One night in 1923, King Oliver and his Creole Jazz Band, whose classic recordings are now heard in an essential two-CD reissue package, were in the middle of a late set at the Lincoln Gardens dance hall in Chicago. The band, which by then featured Oliver's young protégé, Louis Armstrong, had recently arrived from New Orleans and was halfway through one of its specialty numbers, "Dipper Mouth Blues," when one member was set to jump in and play a break. Unfortunately, the player, whoever it was, got flustered and missed his cue. But Bill Johnson, the band's resourceful bassist, was quick on his feet, and when he realized that one of the horns was missing his break, he quickly yelled out "Oh play that thing!"
That story is perhaps apocryphal — my father heard it in New Orleans in the 1950s and he knew many musicians who went back to Oliver's time — but it's worth telling just the same. The band members liked the idea of Johnson's vocal interjection, and when they were given the opportunity to record "Dipper Mouth Blues," they kept it in, as a permanent part of the arrangement. The phrase "Oh Play That Thing" quickly became a rallying cry for the new music from New Orleans; when bands around Chicago — then the country, then the world — played "Dipper Mouth Blues" in imitation of Oliver, they included the "Play That Thing" line. So did Fletcher Henderson and Oliver himself when they expanded the number to big-band proportions. When contemporary revival bands, like the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and Vince Giordano's Nighthawks, play the song, the entire ensemble chants "Oh Play That Thing" in unison.
In the Spring of 1923, listeners, dancers, and especially musicians of every stripe gathered nightly at the Lincoln Gardens to hear King Oliver play that thing. These included starry-eyed young kids smitten with jazz as well as experienced journeymen from the famous dance orchestras, black and white, native Chicagoans and other transplanted Southerners. Most were hearing authentic, hard-core New Orleans jazz for the first time, and it was a revelation. As Oliver's pianist, Lil Hardin (later Mrs. Armstrong), later recalled, "a bunch of white musicians, 10, 15, sometimes 20, would come in, they used to talk to King Oliver and Louis and [clarinetist] Johnny [Dodds] and they would listen so intently."
Eighty-five years after they first convened in the Lincoln Gardens, it is unanimously agreed that the Creole Jazz Band represented the first great flowering of New Orleans jazz, and the recordings it made are the definitive document of what the music sounded like at its apogee before Armstrong, who was already beginning to supersede his mentor as the king of the trumpet, pushed it in another direction. For most of the history of the music, the standard line about Joseph Oliver and the CJB has been that they were among the most important ensembles in all of jazz, but that the acoustic recordings they made were so poorly produced that it's impossible to get an idea of what the group actually sounded like and thus gage why it wielded such an overwhelming influence.
The new reissue, "King Oliver: Off the Record: The Complete 1923 Jazz Band Recordings" (Archeophone Records) shows that statement to be only half true: The Creole Jazz Band is one of the great groups of its time or any other, and its recordings, which are far better than has generally been believed for the last eight decades, prove it. As the reissue's producers, David Sager and Doug Benson, demonstrate, it wasn't the original recordings that were at fault but the way the were reproduced over the generations.
Messrs. Sager and Benson functioned less like engineers and more like detectives: The most important step was to track down the best possible pressings of the original Gennett, Okeh, Columbia, and Paramount 78s — which was no piece of cake since in several cases (including the legendary "Zulus Ball") only one copy is known to exist. The aim was to capture an optimum playing of the best-condition discs with the proper stylus and pitch them at the optimum speed (without altering the actual sonic or musical character of the performances.
Even though I've listened to these recordings hundreds of times on various LPs and CDs, hearing the Creole Jazz Band in all its glory is like an entirely new experience. You can hear Oliver and his musicians plowing through the blues, marches, ragtime, and the other source materials that went into the creation of jazz; you can't miss the unbelievable drive and the amazing unity that the band displayed, as on the end of "Sobbin' Blues," in which musicians go into a ritard together and seem to be crying in unison.
You can also hear the interplay between "Little Louis" and "Papa Joe," as the two cornetists called each other. As Lil Hardin Armstrong recalled, "King Oliver told me one night that Louis could play better than he could. ‘But as long as I got him with me, he won't be able to get ahead of me, I'll still be the King.'" It was a prescient observation on the part of Oliver, who was a marvelous lead trumpeter and very strong on the blues and "freak" or novelty effects, though hardly the genius that Armstrong soon became. Armstrong solos for the first time on "Chimes Blues," in which the piano and the percussion to simulate a chiming clock, and on the vigorous, ragtimey "Buddy's Habit," he solos on the slide whistle. In both cases he sounds almost fully formed, even at that age and even on that ungainly apparatus.
In a very real way, the collaboration of King Oliver and Louis Armstrong in Chicago in 1923 had a lot in common with the meeting of Van Gogh and Gauguin in Arles, 35 years earlier: two guys in Chicago pick up their horns and blast a few notes into the air. Then, when the dust clears, they look around and see that the entire world has changed.