Warren ‘Baby’ Dodds, born in 1897. Baby was the younger brother of clarinettist, Johnny Dodds, one of most original and influential reedmen of those early years.
Baby was a schooled drummer, which meant he had a thorough knowledge of the military rudiments of drumming. The difference, however, between Dodds and a conventional straight, parade drummer was his heritage. Dodds had Africa in his blood. His ancestors had been slaves and the rhythms of that exciting continent were, to a great degree, carried to new world. This tradition, mingled with European music, became what we know as Jazz.
Dodds was playing in parades as early as the 1910s, often with Bunk Johnson as well as with "Frankie Dusen's Eagle Band". He played non parade gigs in the famous "Fewclothes Cabaret". A short spell with cornetist "Oscar Papa Celestin's Band" followed, before the young drummer joined Fate Marable's band on the SS Sydney.
In 1921 he joined "Joe 'King' Oliver's Creole Jazz Band", with whom he made his first recordings in 1923. Featured in this all-star line-up was the 22 year-old cornet genius, Louis Armstrong.
The sound of the Oliver band is merely hinted at on these acoustic recordings. Baby is hampered by the lack of a full drum kit, being restricted, for the most part, to playing the woodblock and a choke cymbal. Musicians who heard the band were struck by the big sound, attributable in no small measure to the Dodds rhythm.
By 1927, Baby was playing in brother Johnny's band and can be heard with a full drum kit on recordings made by "Johnny Dodds his Black Bottom Stompers." "Come on and Stomp Stomp Stomp." These sessions from October 1927 were among the first recordings to feature a bass drum, which Baby plays in two-beat time. The two cornet line-up of this band was exactly the same as Oliver's, so it is not unreasonable to assume that this rhythm section sound was close to the real sound of Joe Oliver's band.
Baby gets an early drum break in the middle of the trombone solo on "After You've Gone" Also at this time he found regular employment in the various Washboard bands.
Baby's technique deserves some scrutiny. For the most part, the bass drum is playing two beats to the bar. Press rolls are played on the snare drum. This involves the left stick rolling across the drum with beats two and four accented. The right stick in most cases plays a steady four beats.Tthe roll starts on beat two and again on beat four. The tom toms are used for accents, as are the woodblocks, rims and cymbals. This is an oversimplification, because there was much more to Baby Dodds than this and I advise a close study of the CDs recommended below.
On blocks, Baby would play a wide variety of beats incorporating flams, triplets, double stroke rolls, parradiddles and combinations of all these. The beat was a constantly moving thing and was generous in its width. White drummers such as Gene Krupa, and George Wettling, both Dodds disciples, were ‘on the beat’ players, whereas Dodds often played around the time, placing accents where they were least expected.
Baby's blocks can be heard on Jelly Roll Morton's recording of "Billy Goat Stomp", which also has an early Dodds solo, played across a series of breaks. With Jelly, Dodds was required to play wire brushes and he is one of the first jazz drummers to be recorded with this lighter alternative to sticks. "Mr.Jelly Lord" provides a good example of Baby's brush style, which is merely and adaptation of his press roll, except that the brush is dragged across the snare drum, rather than rolled, with the other brush playing a steady four beats. A comparison to the work of Gene Krupa with the "Benny Goodman Trio" in the mid 30s indicates that Krupa got more than his stick technique from Dodds.
The Depression years found the Dodds brothers struggling to earn a living from music with Baby forced to help his brother Bill run a taxi business. With the revival of interest in early New Orleans Jazz around 1940, Baby recorded for Decca as part of a New Orleans Album. Victor Records also took the opportunity of pairing him with the great New Orleans soprano saxophonist, Sidney Bechet for some memorable sides in 1941 This was a truly all-star lineup, completed by Earl Hines, piano, Rex Stewart, cornet and Welman Braud (another New Orleanian). Dodds can be head employing a wide variety of strokes and rolls, both in the ensembles and during his solo, which is played on the blocks, rims and cowbell.
When Bill Russell rediscovered Bunk Johnson and recorded him in 1944, Baby was his chosen drummer. It is on these American Music recordings, made on less than perfect equipment by the devoted and enthusiastic Russell, that we hear Baby in all his glory.
It is thanks to George H Buck and Barry Martyn and their team at the GHB Foundation in New Orleans that we have this marvellous music available on a series of American Music CDs - see below). All the characteristics of his '20s style are captured on these discs. He plays drums, blocks and rims, but does not however, play the ride cymbal or hi-hat with this band, both drumming styles which had become the trade marks of the Swing era. Baby did however play ride cymbal with other bands.
Listen to "Yes Yes In Your Eyes" and observe the power of his playing, and the tom tom accents. Listen also, behind George Lewis' clarinet solo, to the shifting rhythms and colours that Baby paints with the blocks, rims, toms and cymbal.
In 1944 he made a handful of sides with Richard M Jones Jazzmen. On "New Orleans Hop Scop Blues" there is another example of Baby's rim and block solo technique. In 1945 he joined blues pianist Art Hodes, and recorded for Blue Note "Careless Love". He was regularly featured on Rudi Blesch's "This Is Jazz" Broadcasts, and laid some superior sides down with "Mutt Carey's New Yorkers". He also appeared in what was called the ‘Worlds Greatest Jazz Concert’ in 1947.
Listen to him driving Wild Bill Davison to great heights on "Jazz Band Ball". This time Dodds is playing his own impression of the ride cymbal rhythm. Observe on the second clip that Baby takes a two chorus solo on toms and rides the band out to an amazing climax. Note also the tom tom fill in the final break of the last chorus, plus the four bar break at the end. This is creative and reactive drumming at its best.
From the same concert hear him drive behind Sidney Bechet, as well as playing another fine, block based solo on "I Found A New Baby".
Baby also recorded a number of solo sides, which demonstrate his creative genius.
Bill Russell made a short film of Dodds demonstrating his playing, and this has recently been released with a dubbed soundtrack on an American Music Video available from George Buck's GHB organization at http://www.jazzology.com"
Baby Dodds is often regarded as being old fashioned and out of date, yet the late Art Blakey, one of the greats of modern Jazz drumming, often played Dodds fills with his forward looking hard bop group, the Jazz Messengers. Dodds remains one of the most creative and colourful drummers in the history of traditional Jazz and his paralysis from a stroke in the early 50s robbed the Jazz world of one of its great innovators. He died in 1959.
The tracks used on this article are available on the Following CDs. They are British or European issues (except where noted). All of the CDs are highly recommended to the serious student of New Orleans Jazz and drumming of any style as Baby Dodds is the father of Jazz and Pop drumming.:
© John Petters, May 2006
Sound clips are in MP3 format. Please listen to the clips as the music speaks volumes more than words can express. To hear a clip, simply click on the buttons.
Cake Walkin' Babies - Mutt Carey new yorkers with Baby playing ride cymbal