In an alternate universe, King Oliver brushed his teeth three times a day, ate salads and drank soda water, thus changing the course of the twentieth century.
I have been reading and transcribing oral histories published in CADENCE for a book I am editing. I am deep into the conversation Louis Armstrong had with the young editor Bob Rusch at Louis’ home in Corona, Queens — February 7, 1969. Louis happily talks about being mentored (and parented) by Papa Joe — but also that Stella Oliver would make meals for the three of them:
Any of the moments with King Oliver were always choice with me. When I first came from New Orleans to Chicago to play in King Oliver’s band, I used to have my meals with King Oliver and his wife. Whatever she cooked for him, she cooked for me. I enjoyed that, she’d fix mine the same, big pot of rice and beans. A big old tin can, like a peach can, full of water he put about a half pound of sugar in it. That’s what he called “sweet water.” That’s what he liked and I’d have sweet water, too. Every moment was choice with Joe Oliver.
When Joe Oliver went north to Chicago, and asked Little Louis to join him, the King was already in his fifties; his teeth and gums were already deteriorating: regular dental care was for the affluent. “Pyorrhea” is the ominous name for the disease that meant the end of his reign as King.
But we can trace these events back to the genetic predisposition for all things sweet that Joe allowed to dominate his diet. Had Oliver tended towards other dietary weaknesses; had he (like Bunk Johnson) a better dentist to make him more effective dentures . . . would he have asked Louis to come up to Chicago and play second cornet? Louis, for his part, recognized this as the opportunity of a lifetime — and it started him on his path to worldwide fame. Only later did he recognize that Joe Oliver’s motives were not entirely selfless; the King told other musicians that as long as he had Little Louis in his band “he can’t hurt me,” by outshining him on his own. But what if Joe’s self-protectiveness turned out to be generosity to the world?
But young Louis seems to have been deeply grateful and perhaps a little complacent (“All I want to do is blow the horn,” he said more than once during his career). Might he have stayed in New Orleans forever — recording in 1925 or 1927, then again twenty years later — a local legend without the global reputation?
The little things that shape our paths in life! When you consider how you got to be where you are (however you define “where”) ask yourself: how much of it is intent, how much accident — good or bad — or things that seemed irrelevant at the time?
And here’s the soundtrack for those ruminations — courtesy of Louis, Barney Bigard, and Vic Dickenson in 1946:
May your happiness increase.