He would have been an old man pushing a broom or mop across the floor of Connie's Billiard Hall on West Broad Street, but whether he was still known as one of the towering figures of the first generation of jazz players seems unlikely. Joe "King" Oliver might have made two of the most lasting contributions to the development of jazz - pioneering the use of trumpet mutes and mentoring Louis Armstrong - but he died an impoverished janitor in Savannah.
"He spent his last year here under circumstances of terrible poverty. His benefactor here in Savannah, Mr. Frank Dillworth, made the arrangements to have his body sent to New York to be buried," explains Dr. Julius "Boo" Hornstein, a local jazz expert and author of Sites and Sounds of Savannah Jazz. Hornstein will give a talk titled "The King in Exile" this Friday at the Book Lady (6 E. Liberty St.) at 7 p.m.
It was 1937 when Oliver arrived in Savannah, after his tour bus broke down in South Carolina and his band deserted him. Frank Dilworth, a local booking agent and seminal figure in Savannah's jazz history, drove to pick up the "King," who 15 years earlier had been near the top of the jazz world in Chicago.
Oliver was a better musician than he was a businessman though, and after making a few bad decisions, he found himself pushed into obscurity, particularly as the New Orleans style of jazz he helped foster faded in popularity behind the rise of big bad sounds like those of Duke Ellington and others.
Oliver was born on a plantation in Louisiana in 1885, and he was among the earliest jazz musicians to play clubs in New Orleans' famed Storyville red light district in the early years of the 20th Century. That unique place in history wasn't enough to sustain him financially though, and while his prized student Louis Armstrong was eventually canonized among the greats, Oliver disappeared.
He landed on West Broad Street during what was arguably its most vibrant period.
"West Broad Street was a hub. It was a vibrant, busy street," explains Hornstein. "The Union Station was there. It was the center of the African American community."
Hornstein's talk on Friday will mix stories about the life of Oliver, including details of several letters he wrote his step sister while living in Savannah, with the history of West Broad Street at the time, including rare photos he's collected over the years.
In 2008, during the Savannah Music Festival, a plaque to Oliver was dedicated on the side of the building at 514 MLK Jr. Blvd (currently Blowin' Smoke), which would have been near where Oliver worked. He lived about a block away, in a rooming house around the 500 block of Montgomery Street.
Much of Hornstein's research for the talk he'll give Friday was done in preparation for the plaque dedication, which included an appearance by contemporary jazz icon Wynton Marsalis.
"There's no anniversary or centennial or anything like that," Hornstein explains. "I did this lecture when we dedicated the plaque to him over on MLK. It's a good time to do it again."
"The King in Exile," a talk by Boo Hornstein
When: November 19 at 7 p.m.
Where: The Book Lady, 6 E. Liberty St.