Baby Dodds has become among the most respected and influential representatives of early jazz drumming from New Orleans.
Warren “Baby” Dodds belonged to the first generation of New Orleans jazz drummers (born between approximately 1890 and 1905) to travel extensively and document their style in recording studios. Together with his colleagues Zutty Singleton (1898–1975) and Paul Barbarin (1899–1969), Dodds’s recordings demonstrate the best of the early African American New Orleans jazz drumming tradition. Unfortunately, most New Orleans drummers of the previous generation made no records—with the one exception of Louis Cottrell Sr. (1878–1927), who recorded with the Piron Orchestra in New York and New Orleans in 1923 to 1925. Dodds’s influence was felt by generations of drummers who followed him.
Dodds was born in New Orleans on December 24, 1898, as the youngest of six siblings. His elder brother John would become one of the most influential early jazz clarinetists. Although Dodds’s mother had hopes of his studying medicine, he was determined to follow his brother as a musician. As a young drummer, Dodds began playing for established local bandleaders—such as Bunk Johnson, Willie Hightower, Manuel Manetta, Papa Celestin—and in Frankie Dusen’s Eagle Band. In 1918 he joined the bandleader Fate Marable playing on the Mississippi riverboat circuit for three years, during which time he honed his playing and reading skills and built a strong reputation among his colleagues. Dodds was part of the New Orleans tradition of jazz funerals and remarked in his autobiography, “The jazz played after New Orleans funerals didn’t show any respect for the person being buried. It rather showed that we wanted them to be happy.”
King Oliver, working in San Francisco, hired Dodds to replace drummer Minor Hall. In 1923 Oliver’s band, by then resident in Chicago, made its recording debut with Dodds and his brother, clarinetist Johnny. Leaving the band later that year, the two brothers remained in Chicago and made classic recordings with Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton. Dodds worked with his brother’s groups but also for Freddie Keppard, Lil Hardin, Charlie Elgar and, during the late 1930s, as accompanist for a variety of guest swing soloists at Chicago’s Three Deuces nightclub. Following his brother’s death in 1940, he played with clarinetist Jimmy Noone and then freelanced around Chicago.
Baby Dodds was a key figure in the traditional New Orleans jazz revival of the 1940s. In 1944–1945 musicologist Bill Russell brought Dodds to his hometown for a series of documentary recordings with Bunk Johnson, George Lewis, and Wooden Joe Nicholas. Subsequently, he accompanied the Johnson band to New York for a short-term residency, then returned there the following year to work with Art Hodes and Rudi Blesh’s weekly radio series This is Jazz. Dodds was also a popular musician at the numerous public jam sessions being organized at that time. He made his only trip to Europe when clarinetist Mezz Mezzrow hired him to play at the first European jazz festival in Nice and in concerts around France in 1948. Dodds returned to New York, played a long residency in Chicago, and then went back to New York, where he suffered his first stroke in 1949 and another the year after. Dodds eventually managed to resume playing until 1957, although he had been impaired by another stroke in 1952. He remained dedicated to his art, developing new ideas for percussion projects and recording his life story for Larry Gara, which was published as a book shortly after Dodds’s death in 1959.
Dodds’s style, characterized by light, smooth press rolls, is in contrast to the ubiquitous cymbal accompaniment that has become standard, and by a pulse emanating from four beats per measure on his 28-inch bass drum. Although he played this style back in New Orleans during the 1910s and for King Oliver in the early 1920s, the limitations of studio equipment precluded the use of the bass drum, leaving only the wood block and cymbals audible; thus, Dodds’s style cannot be heard on his earliest records. Subsequent recordings—with the notable exception of the 1927 Louis Armstrong Hot Seven recordings, where one hears only the choked cymbal—demonstrate his full tonal and rhythmic spectrum.
An additional characteristic of Dodds’s style is his idiosyncratic use of the drum rims, the bass drum shell, and a woodblock for a wide variety of tonal coloring and rhythmic accompaniment. Other percussion equipment in his drum set, in addition to the woodblock, included a quartet of tuned cowbells, a “tim-tim” (miniature cymbal), a ratchet—all mounted on the bass drum rim—and a siren. This personal selection of sound effects characterized other drummers of his generation and derived from the demands of accompanying vaudeville acts.
Up until his acquisition of three modern, mechanically tunable tom-toms in 1945, which he first used during his New York residency with Bunk Johnson, Dodds had used a small Chinese tom-tom (two thick, decorated pigskin heads tacked onto the top and bottom of a painted wooden convex shell). For deeper pitches he hit the batter head of the bass drum with the butt end of his drum stick in the old New Orleans tradition. The new setup enabled him to tune all five drums and produce some unique drum solos, heard on releases by Folkways/Smithsonian, GHB, and American Music, which has also issued a short, silent film on AMVD-1 of one of his solos synchronized to one of his recordings. A book with an accompanying CD (Vince Hickey, The Baby Dodds Drum Method, 2000) has also been published by one of his students of the 1940s, with transcriptions of his lessons and the student’s recording of them.
In New Orleans, Baby Dodds was an important influence on the early careers of Zutty Singleton, Joe Watkins, and Ray Bauduc. Later, in Chicago, he became a mentor for many young white drummers, the best-known being Ben Pollack, George Wettling, Dave Touch, and Gene Krupa. His appearances in New York in the 1940s to 1950s left a lasting impression on many young drummers, such as Jake Hanna. Dodds has in later years become the most respected and one of the most influential representatives of early jazz drumming from New Orleans, a fact acknowledged and endorsed today by many modern drummers, such as Ginger Baker of the British rock band Cream. In 2000 nephew John Dodds Jr. donated his uncle’s drums to the Louisiana State Museum in New Orleans, and in 2012 Larry Gara contributed his twenty-four hours of oral history tapes that had been the basis for the 1959 Baby Dodds autobiography.
Dodds died on February 14, 1959, in Chicago.