Baby Dodds is widely considered to be the greatest of all the New Orleans drummers. He was born in New Orleans, Louisiana on December 24, 1898 as Warren Dodds.
He took his first drum lessons at the age of fourteen with Dave Perkins, he then studied with Walter Brundy and Louis Cottrell. He played in street parades with Bunk Johnson and Jack Carey and dances with Willie Hightower, Frankie Duson, Manuel Manetta, and Papa Celestin.
In 1918 Warren Dodds joined Fate Marable on the S.S. Sidney. Four years later, in 1922, he joined King Oliver's band in San Francisco. The next year Baby Dodds moved to Chicago with King Oliver to play for him.
In 1924 Dodds worked with Freddie Keppard, Willie Hightower, Lil Armstrong, and Charlie Elgar. He recorded a series of sides with King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, and his brother, Johnny Dodds, who played the clarinet.
From 1927, Warren worked mainly in small groups with his brother, until Johnny Dodds died in 1940.
Baby Dodds was the first to introduce the one man drummer. Before Baby Dodds, during the Early Period which was from 1900-1930, the percusion section consisted of three players. There was the bass drummer, the snare drummer, and crashing symbol player. This was done primarily in parades.
After the marching era But Baby Dodds came up with a much more efficient way of playing the percusion section. He took the bass drum and placed it on the floor with a pedal connecting the mallot. This way the drummer could play the bass beats with his foot and use his hands for other things. He placed the snare drum and the symbols on each side of the drummer so that he could hit each one with different hands in a complex rhythmic pattern just as the separate marching band drummers.
Because of the efficiency of Baby Dodd's new idea, drummers started to use this method. It saved money because they could pay one musician instead of three.
Between 1944 and 1945 Dodds recorded with Bunk Johnson appeared with the the band in New York. He worked with Art Hodes and appearing on the
"This is Jazz" broadcast.
He had a brief tour in Europe in 1948. One year later, in 1949, Baby Dodds, at the age of 51, suffered from a stroke.
Through the 1950's he worked occasionally with Natty Dominique in Chicago, then at Jimmy Ryan's in New York, but was forced to quit playing in 1957.
Baby Dodds died in Chicago, Illinois on February 14, 1959. His autobiography, "The Baby Dodds Story" was published shortly after his death.
Baby Dodds, from his autobiography:
Dodds was born to the hallowed tradition of family musicians, growing up in the shadow of his older brother, the great clarinet player Johnny Dodds. The youngest son in the family, he was named after his father and inadvertently came by his nickname because his mother called him "the baby." The tag was humiliating when young schoolmates picked up on it, but it stuck and eventually became his professional calling card.
As soon as Baby Dodds saw his older brother excel on clarinet he was driven to play with him, and fashioned a makeshift drum kit. "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 motherís chairs and made drum sticks out of them. Sometimes we used to go in the back yard, to our back place. There was a baseboard and I used to kick my heels against the baseboard and make it sound like a bass drum, using the can as a snare drum. With a clarinet it sounded so good that all the kids in the neighborhood came around to get in on the fun."
Dodds worked odd jobs to come up enough money to buy his first drums, and began his musical career in parade bands and dance bands in the years just before World War I. He got a gig in the Storyville red light district at the Fewclothes Cafe in trombonist Roy Palmerís band, playing international themes for the sailors and requests from the girls.
"We played what was later called ragtime," he said, "but then it was called syncopation."
On dance dates the band had to play the popular Creole repertoire, which included mazurkas, quadrilles, polkas and schottisches. They often also played blues, although Dodds described blues back then as being played in different rhythms, "very, very slow, and not like today, but in a Spanish rhythm."
Baby Dodds sang the praises of the music he loved until the day he died.
Watching the drummers
Dodds went to a variety of drum teachers and learned more from watching the drummers around town. He credited Henry Martin, who played with Kid Ory, for the characteristic long press roll that he developed. The young drummer was ambitious beyond his initial capabilities, but his intent to play over his head, and especially to show his brother what he could do, led to constant improvement. He often tried to sit in with his brother in Kid Oryís Band, but the musicians thought he was a bad drummer and wouldnít play with him, which made Dodds even more intent on being accepted.
Dodds never finished high school but worked diligently to educate himself and pass on his knowledge to others. His instruction and drum technique demonstration recording is a crucial piece of primary-source jazz history. Dodds was also a great oral historian and his accounts of the early jazz scene in New Orleans and the music culture on the riverboats are some of the most vividly-realized descriptions of this mythic era.
Dodds went on to play in Frankie Dusonís Eagle band and with Sonny Celestin during the height of the wagon "cutting contests."
"The guys would put the wheels together and tie them so the band that got outplayed could not run away. That made us stay right there and fight it out. And we used to draw quite a crowd of people in the street that way."
Dodds relates an episode when he played with trombonist Jack Carey and they ran up against the Ory band and his brother in the street. Oryís wagon cut them to pieces. "...we wanted to get away. But the wheels were tied together. It lasted about an hour and a half or two hours and it was very discouraging."
It was also, Dodds pointed out, "what made us want to be good musicians."
Dodds really came into his own after joining Fate Marableís riverboat band in 1918, a band that also included Louis Armstrong, Johnny St. Cyr and Pops Foster. This amazing moment in American history marks an important point in race relations, when many white residents in the river towns saw black people for the first time doing something other than manual labor.
Dodds relates a story of playing Hannibal, Missouri, on the steamer St. Paul. "They just sat and stared," he said. "Nobody danced."
But the next time the boat docked at Hannibal, Dodds recalled "My God, you couldnít get them off the boat. I think it was a surprise for the people. They had never before seen Negroes on the boat. They saw Negro roustabouts but had never seen a Negro with a tie and collar on, and a white shirt, playing music. They just didnít know what to make of it. But they really liked it. They were the dancingest people I ever found on the boat."
Dodds left that riverboat in 1921 and went on to realize his lifelong dream of playing with King Oliver, joining that band in San Francisco and following it to Chicago. Dodds began his recording career with King Oliverís Creole Jazz Band in 1923, an experience highlighted by his improvised drum break on "Dippermouth Blues."
Dodds went on to work with a number of Chicago-based bands, and in 1927 he joined his brotherís band, which featured trumpeter Freddie Keppard, for a two-year run at Kellyís Stables. Meanwhile he did plenty of studio work, playing with Jelly Roll Mortonís Red Hot Peppers and Louis Armstrongís Hot Seven as well as work with his brotherís band, Jelly Roll Morton and Sidney Bechet. His studio work shows him to be a complete craftsman at the kit, a superb ensemble player meticulously attentive to every detail and a master of tone and structure. Despite the primitive nature of the drum kits of the time and the limitations of recording technology, which required that the drums be played at low volume, Dodds played with great subtlety and an uncanny ability to come up with the right feel for the arrangement.
"I play for the benefit of the band," he said. "You can feel a change, even if you donít hear it you can feel it. Itís up for me to make the changes. Itís up for me to make the indication of that. If you just go out there and beat thereís no indication.
"The drummer should give the music expression, shading, and the right accompaniment. Itís not just to beat and make a noise... I studied each player individually. I had to study their method of improvising and to know what they intended to do."
Johnny and Baby Dodds played together in numerous groups during the 1930s before Johnny died in 1940. Baby Dodds continued on with other traditional New Orleans jazz giants such as clarinetist Jimmy Noone and his old friend Bunk Johnson.
The Oral History
After 1949 Dodds had a series of strokes that left him partially paralyzed, but still managed to play from time to time up until his death. Even when he was too sick to play, Dodds kept the oral history going, singing the praises of the music he loved until the day he died.
Doddsí drum kit was his most precious possession, acquired piece by piece through his work as a laborer during the days when he struggled to learn the instrument. His autobiography is filled with anecdotes about those drumsĖthe time they were confiscated briefly by the feds when Kellyís Stable was raided on New Yearís day in 1930; the time he was playing with Lonnie Johnson at the Three Deuces in Chicago and the drums escaped a fire that burned the place down on New Yearís morning of 1940; his difficulty in moving them on the trolley, which led him to buy his first car. He even has a classic tale about his drums saving his life, when he fell down an empty elevator shaft behind the bandstand at the Midway Gardens with only his bass drum to cushion the impact. He was taken to a white hospital, where he was refused treatment.
Doddís drums had a life as adventure-filled as their owner. Today those drums remain a tangible tribute to the memory of their owner as they sit in their cases in a climate-controlled archive at the Louisiana State Museum.
"They were a gift from Baby Doddsí nephew, Johnny Dodds, Jr.," explained museum curator Steve Teeter. "Baby Dodds didnít have any children, so he left his drums to Johnny. He has turned down some offers to sell them, but he wanted them to be part of the jazz museum."
(The Baby Dodds Story by Baby Dodds as told to Larry Gara, via www.offbeat.com)