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Who was Louis Armstrong’s mentor?

April 8, 2018

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A paradox of the early years of jazz in New Orleans is that while the local press was repeatedly denouncing the homegrown music, the city’s newspapers were also publishing notices about jazz bands full of black musicians performing before white society audiences. The phenomenon was particularly acute by 1916, the year the word jazz (or “jas,” as it was initially spelled locally) first appeared here in print, in dispatches about events where influential cornet player Joe Oliver is thought to have played.

Oliver is perhaps best remembered today for being the bandleader who summoned protege Louis Armstrong, to Chicago in the summer of 1922, a move that eventually resulted in Armstrong striking out on his own and becoming a recording star. Decades later, Armstrong wrote and spoke of Oliver in reverential terms.

“No one had the fire and the endurance Joe had,” Armstrong wrote in his 1954 autobiography. “No one in jazz has created as much music as he has. That is why they called him ‘King,’ and he deserved the title.”

By mid-September 1916, New Orleans newspapers were running brief stories about dances held at private homes and at an Uptown venue not often associated with jazz history: the old Tulane University gymnasium. There was “a subscription dance for members of the college set” on Walnut Street on Sept. 15. On Halloween, there was a dance at a home on Esplanade Avenue. And there were dances at the Tulane gym in November 1916, in January 1917 and every month or two thereafter well into 1918.

The entertainment at these dances was the Monocle Band, Joe Oliver’s group. It reportedly took its name from one of Oliver’s nicknames, given to him because of a massive scar over his left eye. (Some sources on jazz history have Oliver’s group playing subscription dances at the Tulane gym several years earlier; at the time, newspaper stories about the dances would sometimes spend more effort identifying the committee that planned the events than the musicians who played at them.)

The group was occasionally billed as “the famous Monocle Band” or “Oliver’s Monocle Band,” and the use of its name in print starting in 1916 suggests it had achieved some level of renown. The lineup of the band at these shows is unclear, but Oliver was known to have played with a who’s who of local jazz musicians in this era, including Sidney Bechet, Peter Bocage, Edward “Kid” Ory, Johnny Dodds and Armstrong.

The Monocle Band was a regular on the society pages through May 1918. It was in this year that The Times-Picayune famously editorialized against jazz music, writing that “its musical value is nil, and its possibilities of harm are great.” That was also the year Oliver left New Orleans for Chicago, although the exact timing of his departure is uncertain; presumably it was after May 12, when he and Kid Ory were scheduled to take part in a battle of the bands of sorts in the River Parishes.

Just how many people witnessed that performance is unclear. The remarkable engagement was to be held during a picnic just in St. Rose, an event for members of the Leon Fellman Benevolent Association. The guests at the party took the steamer Sidney from New Orleans to the picnic spot. On board the Sidney was its house orchestra, the so-called Kentucky jazz band, led by Fate Marable, who at some point began using New Orleans musicians including a teenage Armstrong.

Whether Armstrong played the picnic is unclear, but it certainly seems possible; by some accounts, he joined Marable’s group in 1918, and he was also known to play with Ory around this time.

“As an extra treat the association has engaged the services of one the best and most well-known colored bands in the city, the Olliver (sic) and Ory band,” wrote the States on May 5, 1918. “A most interesting program will be given as these two bands -- the Kentucky jazz and the Olliver and Ory -- are going to use their best efforts to gain the most encores from the dancers. The public is asked to take advantage of the opportunity.”

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Information from: The Times-Picayune, http://www.nola.com

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