaledly between the customers. Native jazz has no conscience."
- Variety (Review from the 1920s)

King Oliver's story reads as if Shakespeare was dared to come back and write a jazz tragedy. There is the high note of ushering the New Orleans sound into Chicago. Plenty of lows, which included burning the tires of the band's broken down bus to keep warm. Then there's the ironic – the inventor of the trumpet mute goes musically mute himself. The tale is a reminder that sometimes innovators finish forgotten: the man who mentored Louis Armstrong died relatively unknown, stranded in Savannah and unable to play because his teeth had rotted out of his mouth. Except for the most schooled jazz aficionados, Oliver's story is mostly unknown, even in Savannah, which has as many armchair historians as it does ghost stories. In his last year while working as a fruit stand attendant and pool hall janitor, Oliver blended into the scenery as a nameless face of Savannah's Jim Crow era. But over the last several years the collective memory of the city has been jogged by a salt-of-the-earth 73 year-old Jewish college professor with the eclectic name of Boo Hornstein.

"It's quizzical that this man who left such a legacy could be buried in a graveyard with no tombstone. It is sad beyond words," Boo tells me, as we sit in his office. "When I came across his story it struck me so. It became a part of me, percolating for about 50 years. That led to efforts to leave some kind of mark or memorial to King Oliver." On his shelves, texts about group therapy intermingle with jazz history books. And the name rolls off his Coastal southern tongue as "Ah-luv-ah."

I didn't try to fake it when I first met Boo. "I think I actually fast forwarded through the part on King Oliver when I watched Ken Burns' Jazz [documentary]," I said, expecting him to flash me the jazz snob glare. But Boo is no jazz snob. Even after authoring a book on the jazz history of Savannah, he answers most of my questions with "deference to people who make a living outta writin' about this stuff...." Under the slouchy shuffle and scruffy beard, are the gentle, but mischievous eyes of a much younger man – one who admits he is haunted by his hometown. But he's more elusive when it comes to Oliver's ghost: "I don't think I would go so far to say that I became obsessed, or that the ghost of King Oliver pervaded my life. But I can say that there have been dozens of times when I am walking on West broad street [now Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard] where I can feel caught up in the ambience, and what it was like for this old man to be shuffling down West Broad hearing records being played on juke boxes in bars, these were songs he had written that were stolen from him."

But don't rush into thinking the Oliver saga is as straightforward as the countless stories of unpaid royalties, where whites get rich and blacks get ruined. To Boo, the Oliver tale is a triple dog dare to any modern playwright savvy enough to craft a Southern Shakespearean tragedy out of the wreckage. Think of the material awaiting such a gutsy writer: Oliver occupied two worlds. By day he was a butler. At night he was a hard blowing innovator on the cornet in New Orleans' red light district. The scenery certainly had the fingerprints of the Bard all over it: gambling houses spilled over with hot jazz and libations, and white and black brothels represented an early version of integration. When the U.S. Navy finally closed the area down, the mayor quipped, "You can make it illegal, but you can't make it unpopular." The district was called Storeyville for a reason.

And, what's a Southern Shakespearean tale without the coronation of a king? Unlike other American Kings (of Graceland and Neverland fame), Oliver's moniker came impromptu, and before he sold a single record. Pianist Richard Jones once described how Oliver silenced a rival, earning his nickname in the process: "Freddie Keppard was playin' in a spot across the street and was drawin' all the crowds. I was sittin' at the piano, and Joe Oliver came over to me and commanded in a nervous harsh voice, 'Get in B-flat.' He didn't even mention a tune ... Joe walked out on the sidewalk, lifted his horn to his lips, and blew the most beautiful stuff I have ever heard. People started pouring out of the other spots along the street to see who was blowing all that horn ... Joe came in smiling, and he said, 'Now, that bastard won't bother me no more.' From then on, our place was full every night."

There is even a Hamlet-esque father-son relationship to work with. After migrating to Chicago's exploding Southside jazz scene, Oliver summoned his New Orleans protégé, who would expand the kingdom of jazz to nearly every continent. In 1922 Louis Armstrong opened a telegram in New Orleans inviting him to play second cornet in the King Oliver Creole Jazz Band. He referred to Oliver as "Papa Joe," and later wrote 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. He was a creator in his own right." And Oliver never resented watching Armstrong spread his wings. In the final year of his life Oliver told promoter Frank Dilworth that, "he had such an affection for Louis he wished in some way that he could have been his real son."

Of course, the Bard would approve of a little of the supernatural, too. Oliver was blind in one eye, but his sidemen would claim he had two mouths. The composer of the tune "WaWaWa," used almost anything – plungers, cups, kazoos, hats and buckets – to make his cornet "talk." In the process he allegedly blew his instrument to pieces every few months. But Oliver wasn't just a solo innovator whose late night experiments involved shoving household items up the bell of a cornet. No musician (nicknamed Cyclops by some of the bandmates) would be complete without some transcendental foresight.

"He had a vision for a larger sound he wanted to make, and he did it using an integrated ensemble. I think his musicians enjoyed that they could play the ensemble music more effectively," Boo explains. "He presaged the swing big band era. The King Oliver bands were schooled nicely in the whole concept of presenting a song." You might even say Oliver was hooked on polyphonics. No long line of musicians waiting for their own solo break – the Creole Jazz Band wove textures of independent melodies using collective improv.

And the effect was supernatural, too. Jazz guitarist Eddie Condon described the Creole Band as "hypnosis at first hearing. Everyone was playing what he wanted to play and it was all mixed together as if someone had planned it with a set of micrometer calipers. Notes I had never heard were peeling off the edges and dropping through the middle; there was a tone from the trumpets like warm rain on a cold day."

The King Oliver Creole Jazz Band's recordings (Gennett, Okeh, Paramount and Columbia labels) pioneered new territory for jazz, African Americans, and the New Orleans sound. Later on down the line musicians such as Benny Goodman, and almost every Dixieland band that ever existed, would cover their tunes.

Hard Times

Mix in some band tension and a little foreshadowing and you've got the second and third act – or the beginning of the end. Several musicians left the band in February of 1924 over disagreements with Oliver about money. Some months later, after marrying Lil Hardin, the band's piano player, Louis Armstrong finally left his mentor to join the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra. Two nightclub fires later, Oliver found himself leading the Dixie Syncopators. They would ride Oliver's "Snag it," "Sugarfoot Stomp," and "West End Blues" to recording success between 1926 and 1928. (Louis Armstrong would bring these compositions to an even wider audience.) The tragic irony of the Syncopator name was twofold. Sometimes they recorded as the "Savannah Syncopators," which seems an omen of where Oliver would play out the last days of his life. And, despite their syncopation on stage, Oliver's professional timing from then on was dreadful. During a Midwest tour the band got stranded in St. Louis. Low on funds, Oliver sent them on the cheapest (and slowest) train to New York. But after a two week successful showing at the Savoy, Oliver demanded more money. Then he famously turned down a permanent gig at the Cotton Club, believing that the pay was too low. Duke Ellington later took the position. But Oliver's collapse wasn't as simple as being another cocky entertainer who fancied himself a genius. In reality, his Achilles' heel was a far cry from the vices of America's other musical Kings – Presley' drugs, or Jackson's "over-friendliness" with minors. Oliver's cardinal sin was washing down the bitter pill of life with something sweet, literally. "You can look at some of the others on the scene and see that their lives were eaten up with drugs or chasing women. King Oliver liked sweets and ice cream. That was his fix," Boo explains to me. Known as much in playing circles for his physical stature as his musical stature, Oliver had a notorious sweet tooth. And his fix came in many forms. There's the account of Oliver winning a bet by eating a dozen pies in one sitting. Or his routine meal of sugar sandwiches. He even drank from a bucket of sugar water between sets. Problems with his gums and teeth began as early as the mid-1920s.

By this time Oliver's musical bite was also fading. Younger players were bringing the more sophisticated style of swing and big band to the jazz scene. "As Louis Armstrong's star was rising, Oliver's was falling. I think he knew that," Boo says, motioning his wrinkled hands in opposite directions. "He was caught on the way down, not just in terms of physical health, but in movement, because his jazz was corny by the 1930s. By then you had Benny Goodman, Woody Herman, the Dorsey Brothers and all these big swing bands coming along. Oliver's jazz became old fashioned, not sophisticated. Not where it was at."

And if this were a play, we wouldn't need a Shakespearean ghost or dream to give Oliver that insight. He pretty much saw it from the wings of the stage in 1928, when he went to see Louis Armstrong perform at the Savoy. "He stood there listening, with the tears coming right out of his eyes. It knocked me out," Armstrong recounted. The Syncopators' time was up that same year. By 1931 Oliver's mouth was in such bad shape that recording ended for good. What followed was a series of tours under several names, most notably as King Oliver's Orchestra. These were Oliver bands, but in title mostly. He spent less and less time on stage. Several stretches took them throughout the South, where they played in stops like Paducah and St. Petersburg. But the tours were more Keystone Cops than keynote band. The shoddy buses Oliver bought burned several times. In Portsmouth, Ohio, two members of the band barely escaped. Later, there were bus wrecks, broken fan belts, and flat tires. When they couldn't scrape together cash for lodging or food, the bus was seized by local creditors. Broken instruments, infighting and even horrible sunburn, created more friction. Paul Barnes, Oliver's sax player for some of these tours, recalled, "I will never forget that moment when I quit the band because things were just going too bad. King was so sad, he had tears in his eyes."

Musician Pete Jones had a more romantic view: "We were in Nashville when they closed the banks, and we were paid off in scrip. You could eat with it, and that was about all ... we were so broke sometimes, we didn't have but one cigarette for the whole band, and the last guy to take drag couldn't hold it ... it would burn his hand. But that was brotherly, we loved each other." But when the Depression reached Oliver's Chicago bank it got worse – his entire life savings vanished.

Savannah Days

Perhaps the most tragic part of the tale is that the king of improvisation would soon be trapped, unable to wriggle himself back out onto the road. Oliver eventually found his bus and his body broken down in Spartanburg in 1937. Members of the band left him to fend for himself. He put in a desperate call to music promoter Frank Dilworth, jr., who drove up from Savannah in his Pace Arrow to retrieve Oliver. "I knew that he had a name, and brought him to Savannah as much as anything else to play with locals in one of my bands," Dilworth recounted during an interview for the Saturday Review. Some 30 years later Dilworth told Boo, "I knew that he was in terrible physical condition with high blood pressure, and I found him a doctor to treat him and a place to stay which I shortly moved him out of because it just wasn't befitting for a man of his importance.... I did my best to look after him."

But without teeth, playing with any of the locals wasn't an option. Tragically, Oliver went from bandstand to fruit stand. He half-joked with friends that he was "the world's greatest cornet player and world's greatest greens seller." These worlds collided when Armstrong ran into King Oliver in front of the Savannah Pharmacy. Boo explained: "The story is Louis Armstrong and his sidemen were so distraught to see Oliver in that condition that they reached in their pockets and gave them all the money they had. Louis didn't want to think of this encounter. He preferred to remember King Oliver dressed in a Stetson hat, and a suit."

"I gave him about $150 I had in my pocket," Armstrong recalled for a Life magazine interview in 1966. "And that night we played a dance, and we look over and there's Joe standing in the wings. He was sharp like the Joe of 1915. He'd been to the pawnshop and gotten his fronts all back; you know his suits and all ... He looked beautiful."

But Oliver's upbeat spirit, once called "savage energy" pouring from his cornet into a "fearless joy of living," was dwindling. A letter about his music royalties seemed to kick him while he was down: "I'm almost ashamed to tell you that we've gone over the books and all that's coming to you is one half-cent." A half-cent postage stamp was attached as payment. Oliver eventually landed a job as a janitor at a pool hall, which would be his last gig. His last "recordings" were letters written to his sister in New York. His voice teeters between hopeful and realistic:

Dear Sister ... I am feeling pretty good, but I just cant get rid of this cough ... I've tried most everything. My heart don't bother me just a little at time. But my breath is short.... I don' think I will ever raise enough money to buy a ticket to New York. ...I always feel like I still got a chance. I still feel like I am going to snap out of this rut ive been in for several years. What make me feel optimistic at times.... Look like every time one door close on me another door open.... Look how many teeth I had taken out and replaced. I got teeth waiting on me at the dentists now. I've started a little dime saving. Got $1.60 in it and wont touch it. I am going to try to save myself a ticket to New York.

Dear Sister, I open the pool rooms at 9am and close at 12 midnite.... Now Vick before I go further with my letter, I am going to tell you something but don't be alarmed. Ive got high blood pressure. Was taking treatments but had to discontinue.... I am unable to take treatments because the cost is $3.00 per treatment and I don't make enough money to continue my treatments ... should anything happen to me will you want my body? Let me know because I won't last forever. Don't think I'm afraid because I wrote what I did. I am trying to live near to the Lord than ever before. So I feel like the good Lord will take care of me. Good night, dear...

Ironically, the train station was just across the street. When I ask Boo why Oliver didn't just put the money Armstrong gave him toward a ticket to New York, he takes a guess: "From the tone of some of the letters you get a feeling he knew it was over and if he went back to New York he'd be a 'has-been.' He was depressed and he was sick. So he took what little solace he could have here."

After not showing up for work, he was found in his boarding room on April 10, 1938. The official cause of death was recorded as a cerebral hemorrhage, but Armstrong always disagreed: "I think it was a broken heart. That's what killed Joe Oliver."

The funeral and burial took place in the Bronx, with Armstrong, Clarence Williams, and W.C. Handy in attendance. There wasn't even a headstone. Oliver's sister spent her own rent money to pay for the body to be transported from Savannah. As we sit in his office, Boo lowers his voice, looks down at the ground and says, "The undertaker that prepared his body said it all when he told Mr. Dilworth, ‘I sent him north in a very cheap box.' He pauses, then looks right at me and says, "That is the story of the King."

"Maybe His Time Has Come"

The last time I was in Savannah, Boo drove us to the corner of Montgomery and Gaston Streets, where an autobody shop now sits in place of Oliver's boarding house. It is the crossroads, literally, for the vastly different paths of a Kingly musician and a prince of Savannah: the year before Oliver died Boo was born in a house that sits several blocks up on Gaston street. He has lived his entire life on that street, and never spent more than a few weeks at a time away from his city. If Savannah was Oliver's hospice, it has been much more hospitable to Boo. Right out the back door of his downtown row house is a playground of Savannah's eclectic tentacles – musical and culinary haunts, and a fair share of eccentrics. And he has indulged in them all as if the city was his own library. Savannah seems to keep Boo young – he even calls it his mistress. (Not that he needs one – he married a native belle, who is as clever and well-read as she is striking.) And as a local mental health professional, the city has even given Boo his fair share of clients. To return the love, Boo has co-founded the Coastal Jazz Association, written a book on his city's jazz history, and advocated for the city's mental health needs. Aside from banging on a big bass drum in a few city parades though, Boo is no musician. I started pushing him to talk about where his sympathy for the Oliver story came from.

"I think Oliver said something like, ‘I am the guy that invented the trumpet mute, but I didn't have enough good sense to make a patent on it, and a lot of cats made a lot of money on tunes that I had written that I just didn't follow through on, and in that way I am my own worst enemies.' I think many of us can take those words and apply them to ourselves – we are our own worst enemies. And in that sense I can flash back on my own life." He's mastered using pauses for effect. "So, King Oliver and I have a certain amount of bondage there."

In his own way, Boo has helped to rewrite the ending of the King Oliver story. "I have to laugh, for 50 years I tried to do something for King Oliver, and nothing got done," he admits. "We didn't do anything much until the Olympics [of 1996 in Atlanta]. At that point we held a King Oliver celebration concert, and brought in terrific musicians. I basically funded it." The musicians included Savannah native sons Ben Riley (a drummer who played with Thelonious Monk) and saxophonist James Moody. More like a disaster of Olympic proportions, the event seemed to follow the story's long line of tragedy. "Nobody came. The auditorium was a third full," Boo explains.

But the seeds were planted for future recognition. Boo convinced the county commission to plant a crepe myrtle on Montgomery street in memory of King Oliver. Then, Boo talked up the Chatham County Commission chairman in hopes of getting land for a park named in Oliver's honor. Designs made it to paper. But soon he got a call from someone telling him that they wanted to use the land for a bus station. He flashes a sarcastic look and tells me, "They said they would still name it after King Oliver, though." No doubt, the caller had no notion of the awful luck Oliver had with buses. A sculpture would have run into the six figure range. So Boo opted for the conspicuous, but more cost-effective. Plans were devised for the creation of a bronze marker imprinted with a record and short narrative of Oliver's legacy. Along with the Coastal Jazz Association, Boo gained the support of Dr. Walter Evans, who now owns property where they wanted to put the marker.

As we walk down what used to be West Broad Street to see the marker, Boo says, "If there is such a thing as King Oliver heaven, this is it." We stand in front of a refurbished brick building that houses a hip Bar-B-Q joint called Blowin' Smoke. It's the kind that serves obscure craft beers and has a fancy courtyard with outdoor lighting that snakes under the canvas covering. Beyond the restaurant and its upstairs loft style apartments, the street formerly known as West Broad dribbles into more rickety storefronts, with years of different peeling paint colors. Looking up at the plaque, with the first glimpse of self-satisfaction he's indulged in, Boo says, "Maybe he came in at the right times for the sake of artistry. It was important to have King Oliver there to pave the way for Louis Armstrong. It sort of sounds biblical." Then just as quickly as the thought came to him, he refocuses, and points out the storefront where Olive last worked in the pool hall.

The tour I am privy to isn't Boo panning himself off as the "King Oliver" expert. In fact, when they finally held a ceremony in 2007 to unveil the plaque, the local newspaper headlines read, "[Wynton] Marsalis Highlights Tribute to King Oliver." Boo would have shied away from the attention, but I was sad to see him mentioned in a mere two lines of the article. Thanks to Boo, the development commission now gets calls from people all over the world interested in visiting the marker.

I half wondered if Boo had grown weary of me picking his brain. Then I remembered reading about his interview of Frank Dilworth, Jr., just months before the booking agent who rescued Oliver died. Before ending his interview, Boo asked Dilworth to sign his 1990 Savannah Jazz Festival poster. Dilworth's inscription could have come from the King Oliver himself. It read: "Keep Jazz Alive."

Boo has helped bring Oliver back to life in Savannah by amplifying the story of the man who invented the mute. Without any musical talent of his own, he has mastered the art of drumming up interest in a musician whom many still don't recognize. That he did it in Savannah, which has a long line of worthy markers yet to be built, speaks to his ability to tell the King Oliver story. Never tired of shining his city in someone's eyes, Boo told me, "Another piece of the King Oliver legacy will unfold.... We have in savannah a fantastic music festival. We are gonna do a tribute to the Kings of New Orleans jazz, and King Oliver will be prominent in that. So, in a sense King Oliver lives ... Maybe his time has come."

Bingham, Shawn Chandler (2012). A Prince Remembers a King Named Oliver in Exile. The Last Generation Of Black People. New York: The Liberator Magazine.
artwork via Frank Driggs Collection

We're a human development centered cooperative, producing in part through the generous and faithful contributions of our North Star members. Choose your membership: Annual ($36), Monthly ($3), ($5), ($10), ($15), ($30), ($70), ($200), ($500), ($1000).