Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Dodds, Johnny

While never as famous as Louis Armstrong or Jelly Roll Morton, clarinetist Johnny Dodds played a key role in bringing the gospel of New Orleans music to a wider audience. His expressive playing, which evoked human cries and emotions, served as the model for Benny Goodman, Jimmy Dorsey and other young musicians.

Indeed, while Armstrong is acclaimed as the "first soloist" in jazz, close listeners will discover that Dodds was Armstrong's equal in both invention and power, especially in his creative countermelodies, which made him the perfect foil for Armstrong on his Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings.

Dodds influenced not only Goodman, who would sneak in to Chicago clubs as a teenager to hear him play, but a whole generation of young instrumentalists. While other players caught the spotlight, Dodds, a consummate professional, was content to stand at the side and make some of the greatest music the world had ever heard.

John M. “Johnny” Dodds was born April 12, 1892 in New Orleans, one of six children born to Warren and Amy Dodds. Both parents were musical: Warren played the fiddle, harmonica and quills, and Amy played the reed organ in a Baptist church where Warren was also a deacon. The family would at times sing hymns at home as a quartet, with little Johnny singing a high tenor. His younger brother, Warren or “Baby” Dodds later became an accomplished jazz drummer in his own right.

The family shuttled between New Orleans and nearby Waveland, Mississippi, where Johnny's mother died when he was twelve. By age seventeen, the family was back in New Orleans, and Johnny was the proud owner of a clarinet, which his father bought to replace the tin whistle he used to play around the house. Johnny and Warren set about playing in second-line parades and for tips of cake and ice cream.

Two of Johnny's favorite clarinetists as a young man were Big Eye Louis Nelson Delisle, who played with the Imperial and Golden Rule Orchestras, and Alphonse Picou, who played with the Tuxedo Brass Band and the Excelsior Brass Band, and created the electrifying clarinet solo in “High Society,” which was copied by every soloist of his day. Dodds would find a seat behind the bandstand wherever these bands were playing, so he could watch the musicians' fingers as they played.

Dodds worked in a rice mill until one day bassist Pops Foster happened to ride by and heard him practising clarinet at the roadside on his lunch break, and was impressed by what he heard. He helped Dodds get a job playing with trombonist Kid Ory around 1912. This band, eventually known as Kid Ory’s Creole Orchestra, was quite popular and at various times included trumpeters Joe “King” Oliver and Louis Armstrong as members.

Dodds played off and on with Ory until 1919, as well as with other New Orleans bands. In 1916, he worked with Oliver in his Magnolia Band, and 1917 found him playing on the S.S. Capitol riverboat, with Baby on drums, as a part of Fate Marable’s Kentucky Jazz Band. In 1910, he was back gigging with Ory on Rampart Street, in Storyville, New Orleans' prostitution district, as well as with Papa Celestin’s Original Tuxedo Orchestra. Later that year he embarked on a long tour with the popular vaudeville troupe, Billy and Mary Mack’s Merrymakers Show. This journey brought him to Chicago for the first time, when the show landed at the Monogram Theatre for six weeks.

King Oliver, who was six years older than Dodds, was one of the first New Orleans musicians who moved north after the U.S. Navy closed down Storyville in November of 1917. He relocated to Chicago in September of 1918, and was the star soloist of two bands at the Royal Gardens and Dreamland clubs.

In January of 1920, Oliver got the chance to take over the band at the Dreamland Ballroom, and he sent for trusted musicians from New Orleans, including Dodds, to join him in the Windy City. Dodds gladly accepted, and made Chicago his home for the rest of his life. King Oliver’s Creole Band at the Dreamland consisted of the leader on cornet, Dodds on clarinet, Honore Dutrey on trombone, Lil Hardin on piano, Bill Johnson on bass and later Baby Dodds on drums.

In Chicago, the New Orleans musicians recreated the all-night party atmosphere of the Crescent City: immediately following their Dreamland gig ended at 1 a.m., the band moved over to the Pekin House, where they would play until six in the morning.

Yet Dodds, unlike some New Orleans musicians, was a sober, disciplined and devoted family man, married to his wife Bessie since 1915, and with three children. As his fame grew, he invested his earnings, first in an apartment house where his family lived, and later in a cab company he ran with his brother Bill. He once told a story about how Chicago gangster Al Capone came in and demanded he play the rare tune he didn't know. Capone tore a hundred dollar bill in half, and said, "You better learn it for next time!" Dodds did, and the next time Capone came in, he earned the second half of the hundred-dollar bill.

The next year Oliver took the band out to California where they landed an extended engagement at a dance hall in San Francisco’s Fillmore district. After more bookings on the west coast, they returned to Chicago in May of 1922.

In June, Oliver contacted Louis Armstrong in New Orleans and asked him to join his band on second cornet. He agreed, and the band settled into a two-year residency at the Lincoln Gardens. Needless to say this was considered a lengthy period of work for jazz musicians at the time, and the band’s popularity with the public and players alike made them a major “must see” for fans and musicians coming through town.

Oliver and his band caused a sensation among both black and white Chicago audiences, and enthralled young musicians who would do anything they could to get in to hear the band play. These included Goodman and fellow clarinetist Mezz Mezzrow, drummers Gene Krupa and George Wettling, guitarist Eddie Condon, as well as trumpeters Bix Beiderbecke, Bubber Miley and Jimmy McPartland.

On April 5 and 6, 1923, Oliver's band recorded their first sides for the Gennett Recording Company in Richmond, Indiana. These sessions were also Dodds' recording debut, and produced some of the most potent and influential early jazz sides, including "Dippermouth Blues" and "Canal Street Blues.

The band broke up in 1924 after bandmembers questioned Oliver's pay practices, and Hardin and Armstrong move to New York, In 1925 the Dodds brothers, along with Dutrey and Johnson moved over to Bert Kelly’s Stables as the house band, with cornetist Freddie Keppard fronting the group. In 1926 Keppard left the scene, and Johnny Dodds replaced him as the band's leader, adding Charlie Alexander on piano and Natty Dominique on cornet. The band continued to work at Kelly’s until the club was closed for a prohibition violation in 1930.

Meanwhile in November of 1925, Louis Armstrong and Lil Hardin Armstrong, returned to Chicago to record for the Okeh label. Billed as Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five, the band recorded with Dodds on clarinet and alto sax, Kid Ory on trombone, Johnny St. Cyr on banjo, Lil Hardin Armstrong on piano, and Armstrong on cornet. The band was later expanded to the Hot Seven, adding drums and tuba, in May of 1927. The studio bands' seminal recordings include "Heebie Jeebies," "Potato Head Blues," and "Struttin' With Some Barbecue."

Throughout his career, Dodds was active as a freelance musician working for blues singers Ida Cox, Blind Blake and Ma Rainey, female band leader Lovie Austin, pianist Jimmy Blythe, vaudeville entertainers Butterbeans and Susie, and he recorded with Jelly Roll Morton and . He also recorded extensively as a leader with his Black Bottom Stompers, the Washboard Band, and his Orchestra. One fine example of his musicianship in this period is his recording of Blue Clarinet Stomp" with Bill Johnson on bass and Charlie Alexander on piano in July of 1928. He also worked often as co-leader with trumpeter Natty Dominique. Their professional relationship, which started at Kelly’s Stables, would continue for the remainder of Dodds’ lifetime.

In all, Dodds recorded over two hundred and sixty sides in his lifetime, most in between 1923 and 1929, and worked almost exclusively in his adopted hometown of Chicago, venturing to New York only once for a 1938 recording date.

In September of 1931, Dodds suffered the loss of his wife Bessie. Throughout the Depression years, he was able to find work at places like Mrs. Cohen’s K-9 Club, where he and his brother Baby served as the house band for all kinds of performers, including female impersonators, dog acts and pantomimes. They also played at the Three Deuces, Rocco Galla’s Club and The New Plantation.

Dodds didn’t record from 1929 till 1938, when he returned from New York in January he continued to do what he’d always done. While working with his band, which included the great guitarist Lonnie Johnsonat the Hotel Hayes, he suffered a stroke in May of 1939 and took the rest of the year off to recuperate.

In January of 1940 he returned to work only to find that he needed to have his teeth extracted, but by February of that year he was back on the stand playing with reportedly little or no diminishment of his talent. This assessment was extended to his final recording of two sides for Decca in Chicago on June 5th, 1940.

On August 8, 1940, Dodds had another stroke and died at the age of 48. Two of his greatest contemporaries, Sidney Bechet and Jimmie Noone, paid tribute; Bechet co-writing “Blue for You, Johnny” for his comrade and Noone acknowledging Dodds uniqueness and influence on others and himself.

As an ensemble player, Dodds had a peerless ability to create the musical environment in which others could shine. By choosing to stay in Chicago instead of going to New York, he led a contented family life but was largely forgotten by the jazz mainstream.

In 1987, Dodds was inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame and his influence can be heard in the playing of Larry Shields, Benny Goodman, Omer Simeon and even Jimmy Giuffre. While he could play in a brash gutbucket style, he was also known to play with great gentility in what some considered a near parody of white styles of the day. Fortunately for listeners, the fact that he recorded widely at the prime of his life as a musician means that he left us a lot of lessons still to learn.

Select Discography:

With King Oliver:

Off The Record: The Complete 1923 Jazz Band Recordings

Louis Armstrong:

The Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings

As a Leader:

Blue Clarinet Stomp (Complete 1928-1928 Sessions)

Johnny Dodds 1927-1928

New Orleans Stomp / Blue Clarinet Stomp

Contributor: Frank Murphy