Baby Dodds

There is a heritage that is traced, followed and respected by New Orleans drummers. They consider themselves part of a living continuum, musicians of a tradition which dates back to Congo Square, to the source of the African rhythms. There is a definitive drumming style that has evolved, yet has remained firmly rooted in the past, to the turn of the last century, and a drummer who established the jazz fundamentals of the instrument. This is his story.

Warren “Baby” Dodds was born in New Orleans on Christmas Eve in 1894. His grandfather was a drummer at Congo Square, and his brother Johnny Dodds was a clarinetist. Baby as he was always called, was naturally drawn to the drums, and absorbed all he could from the city around him. He liked the street parades, marching bands, dance music, and saw Buddy Bolden playing at Lincoln Park. He also took formal studies, and was taught percussion rudiments, and how to read music.

Baby Dodds was playing in local bands in his teen years, and by sixteen he was in the American Stars, which played a lot of outdoor events. He was also playing in the Storyville area, performing a variety of dance flavored pieces as mazurkas, quadrilles, polkas, and of course blues. He joined Frankie Duson’s Eagle Band that was more into the social club street parades and funerals, doing the famous ‘second line’. Next band he was in was Sonny Celestin’s, this is where he came up with his “shimmy” beat, in which he shimmied his shoulders and stomach all while maintaining the beat. By the year 1918, he joined the Fate Marable Band, a riverboat band, playing up and down the Mississippi River. He stayed on with them for three years, playing along with a young trumpeter named Louis Armstrong. It was during this tenure that Dodds came up with his technique of playing on the wood rims of the bass drum. He used the wood blocks a lot, but then ‘sweetened’ the sound by using the rims. Armstrong and Dodds, both left that outfit in 1921, and he headed for California with his brother Johnny (clarinet) to team up with King Oliver in San Francisco. By 1922 they were in Chicago, where Armstrong joined the band.

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“When a man is playing, it’s up to the drummer to give him something to make him feel the music and make him work. That’s the drummer’s job. The drummer should give the music expression, shading, and the right accompaniment. It’s not just to beat and make a noise”. —Baby Dodds

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