Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Dodds, Baby (Warren)

"We played for the comfort of the people," said drummer Baby Dodds, recalling the way he spread the joys of New Orleans rhythm around the United States in the 1920s in the bands of Joe "King" Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, and Louis Armstrong. Everywhere he went, young drummers paid attention. His rolls and off-kilter accents on the snare drum inspired, among others, Gene Krupa and and "Big" Sid Catlett in Chicago, and Chick Webb in New York. Even his drum kit became the model for aspiring jazz drummers to follow.

Warren "Baby" Dodds was born on Christmas Eve, 1898 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Dodds' mother gave him the name "Baby" more or less by accident. Dodds' father, Warren Senior, frequently came running when Mrs. Dodds called out for Warren Junior. As she would exclaim, "I'm calling for the baby," "Baby" quickly became Warren Dodds Jr.'s nickname.

Dodds was interested in playing drums from an early age. His brother, Johnny, six years his senior, had been playing clarinet and reading music throughout his youth. By the time Johnny became a professional musician in 1912, Baby Dodds wanted his own set of drums. It wasn't till Baby Dodds was sixteen that his father consented to let him buy his own set. To afford it, Baby worked for a local Jewish family doing odd jobs.

New Orleans' streets and parks percolated with rhythms, and Dodds learned as much as he could in this fertile environment. As his first influences, he cited Mack Murray, who played with the Robichaux band, and Louis Cotrell, with the Excelsior Band. He was taken by these players' light touch and superior snare-drum technique. It is no coincidence that he would later be known for both of these attributes. In addition to absorbing as much as he could from listening to and talking with these great players, Dodds started taking private lessons from Dave Perkins and later with John Robichaux's drummer Walter Brundy.

Dodds was learning quickly and was soon getting work with street parade and dance bands around New Orleans. In these formative years Dodds played with many fixtures of the proto-jazz New Orleans scene including Sunny "Papa" Celestin, Big Eye Louis Nelson, and Jack Carey. Also around this time Dodds first worked with Bunk Johnson, a player he would reunite with almost thirty years later.

Late in 1918 bassist Pops Foster helped Dodds land a gig playing on the Mississippi riverboats. The offer was based on the condition that Dodds would help get Louis Armstrong on board as well, which he was able to arrange. The boats made their way up and down the Mississippi River from New Orleans, making stops in St. Louis and other cities.

In 1919, Dodds and Armstrong started playing with Fate Marable's Jaz-e-saz Band along with Foster and Johnny St. Cyr. Jaz-e-saz was the largest and most successful band Dodds had worked with to date. He stayed with the band until September of 1921, when cornetist King Oliver sent for him to join his band on a West-Coast tour.

Dodds packed up and met up with the band in San Francisco. At the time the Oliver band also featured Dodds' brother Johnny on clarinet, Lil Hardin on piano, and Honore Dutrey on trombone. The Oliver outfit spent a little more than a year on the West Coast before starting an engagement at the Lincoln Gardens in Chicago.

During the summer of 1922 Oliver added Dodds' former bandmate Louis Armstrong and the legendary bassist and elder statesman Bill Johnson to the group. On April 5th and 6th of 1923 the group recorded eight tunes for the Gannett label, including what is now considered one of the classic representations of early jazz, "Dippermouth Blues."

After the Oliver group broke up, around 1925, the Dodds brothers and Bill Johnson started playing at Burt Kelly's Stables in Chicago. The group, organized by club owner and banjoist Burt Kelly, also featured Freddie Keppard on trumpet. Dodds stayed at Kelly's Stables with this formation less than a year, though he would return as a regular performer at the club in 1928. Dodds spent the next few years freelancing around Chicago before again hooking up with his brother. While Johnny Dodds' Black Bottom Stompers was Baby Dodds' main gig for the later part of the 1920s, Dodds also made recordings with Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong.

On May 7th and 10th, 1927, Dodds recorded the famous Louis Armstrong Hot Seven sessions for OKeh records. These sessions featured Armstrong on cornet, Johnny Dodds on clarinet, John Thomas on trombone, Johnny St. Cyr on banjo and Lil Hardin Armstrong on piano, almost the exact same personnel as the previously recorded "Hot Fives" but with the addition of Pete Briggs on tuba and Dodds on drums. Though tuba and drums were commonly part of ensembles through the 1920s it was not until the end of the decade, with advances in recording technology, that these instruments were regularly included in recording groups. Once again Dodds was a key element of a groundbreaking recording session. The resulting sides, especially "Potato Head Blues" and "Wild Man Blues," are in the pantheon of historic jazz recordings.

Dodds spend the 1930s gigging regularly around Chicago. Most of his work was with various formations put together by his brother, though he did work with Natty Dominique and Charlie Elgar frequently. Perhaps because his style was considered a bit outdated, Dodds did not record once in the decade even though he was constantly performing. On August 8th of 1940, Dodds lost his bandmate, friend, employer and brother Johnny to a heart attack, just two months after the pair made what would be their last records together. With the notable exception of a few recording sessions with Sidney Bechet the next few years would be some of the slowest of Dodds' career.

Then came the New Orleans jazz revival. Thanks to this renewed interest in older styles of jazz, Dodds' services were once again in high demand. When Bunk Johnson, Dodds' old friend and bandleader from twenty-five years earlier, reemerged on the scene as one of the leaders of the revival scene, Dodds was by his side.

Johnson's role as a rediscovered gem of the now wildly popular genre led to regular, high-exposure performances for Dodds as well. Among Dodds' concert highlights that were recorded during the mid-forties are a series of concerts with Johnson from New Orleans' St. Jacinto Hall in early August 1944 and a concert at New York's Town Hall with James P. Johnson and Pops Foster on September 21, 1946.

To be better located around the unlikely heart of the New Orleans revival, Dodds moved to New York by the middle of the decade. At the very beginning of 1947 Dodds was approached by jazz promoter Rudi Blesh about a radio show that he was putting together. Dodds signed on to the project and on January 18th of 1947 "This is Jazz" debuted. The band for the weekly show included a host of New Orleans greats both as band members and guests including Louis Armstrong, Edmond Hall, Pops Foster, and Wellman Braud. Dodds stayed with the "This is Jazz" program for the better part of the year before he was fired for missing a scheduled broadcast (due to a hangover). Dodds was not phased by this slight career setback. The next year even featured a first for the veteran musician, a tour of Europe with clarinetist Mezz Mezzrow.

In April 1949 Dodds suffered a stroke which left him mostly incapacitated. After months of rest and recovery he was well enough to start rehearsing with a band again but before he could perform he suffered a second stroke in April of 1950. Dodds again started on the road to recovery and by 1951 played at a few clubs, however he wasn't able to play through a whole evening. Dodds would never again work regularly, though by 1954, even after a third stroke, he was well enough to record an album under the leadership of Natty Dominique which also featured Israel Crosby on bass and Lil Hardin Armstrong on piano. Dodds finally succumbed to years of poor health on Februrary 14, 1959.

Baby Dodds was committed to the notion that his story and and the story of New Orleans drumming should not be forgotten. In 1953 he dictated his life story to Larry Gala, versions of which appeared in Jazz Journal in 1955 and later as his autobiography that published posthumously. In 1946, Dodds recorded a series of drum solos along with detailed commentary as a guide for those interested in the New Orleans drum sound. Through these documents and his full, rich career, Dodds left a guidebook and a model for future generations of jazz drummers to follow.

Select Discography

King Oliver and his Creole Jazz Band (1923) (Classics)

Louis Armstrong Hot Fives & Sevens, Volume Two (JSP)

Jelly Roll Morton, volume 4: 1927-1928 (Masters of Jazz)

Bunk Johnson 1944 (American Music)

Louis Armstroing: The Hot Fives & Hot Sevens (Columbia)

This is Jazz, Vol. 1 (Jazzology)

Contributor: Sean Lorre