I’m always grateful for Michael Steinman’s blog, but his coverage of Keith Nichols’ band playing the music of King Oliver’s Dixie Syncopators made me thankful for something other than music or Michael’s camera.
My first experience with King Oliver was through a GRP “Decca” CD purchased at a Sam Goody in Long Island. Up till then the legendary cornetist had been just a name praised in books, so it was pretty exciting (in the days before Amazon) to see “King Oliver” on an actual recording. Yet like any excited, overeager kid, I grabbed the disc without bothering to read past what I was looking for.
Lots of late nights reading bulky jazz history texts taught me that King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band changed the course of jazz. A car ride home to Brooklyn and three lines from Richard Hadlock‘s liner notes informed me that King Oliver’s Dixie Syncopators were organized years after the Creole Jazz Band broke up, around the time that dental problems were really beginning to impact his playing. In other words, this wasn’t peak Oliver or the most important band he led. Since so many people were talking about the earlier band and no one had bothered to tell me about this band, impressionable me concluded I had missed out on something, Repeated listening over several years, right up through the video of Nichols’ group cooking their way through this music, proved me completely and blissfully wrong.
Oliver’s earlier ensemble had already begun to incorporate solos, arranged passages and its own unique rhythm into something different from the bands Oliver played with back in New Orleans. His Syncopators went even further. An amalgam of the NOLA tradition, Oliver’s Chicago innovations and commercial dance music, this tentet looked like a lot of dance bands and even used some stock arrangements, but its texture and strut were a sound a part. Just listen to the saxes on “Deep Henderson,” the booting rhythm of “Wa Wa Wa” or stinging brass flourish that introduces “Too Bad.” There’s a rich, gritty sound to this band, far removed from the earthy transparency of that other Oliver group.
Oliver also gave these sidemen more liberty than the members of the Creole Jazz Band ever enjoyed. Kid Ory shakes up several arrangements, often with a snarl like the one on “Sugarfoot Stomp,” and reedmen Darnell Howard, Omer Simeon and Barney Bigard show up on several sides (with Albert Nicholas playing the written solo on “Snag It” with the immediacy of an improvisation). For all the mention of tooth and gum decay, Oliver gets a deliciously greasy tone on his horn throughout, piercing rather than broad, and daresay wonderfully different from Armstrong.
The Dixie Syncopators are their own band, as distinct and interesting as the Creole Jazz Band, just not as well covered. It took me a while but eventually I learned how to listen to what the music is rather than what it is not. Thank goodness I’m getting old enough to stop looking for golden ages.