They don’t know exactly where he was born;
it was either New Orleans or a plantation
outside of town. His date of birth is a
shifting signpost as well. It could have been
1885, or earlier, or later. Jazzmen would move
the date up so people wouldn’t think they were
moldy old figs, or move it back to show that
that they were there at the beginning, in the
Garden of Eden, when jazz was created.
He lost his left eye when he still in his teens,
in a fight. He started on trombone, switched
to cornet, and soon you could hear him shaking
the blackberry leaves as he played in funeral
parades. By the time he was fifteen he was
touring in a brass band, but he was known
in the cabarets as well. That’s where he came
to be called “King” Oliver, after he cut
Freddie Keppard one night in Storyville.
He lit out for Chicago, then California,
then back to Chicago when his gold rush
to the coast didn’t pan out. He formed
the Creole Jazz Band to play in a swank
ballroom with a crystal ball on the ceiling.
In the spotlight, he wanted to do it right.
He assembled a tight band of New Orleans
natives, but he felt there was still something
missing. He wired home for Louis Armstrong.
His former apprentice joined the band and,
as if by telepathy, they played in unison, long
cornet lines, seemingly improvised on the spot.
They had a system, Louis said, he and Papa Joe,
but they never wrote out their duet breaks. They
didn’t have to, they were so wrapped up together.
It wasn’t long before apprentice surpassed his master,
and went out on his own. Papa Joe started the
Dixie Syncopators, and began to play arrangements–
the duets by osmosis came to an end. Joe Oliver
still wore the crown, but his kingdom had been
usurped. His teeth, essential to his embouchure,
started to go; after a while he couldn’t play at all.
He moved to Savannah, where he worked as the
janitor in a pool room and at a fruit stand. He was
the real King of Jazz, not the white man Whiteman,
but he was now a pauper. One day Louis passed
through town with his orchestra and saw his mentor.
“No tears,” Louis said, “just glad to see us.” Louis
gave him $150 he had in his pocket; the others—Joe’s
former employees—chipped in what they could.
That night, playing a dance, Louis looked over in the
wings and there was Papa Joe, looking sharper now,
not like a pool hall janitor pushing a broom in his
shirtsleeves. Louis left town with his band and
later heard that Joe ended up cleaning out cuspidors.
When he died they thought it was a heart attack, but not
Louis, who said the King died of a broken heart.