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Jim Cullum Jazz Band, William Warfield Celebrate King Oliver This Week on Riverwalk Jazz

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This week's Riverwalk Jazz broadcast is an encore presentation featuring theater legend William Warfield (at right). In a performance recorded in 1992, Mr. Warfield brings Joe “King" Oliver's rich correspondence to life.. Also,The Jim Cullum Jazz Band joins forces with two long-time leaders of traditional jazz—Bay Area cornetist Leon Oakley and Chicago historian and tuba player Mike Walbridge—to celebrate the legacy of Oliver's recorded work as a composer and ground-breaking bandleader.

The program is distributed in the US by Public Radio International, on Sirius/XM satellite radio and can be streamed on-demand from the Riverwalk Jazz website.

Big Joe Oliver looked good fronting his band at Chicago's Lincoln Gardens with “little Louis" Armstrong at his side. Oliver wore a derby hat tilted over one eye and a bright red undershirt sticking out of his open collar. After playing a marathon hot blues for over a thousand dancers on the floor of the South Side's largest ballroom, it's said Joe would mutter, “Hotter than a forty-five!"

His parents said he was “slow to learn music," and Bunk Johnson told people that Joe Oliver was “a poor cornet player for a long time." He was sent home from his first job with the Eagle Brass Band for playing “so loud and so bad." But when he finally got the hang of playing cornet, Joe Oliver got about as good as anybody ever did.

When he crossed Canal Street from his home turf in the Garden district and joined the Onward Brass Band, he became the reigning King of New Orleans jazz, beating out Freddie Keppard and Manuel Perez in horn-to-horn combat. According to bassist Pops Foster, by 1905 Joe Oliver had a date book that was “thicker than a Bible."

Musically, Oliver came into his own in New Orleans, but, led by his good business sense and a powerful vision of the kind of band he wanted to lead, he knew that Chicago was the place for him to be. In 1918 he moved north.

Oliver was a prolific letter-writer. Many of his letters, sent to friends, family and business associates, have survived. The letters chronicle Oliver's tragic career path—from tremendous success in early 1920s Chicago to obscurity, poverty and declining health a decade later.

Oliver's great contribution to jazz is his assemblage and leadership of the greatest band that ever played in the New Orleans tradition of the improvising jazz ensemble. The resulting synergy—captured in 1923 on such classic recordings as “Dippermouth Blues" and “Camp Meeting Blues"—has never been equaled.

Jim Cullum Jr., a life-long Oliver fan and disciple says, “The music itself is really simple folk music. It's not in any way complicated. It was what Oliver and his band did with the tunes that were great. Louis Armstrong said 'no one else had the fire that Joe Oliver had.'"

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