Notes on New Orleans Jazz Drummer Baby Dodds

Baby Dodds was playing a gig in Chicago at Lincoln Gardens in 1923 when he purchased his “favorite drum.” It set him back ten bucks. When asked to show it off he does so gladly before kissing it and placing it back in its rack.

If you come from a hardscrabble background where $10 is a small fortune you better believe you’ll kiss your moneymaker when you shelled out that kind of money for it.

What made Baby want to be a musician?

“Johnny (his brother) would go and play at parties, and he would get all the ice cream and cake.”

The enterprising young man immediately set to work.

“I took a lard can and put holes in the bottom and turned it over and took nails and put holes around the top of it. Then I took some rounds out of my mother’s chairs and made drum sticks out of them. With a clarinet it sounded so good that all the kids in the neighborhood came around to get in on the fun.”

I’m listening to Baby Dodds Trio – Jazz A’ La Creole, an LP recorded for Rudi Blesh’s Circle imprint. The earliest songs on this record were recorded in 1946, and this slab ably shows the world of New Orleans jazz from that era. Blesh founded this company with the express purpose of recording Baby

Baby Dodds was born to a life of music on Christmas eve in 1898 in Uptown New Orleans.

His granddaddy had drummed in Congo Square, his father was a fiddle player, and his mama commanded an old reed organ. Baby was the youngest of six children in their musical family. Can you imagine what a living room party in that home was like?

By the time he was 16, high school dropout Dodds was working full-time for Willie Hightower’s group The American Stars. Then, as is the custom now, the work was transient, and when the Stars folded up the young musician migrated to Frankie Duson’s Eagle Band which featured future-legend Bunk Johnson. You know those were some wild times as the parlors of brothels were common venues for hot jazz bands to play. Papa Celestin beckoned next, and Dodds joined his Tuxedo Band for gigs at Jack Sheehan’s Roadhouse.

By 1918, Dodds finally found steady work with the Fate Marable group who were making good money playing the Mississippi riverboats circuit. He stayed there three years, and it was during this time he became acquainted with bandmates Louis Armstrong, Johnny St. Cyr and Pops Foster

It was hard work.

We had an hour and a half or two hour rehearsal every day, all new music. That’s why we learned to be such good readers. And we had to be perfect with it

Perfect or not, on his best work Baby tears into his beats like a starving dockhand. But by the time 1921 rolled around Dodds was bored and restless with his river work. Enter Joe “King” Oliver.

Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band had just migrated to San Francisco from Chicago and started a series of gigs at the Pergola on June 12th 1921 when dissension hit the ranks. Joe Oliver attempted to furlough violinist Jimmy Palao and when drummer Minor Hall threatened to quit over it, Oliver fired him, and sent a wire to New Orleans offering the gig to Baby Dodds.

Baby took the long train ride west but upon arrival found chaos and disorder. The Pergola had shut down, and Oliver’s band began to fragment. Dodds hooked up with old pal trombonist Kid Ory and bass player Ed Garland along with his brother clarinetist Johnny and they set about booking themselves playing dances and halls to keep the wolf away from the door.

Thankfully, Chicago beckoned and by mid-1922, the newest version of Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band with Baby Dodds in tow had relocated to the Midwest for a residency at Lincoln Gardens.

There was lots of fun in the Garden but sometimes things got pretty rough…One Sunday some of the youngsters started a pistol fight on the balcony of the Gardens. We were playing when the shootings started, and when the guy got shot twice Joe Oliver got up and ran, and my brother ran behind the piano, and Dutrey also made haste to get away. But I just sat in my chair and played my drums.

That’s Baby describing a Sunday gig in Chicago.

On August 8th, 1922, Louis Armstrong, at the behest of Joe Oliver, boarded a train from New Orleans and started steaming north towards Chicago. Upon his arrival the face of jazz would be irrevocably changed.

After eight months of fine-tuning his new outfit, on April 5th 1923, Joe Oliver took his band to the “shack by the track,” Starr Piano Company’s recording studio in Richmond, Indiana.

The band laid down nine tracks over two days and made history with what music scholars consider two of the greatest recorded performances in the chronicles of jazz.

But Baby was just getting started. After getting in a fight with bandleader Oliver over royalties, both Dodds quit the “greatest band in jazz.” After playing as hired guns around town for a bit Johnny Dodds gets the bandleader gig at Bert Kelly’s Jazz Stables at 431 N Rush Street, and quickly hires his little brother to be his drummer.

On April 22nd, 1927, Johnny Dodds’ Black Bottom Stompers with Louis Armstrong on cornet enter the studio, and although they only lay down four tracks, aficionados still babble incoherently when the topic of the session comes up nearly a century later. That’s Baby beating the traps.

Not even a month later, Louis wires Baby to get him to help expand his Hot Five to a Hot Seven (along with Pete Briggs) so they can hit the recording studio like a runaway train. They book six sessions from May 7th through the 14th and manage to get 12 crucial tracks out of their labors

Willie The Weeper, Wildman Blues, Chicago Breakdown, Alligator Crawl, Potato Head Blues, Melancholy Blues, Weary Blues, 12 Street Rag, Keyhole Blues, S.O.L Blues, Gully Low Blues, That’s When I’ll Come Back To You

Jazzbos still get misty eyed when you bring this session up.

Baby’s white-hot now. Everybody’s wanting to book him, and he doesn’t go even a month before Jelly Roll Morton gets at him for another recording session. Baby:

The Red Hot Peppers weren’t a working band. When Jelly Roll gave us a ring, we met for the first time at the rehearsal. We all knew each other from New Orleans, of course, but those rehearsals and the record sessions Jelly called were the only times we got together to play as a band. Everyone had to do just what Jelly wanted him to do. During the rehearsal he would say, ‘Now that’s just the way I want it on the recording.’ And he meant it. You did what Jelly wanted you to, no more, no less.

And Morton paid $5 per man just for the rehearsals. Unheard of at the time.

On June 4th, 1927, Jelly Roll Morton gathered the Dodds brothers, and his Red Hot Peppers and went into the Victor recording studio on Oak Street in downtown Chicago for another epic session. Just dial up Billy Goat Stomp on Youtube if you want to feel the power of these cats in their prime. If that’s not to your liking there’s no hope for you but at least put on Wild Man Blues and have your soul take one more crack at redemption.

Not quite a week later, Jelly Roll’s genius is on display once more as he unveils the previously unseen clarinet – drums – piano trio for yet another session. Jazz disciples are still hotly debating as to whether that was the very apogee of Morton’s career.

Baby Dodds’ recorded output would come to a dramatic pause with his July 24, 1929 session with the Beale Street Washboard Band. After that he continued performing live but would not be recorded again for over a decade. In 1936 he moved to New York City and became the house drummer at Three Deuces, a position he would hold for three years.

Johnny Dodds with brother baby and Natty Dominique hit the studio for what would turn out to be Johnny’s final session in June of 1940. Johnny would die of a heart attack just two months later at 48 years of age.

Baby hit the studio just four weeks after his brother’s passing as part of a Sidney Bechet session that included Herb Jeffries singing “Blues For You, Johnny” in a particularly poignant musical elegy. Baby followed that with gigs with Muggsy Spanier, and Jimmie Noone before settling in with his old New Orleans comrade Bunk Johnson.

Baby and Bunk were thick as thieves but Dodds also managed to gig with dozens of other musicians as the forties drew to a close.

If you’re into the craft of drumming check out Footnotes to Jazz, Vol. 1: Baby Dodds Talking and Drum Solos

Dodds would finally get a taste of the European jazz scene via a tour with Mezz Mezzrow’s group for a couple months in 1948. Upon returning stateside, Baby would suffer a series of strokes that would dramatically reshape his life. He was double tough and even managed to get back in the studio but health issues would finally send him to an early grave.

An obituary on the death of Baby Dodds (age is incorrect)

Baby Dodds died on February 14, 1959 in Chicago.

He was just 60 years old.

“Drumming is spirit. You have to have it in your body, in your soul, and it can’t be an evil spirit. It’s got to be a good spirit.”
– Baby Dodds

Then I got turned onto Baby Dodds, who was the first jazz drummer. I studied Baby Dodds very thoroughly

Ginger Baker

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Shining trumpets: a history of jazz by Rudi Blesh
New Orleans Jazz and Second Line Drumming by Herlin Riley
Louis Armstrong in his own words
The Baby Dodds Story by Larry Gara
The Genesis of King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band Gene H. Anderson University of Richmond
Black Bottom Stomp: Eight Masters of Ragtime and Early Jazz

Warren “Baby” Dodds
Born December 24, 1898
Died February 14, 1959, Chicago, Ill

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