It was the best jazz group on record in 1923 and was considered a sensation among up-and-coming Chicago jazz musicians. King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band was a septet that included Oliver and Louis Armstrong on cornets, trombonist Honore Dutrey, clarinetist Johnny Dodds, pianist Lil Harden, drummer Baby Dodds, and often Bud Scott or Johnny St. Cyr on banjo.
While ensemble-oriented, Oliver’s group also included two-bar breaks and occasional brief solos. The interplay between the horns, particularly the cornetists, made this group something special and pointed towards the future of jazz.
On ten sessions that resulted in 37 titles (counting alternate takes), King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band was documented for history. 74 years later in 1997, banjoist Don Vappie and the Creole Jazz Serenaders recorded their versions of 18 of the songs. While sticking to the frameworks of the original recordings, there are some differences. Vappie leads an octet that includes string bass (not part of the Oliver band) and a drummer who was free to use his whole drum set, unlike Baby Dodds who was much more restricted due to the acoustic recording techniques of the time.
In fact, Vappie’s rhythm section is a lot more active and prominent in these recordings than Oliver’s, with the leader’s banjo really pushing the group in the frequently stirring ensembles. It is quite possible that this part of the band is closer to how Oliver’s actually sounded in a club than the original recordings.
On the minus side, Vappie’s two cornetists, while solid ensemble players, prove to be erratic soloists who hit some clams during their breaks. Best among the horns is clarinetist Tom Fischer, who does a good job of filling in for Johnny Dodds. But since most of these performances are comprised of ensembles, this flaw does not matter much.
While it cannot substitute for the original band, Don Vappie’s Creole Jazz Serenaders does a fine job with the Oliver repertoire, recording a CD that is worth hearing on its own terms.