Over the years, Oliver, 62, has made music with the greats: Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Philly Joe Jones, John Coltrane, Pearl Bailey and others.
After nearly sinking out of sight in the 1970s, taking janitorial jobs to survive, Oliver has re-emerged in the '80s. He was remembered by former North Philadelphian Bill Cosby and this year appeared on an episode of Cosby's hit TV series. And his new quartet is appearing Sunday afternoons at the Top Shelf, 56th and Market Streets.
Looking back on his life, Oliver, who calls himself a spiritual man, says: ''In 1943, traveling with Banjo Bernie, something showed me a long, hard road that I would have to travel. So far, it's been that way. A long, hard road."
Born in Columbia, S.C., Oliver lived most of his life around 22d Street and Columbia Avenue in North Philadelphia. The music began while he was just a boy, singing in church with his sisters and brothers as the Jubilee Sunlight Five. He learned to play piano by ear. "My mother thought a house didn't look right without a piano," Oliver says.
In 1935, the family got a radio and Oliver became hooked on the big-band sounds, counting among his influences such musicians as Eddie Duchin, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Count Basie and Duke Ellington.
A DIFFICULT CHOICE
With his mother's $50 gift upon graduating from Vaux Junior High School in 1940, Oliver had to make the difficult choice between making a down payment on a saxophone or an old jalopy; his father had agreed to make the payments. "I decided to get the horn when (saxophonist) Lester Young really put a spark to me," Oliver recalls.
After six months of lessons, Oliver joined his first group, an 18-piece band called the Rajahs of Rhythm. He remembers it all with amazing clarity - the names of the band members, the long rehearsals over a garage on the 2000 block of Croskey St. "It would be so cold we used to have to rehearse with our gloves on," he says.
Most of the clubs he played in during the '40s and '50s no longer exist.
Neither do the bands.
There was Little's Cafe, at Sixth and Girard, his first club date; $2 a night was the standard wage there. And Irene's, at 22d and Ridge, where he first met Pearl Bailey, and the Downbeat, around the corner from the old Earle Theater, where all the big bands appeared. Afterward, the performers would come by the Downbeat to jam: Oliver met Frank Sinatra there.
A NEW NAME
His nickname was given to him by a man called "Peanuts Baker - somewhat of a dancer," recounts Oliver, smiling. "When he came to hear me at the Downbeat he said, 'You're a bad man!' And it stuck somehow."
In 1949, Oliver was imprisoned on drug charges for the first time and served seven months of a one-year sentence at the House of Correction. Those were dark days, he says. "They didn't allow us to have any instruments in there."
After his release, he formed a band with Philly Joe Jones, Red Garland and James "Shuggie" Rhodes. It was one of the high points of his career.
He was jailed twice more on drug charges, in 1951 and again in 1953. "I think I was mistreated terribly," Oliver says now. "They did everything but take my life. A lot of injustices were done to me. People did mean things to me out of jealousy and envy."
But Oliver is a proud man who seeks no pity. He has spent 48 years with the same woman, Henrietta, whom he finally married in 1976. They have four children and "gobs" of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. None of them has become a musician. "I didn't encourage any of them to venture into it
because it did such a job on me," he says.
Oliver met Bill Cosby in the late 1950s, while playing sax at the Underground on South Broad Street, and would run into him often at Mickey's Playhouse, a North Philadelphia club. "I must have touched him in some kind of way, because he never forgot," Oliver says with gratitude. "He made up his mind if he ever got the opportunity to do something for me, he would."
In 1983, Cosby mentioned in an interview that he was looking for Oliver and couldn't find him. Shortly after that, Cosby was reunited with the musician and sent him two $100 tickets to a fund-raising event for mayoral candidate W. Wilson Goode. Then Cosby arranged for Oliver to appear with the local jazz group Pieces of a Dream at the Academy of Music for another benefit.
The following year, Cosby flew Oliver to California to perform at the Playboy Jazz Festival and put him up in a luxury hotel. Oliver's wife, who works sorting letters for the Postal Service, accompanied him.
Most recently, Cosby invited Oliver to make a guest appearance on his show in an episode that aired in February. In the episode, Cosby coaxes his TV father, once a trombone player, to sit in with a band for old times' sake. Oliver was one of the band members.
Oliver's eyes light up when talking about his recent good fortune and incredible reunion with his long-ago acquaintance, Cosby, now a superstar. ''The Cosby thing was really a shot in the arm," he says.
"I don't know if it was coincidence - I'm a firm believer in the Creator," he says. "I think that it's just time for my just due."