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Dave Oxley

Dave Oxley was a traditional jazz and early rhythm and blues drummer from New Orleans.

Dave Oxley

Courtesy of Louisiana State Museum

Dave Oxley and Jim Robinson. Unidentified

Perhaps best known as the drummer for famed New Orleans player-producer-composer Dave Bartholomew, Dave Oxley is a lesser-known yet important figure in the annals of New Orleans music history. Oxley was a traditional jazz and early rhythm and blues drummer from New Orleans. Father to a family of musicians, including the percussionist Frank Oxley, Dave Oxley was the drummer for the classic blues singer Bessie Smith’s last tour.

David Oxley was born May 1, 1910, in New Orleans. An early love for all things percussion led him to take up the snare drum, and before his sixteenth birthday Oxley had quit school, started working at the docks, and bought himself a drum set. Largely self-taught, Oxley was influenced by the iconic James “Red Happy” Bolden, whom Oxley saw perform at the Lyric Theatre and elsewhere.

One of Oxley’s first professional gigs was with Punch Miller at the Milneburg lakefront resort. Oxley made a name for himself as a skilled drummer at Milneburg and soon was playing with other jazz greats like Chris Kelly and Papa Celestin. Oxley would spend seven years (1926–33) playing with Johnny Lee Long and his Playmates.

Oxley spent most of the 1930s playing with vaudeville troupes and other revues that toured Chicago, New York, and a number of other major cities. During these tours he perfected a drum solo that quickly became popular with audiences on the road. This drum solo, along with other flourishes, would come to comprise part of his trademark style.

In 1937 Oxley was chosen to go on tour with the great Bessie Smith, though it would be during this tour that Smith was fatally injured in an automobile accident. That year also found Oxley performing in E. S. Winsted’s “Broadway Rastus.” In 1940 Oxley played for an extended engagement with Ida Cox’s “Darktown Scandals Revue” with Lonnie Johnson. After his 1930s tours, Oxley would play with Kid Howard, Henry Russ, and Henry Harding, as well as with pianist Joe Robichaux at venues such as the Paddock Lounge and the Famous Door on Bourbon Street.

During World War II Oxley led a ten-piece Army band, traveling to France, Germany, Belgium, Korea, Japan, and Panama. After the war he joined Dave Bartholomew’s band as his drummer, though he was no longer playing with Bartholomew when the producer rose to near-instant fame for his work with Fats Domino and others.

Oxley spent many years away from the spotlight and was retired from public music performance when George Lewis invited him to perform at Preservation Hall. Oxley agreed and soon found himself a frequent performer at the Hall, playing to adoring audiences.

Oxley was killed by a hit-and-run driver in New Orleans on July 20, 1974; the guilty party was never found. He was buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery and Mausoleum.