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Kolax was born William Little in Kansas City, Missouri in 1912; he misleadingly claimed he was born in 1918 in later years. While young his family moved to Chicago, where he studied music under Walter Dyett. He completed a degree at the Chicago Conservatory of Music in the early 1930s, and played in various dance bands in the Chicago area during the decade. Around 1938, he became bandleader of one of the groups; this ensemble did tours around the United States and continued playing regularly at venues such as the Savoy Theater and the 65 Club. In 1939, Charlie Parker played in his band. The King Kolax Orchestra may have been the first all-black band to play on NBC radio, in 1942 or 1943.
Kolax formed a new band in 1943 and again toured the American South with great success. He continued touring throughout the country and on military bases within the U.S. through 1946. In May 1946, Kolax's group broke up, and Kolax himself joined Billy Eckstine's big band, with which he made his first recordings. Eckstine's band did not last to the end of the year, and Kolax organized another troupe late in 1946, which lasted until May 1947; John Coltrane was a member of this ensemble. Following the demise of his band Kolax returned to Chicago to play in small groups. In 1948 he played in Sonny Parker's band. That same year he recorded, for the tiny Opera label, as a leader and singer. He had a steady gig at the Ritz Lounge in 1949, and played in J. T. Brown's band in 1951. Establishing a new combo of his own, Kolax recorded for the J.O.B. label in a session that featured his blues singing. In 1952, Kolax backed Joe Williams on his singles for Checker Records. While playing regularly at the Paris Club in 1953, Kolax recorded behind Danny Overbea, also for Checker. That same year, Kolax and orchestra backed The Flamingos on Chance Records. Kolax also led orchestras behind Mabel Scott and Rudy Green. Kolax recorded again under his own name for Vee-Jay at the end of 1954 and in September 1955.
Kolax made regular engagements at hotels and ballrooms throughout the 1950s in Chicago and elsewhere; he also struck up a working relationship with Sun Ra, who wrote arrangements for him. In the second half of the decade Kolax recorded with Earl Pugh, Brooks & Brown, Clyde Williams, and Harvey Ellington; in the early 1960s records followed with Wilbur White, The Chaunteurs, Jerry Butler, McKinley Mitchell, Otis Rush, and The Vondells. Kolax became an A&R rep for Marvello Records, owned by the Chicago businessman James P. Johnson, between 1961 and 1965. Sporadic recording followed later in the 1960s both as a leader and behind Willie Mabon, Brother Jack McDuff, Gene Ammons, and Roosevelt Sykes, whose August 1970 recording session was Kolax's last.
Kolax had a position in the Chicago Federation of Musicians, and union rules prevented him from being able to gig and hold office at the same time. He retired around 1981, and died ten years later after suffering from Alzheimer's disease for an extended period.
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With Jack McDuff
- Tobacco Road (Atlantic, 1966)