Joe King Oliver, el jazz entre la fama y la indigencia

king oliver band

Joe Oliver nació el 19 de diciembre de 1885 en uno de los suburbios más pobres y miserables de Nueva Orleáns. A los quince años, la vida le juega una de tantas, robándole a su madre. Su media hermana, Victoria Davis, encomendaría a un tal señor Kenchen para enseñar al pequeño y huérfano Joe a tocar la corneta, quizás para hacerle olvidar la idea de que las madres también caen como cae el sol en los barrios de Nueva Orleáns. Joe, poco entusiasmado por la idea, se percata de sus evidentes carencias musicales. No obstante, con el tiempo, nota a nota, el joven se introduce cada vez con mayor profundidad en los estudios y en la técnica hasta ganar un puesto en la pequeña orquesta de amateurs formada por el propio señor Kenchen.

En una de esas giras musicales la vida le jugaría otra más: golpeado por una pandilla de bandidos y con una legendaria cicatriz ganada a causa del filo de una navaja, Joe Oliver decide dedicarse al jazz. No bastarían los embates de la vida para detenerlo, como tampoco bastarían las grises lecciones del señor Kenchen para convertirse en el “rey de la corneta”.

Dedicado al servicio doméstico y tocando para varias bandas como la Eagle Band o la Brown Skinned Babies de “Kid” Ory, estudia corneta con el famoso “Bunk” Johnson, quien  lo nombraría, una noche en el Aberdeen, como el “King” de la corneta. Joe dejaría de ser llamado meramente Joe Oliver para convertirse de ahora en adelante en “King” Oliver. Incluso en Storyville llegaría a fundar su propia banda.

Los jazzistas de Nueva Orleáns tocaban, principalmente, en cabarets, bares y burdeles. Pero en 1917, ocurre un evento trascendente en la historia del jazz. Una nueva ley prohibe los permisos a cabarets y sucursales del placer para funcionar; ley que derivó en el desempleo de toda esa gente poco elegante que se ganaba la vida en aquellos lugares poco sofisticados. Una masa de músicos se vio en la necesidad de dejar su ciudad y dirigirse al norte, en busca de trabajo. No ocurre otra cosa al nuevo “Rey” de la corneta, que viaja hacia Chicago y se asienta en el South Side —un humilde barrio negro de la ciudad—. Después de tocar en dos orquestas diferentes, en el Royal Gardens Café y en el Dreamland, King Oliver se propone la creación de una nueva jazzband: la reconocida Creole Jazz Band.

Pocos años después de la Gran Guerra y de la prohibición, Chicago se sumergía en tiempos peculiarmente tóxicos y alegres; el alcohol se bebía el frío de la noche, abrigaba los cuerpos y embriagaba las almas que no querían irse a dormir hasta el alba; el humo del cielo nublado se confundía con el humo del tabaco, mientras la gente se desvivía en la bebida, el baile y la agresiva melodía de las jazzbands. Es dentro de este contexto que King Oliver organiza, en Illinois, la Creole Jazz Band. King contrata para el piano a la joven Lil Hardin —futura esposa de Louis Armstrong—, a Johnny Dodds  para el clarinete, para el trombón a Honoré Dutray, para el contrabajo a Ed Garland y para la batería a Minor Hall, siendo éste último sustituido por Baby Dodds al momento del arribo de la banda en San Francisco. Pero la Creole Jazz Band todavía no estaba completa sin uno de los destacados talentos emergentes, proveniente de Nueva Orleáns, a saber: el extraordinario cornetista Louis Armstrong.

En la mejor época de la Creole Jazz Band aparecen treinta y siete obras propias recopiladas en diversas grabaciones para los sellos Paramount y Geneett Records. King Oliver pone en marcha una importante recuperación de melodías folklóricas texanas y de Luisiana —cuyo ejemplo más transparente es la florida Just Gone—, tomando varias de sus características para la creación de sus propias obras. Es por eso que la mayoría de sus marchas y blues tienen el encanto, la sazón, de aquella Nueva Orleáns desgarrada por los altos contrastes económicos.

Entre las obras más reconocidas de la Creole Jazz Band destaca Canal Street Blues, una de las pocas obras en la que se logra una solidez  sin igual en el tejido de los tiempos, solidez que la banda pocas veces logró. Al igual que en las demás piezas, Canal Street Blues toma aspectos del estilo de Nueva Orleans. En el two beat folklórico —ritmo en dos tiempos que desaparece bajo los cuatro tiempos del contrabajo en el jazz clásico—, el bombo y la grave mano izquierda del piano,  se acentúan ciertos tiempos en la línea de la melodía, que bien podrían ser interpretados como el sonido de los pies golpeando el suelo en una alegre caminata, incansable, por los suburbios de Luisiana. Pero al igual que la caminata del Canal Street Blues, la caminata del Rey terminaría pronto, en dos tiempos.

Cuando Louis Armstrong  y Johnny Dodds abandonan a King Oliver, en los últimos meses de 1923, los discos de la Creole Jazz Band dejan de brotar y el mismo King funda una nueva banda: los King Oliver’s Syncopators. Indudablemente, una vez fuera la mayoría de miembros de la Creole, fue una banda destinada al fracaso; la numerosa orquesta —comparada con la anterior— sólo podía emitir el sonido de cobres cerrados y gangosos, de melodías monótonas que rayaban en la comicidad o el aburrimiento. La última banda en forma de King Oliver no tenía aquella chispa que sí brillaba en la Creole, y aunque en la Creole Jazz Band faltara algunas veces un poco de técnica y en otras un poco de elegancia, nunca faltó, entre nota y nota, la vitalidad y la energía.

Después de giras desastrosas, entre 1931 y 1935, el “rey de la corneta” es asechado de nuevo por la miseria. Enfermo e incapaz de tocar nuevamente, Joe escribe sus cartas con palabras tristes. Tal vez experimentó lo que había olvidado en su niñez y olvidó que las personas caen como el sol sobre las calles de la lastimada Nueva Orleáns: él mismo estaba cayendo. El 10 de abril de 1938, en Georgia, Joe, enfermo, muere en completo estado de indigencia y miseria, mientras trabajaba en el servicio de limpieza de una alberca pública. Ni si quiera la familia tuvo el dinero suficiente para comprar la lápida en la qué grabar el nombre de este peregrino del jazz.

Joe Oliver se convirtió en “King”, y al final detuvo su caminata antes del amanecer de una nueva época de la historia del jazz. Al desaparecer King Oliver terminó, también, el jazz esencialmente polifónico y se abrió el campo al jazz de las individualidades. Louis Armstrong, con trompeta y voz propia, se asomaba a escena con un gran éxito e inigualable calidad musical.

AM

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