Shirley Kingslow Oliver
By Andrew Switzer
Welcome back to our look at the life of one of Edmonton’s jazz importers! If you’re just joining us now, the first part can be found here.
“Wade in the Water“ – Church Life
Another fascinating figure who ties into Shirley Oliver’s story is Reverend George W. Slater Jr. Information on Slater’s background is scarce. Before coming to Edmonton, Slater was a minister at the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Clinton, Iowa, and educated at Wilberforce University, Ohio. In Edmonton, He was the pastor of the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church (EAME). He was also the author of a regular column which ran during the 1920s in the Edmonton Journal and the Edmonton Bulletin, both titled “Our Negro Citizens.” This column offers several brief but intriguing comments on Shirley and Lizzie Oliver’s life in Edmonton.
It appears that the Olivers were active members of the EAME Church; Shirley likely was often involved in their music programs. At the very least he gave a piano solo at one of the church functions in March of 1922; at this same function Lizzie Oliver read a paper (Edm. Bulletin Mar. 13, 1922). We learn that he was also a chorister at the church (Oct, 8 1921 Edm. Bulletin) and that Mr. and Mrs. Oliver entertained Reverend Slater at the Oliver’s new cottage which they had recently purchased•the one near the current Commonwealth Stadium (Edm. Journal June 3, 1922).
A 1922 Edmonton Bulletin article further describes Shirley becoming a trustee of the Church and embarking on a series of moving picture shows for the church’s benefit. This would have been the same year that Oliver was working for the ED and BC Railway. It may have been through his experience working on the railroad in Alberta’s Northwest which inspired him to consider further work in that region.
“Sidewalk Blues“– Musical Life
The music scene in Edmonton of the 1920s was one of fresh energy and new opportunities. The Great War was over and now society as a whole, and especially returned soldiers, could attempt a return to and re-integration with normal life. Music offered a way to free the body and mind. In Edmonton there were numerous popular and jazz music orchestras, as well as theatres to house them. In addition to Graydon Tipp, there was Sullivan’s Dancing Academy Orchestra, Edgar Williams and his orchestra, Tommy Mayo, and Walter Broadhead.
Graydon Tipp – it turns out – was not the only band leader at the time involved in pushing social boundaries. Walter Broadhead, an English-born Canadian formed Broadhead’s Edmonton Bluebirds, the group in which Oliver Wagner played trumpet.
Oliver Wagner was black and at one venue the Bluebirds were told they could not to play unless they switched Wagner with a white musician. The band refused and set off to work at another venue (Gardner, Edmonton’s Musical Life: 1892-1930, 94)!
It is from the mid to late 1920s that we have the photographic evidence of Shirley Oliver playing for Graydon Tipp. In the 1925 picture below we can see Oliver centering the picture and comfortably seated at his piano. All of the other players proudly pose with their instruments. Oliver can even be seen as a counter-balance to the standing Graydon Tipp. This would fit with Oliver’s stature coming from Chicago – an emerging world music centre – and acting as a jazz importer to the Far North. In this image and the other at the top of the article, we can feel the solidarity between the members of the band.
Oliver’s work life and travel patterns are confounding. According to Mark Miller’s research in his book Such Melodious Racket: The Lost History of Jazz in Canada: 1914 “ 1949, before moving to Edmonton, Oliver was employed by Doc Cook and his Orchestra in Chicago. Doc Cook was an accomplished band leader and future recording artist. Why then did Oliver choose to leave Doc Cook and all of the opportunities connected to such a figure and come to Edmonton? One could posit a potential connection between Reverend Slater and Oliver as both their influences on Edmonton society were of the same thread: the betterment of the black community through direct involvement in white society. If the connection was not directly personal between the two, it may have been indirectly through the church organization.
In 1927 Shirley further ties himself to Edmonton by working as a music teacher at #17, 10521 Jasper Ave. His students must have been grateful at the opportunity to study with him, but after 1930 there is no further mention of Shirley or Lizzie Oliver. Assuming they moved, which city did they move to next, and what were their reasons for moving? Shirley, at least, appears to have had a stable life here in Edmonton with his own bungalow, an active church life, work with one of Edmonton’s top orchestras, a music teaching position, and work in the film industry. Did he move on to greater accomplishments?
We know Shirley died on Nov. 12, 1958 and was buried at the Long Island National Cemetery, USA. We may never know the rest of his story•he may be one of those every day figures whose lives slip through the cracks of the historical record•but some memory remains¦in an old house and in archived photographs of a hard-working, Church-going Edmontonian at a piano on stage, letting jazz flow out of his fingers.
While we currently have no interpreter portraying Shirley Kingslow Oliver, Fort Edmonton Park often invites jazz groups down to fill 1920 Street with the sounds of the period. Come visit next summer on July 1, Dominion Day, to hear those sweet syncopated melodies, try following our ˜Immigrant History’ self-guided tour, and keep a close eye on our Northern Light film experience for images of Edmonton’s early African-American labourers.
And if you have tuneful fingers and an interest in portraying Mr. or Mrs. Oliver on 1920 Street, keep an eye out for our interpreter posting in February!
Special thanks to Val and Iain Little of the Clown Cartel for their encouragement of a Spotlight on this Edmontonian as well as Janne Switzer, Tom Long, and Patrick Hughes of Fort Edmonton Park for their contribution! Thanks also to the Edmonton Archives and the Glenbow Archives for providing images used in this educational snapshot.
Bibliography and Works Consulted
- Cui Dan and Jennifer R. Kelly, (2010). “Our Negro Citizens”: An Example of Everyday Citizenship Practices. In Finkel Alvin, Sarah Carter, and Peter Fortna, eds. The West and Beyond: New Perspectives on an Imagined “Region”. Athabasca University Press.
- Gardner, Beeth. (1992). Edmonton’s Musical Life: 1892-1930. FortEdmontonPark.
- Mathieu, S.-J. (2001). North of the Colour Line: Sleeping Car Porters and the Battle against Jim Crow on Canadian Rails, 1880“1920. Labour/Le Travail, 47, 9“41.
- Miller, Mark. (1999). Such Melodious Racket: The Lost History of Jazz in Canada: 1914 “ 1949. Mercury Press.
- Thomson, Colin A. (1979). Blacks in Deep Snow: Black Pioneers in Canada. J.M. Dent and Sons (Canada) Limited.