Heroes #1: Warren ‘Baby’ Dodds, 1898-1959

“In those days I used to love to drum all the numbers.” – Baby Dodds

Baby Dodds.jpg


If ever there was a Number One hero amongst the ranks of 1920s jazz drummers, Baby Dodds must surely be the man. He, above all his many contemporaries, has come to epitomise what ‘Drums In The Twenties’ were all about – even the title of this site is respectfully borrowed from one of the tracks on his 1946 album ‘Talking And Drum Solos’.

Dodds occupies this position of eminence for two important reasons. Firstly, he performed and recorded extensively in the bands of three of the great founding geniuses of jazz – King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong – and alongside other historic figures such as Kid Ory, Pops Foster, Lil Hardin, Jimmie Noone, and his own older brother, Johnny Dodds. Leaving New Orleans in 1921, Baby Dodds was in the vanguard of jazz musicians spreading out across the United States in the years immediately following the Great War, and the bands he played with were among the most influential on subsequent generations: almost every one of the Heroes I’ll be writing about in the future cited him as a major influence. This brings us to the second reason Dodds’s mark is still felt so strongly: unlike many of his peers, he lived a comparatively long life and left a wealth of information behind in the form of an autobiography (‘The Baby Dodds Story’, written with Larry Gara in 1955), audio recordings of his recollections, and even an instructional film, the first ever made for drums, in 1953.

Dodds IS twenties drumming to many people – for better and for worse. But his style was always his own and evolved considerably over the course of his career. Some of the assertions he made later in life about his and others’ playing in the early years do not always quite match what the records seem to suggest, so to take Dodds’ late-life style as a template for how all jazz drummers played in the 20s would be a huge mistake. But as he was without doubt one of the very best, and we know far more about him than any of his contemporaries, if you are interested in the subject then you ignore his contribution at your peril.

Warren Dodds was born in New Orleans on Christmas Eve, 1898. His older brother, Johnny, showed an early interest in woodwind instruments and began taking lessons and playing for treats whilst still quite a young child. Warren decided percussion was his calling, and began making his own drums out of household objects, accompanying his brother’s clarinet on a lard can studded with nails. Once he was old enough to get a job, Dodds soon bought himself a set of drums and began studying with the legendary New Orleans teacher Dave Perkins. He later went on to study with Louis Cottrell and Walter Brundy.  Dodds later recalled that his main influences as a young drummer were Cottrell (‘Oh my, but he had some wrists!’) and John MacMurray, of whom he said, ‘His roll was so perfect, I tried to pattern my roll after his.’ 

Here is Dodds in his mid-twenties, playing ‘Canal Street Blues’ with King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, on their first ever recording session (for Gennett, in 1923).

Dodds in his later reminiscences recalled that he calmed his nerves by following his usual performance preparation as closely as possible: “I had a bottle and I went off and took a short intermission, and when I came back I was all set to go.”

The received wisdom is that recording engineers believed that drums would interfere with the delicate recording technology and restricted Dodds to playing only a woodblock and a cymbal on these early sides. The records Dodds made with King Oliver, whilst being masterpieces in their own way, are thus less use than they might have been to us from the point of view of researching early jazz drumming. However, close attention to the above photograph of Dodds’s equipment in 1923 and to certain passages in his autobiography can provide us with a slightly more accurate impression of how he might have played in a live situation with the Oliver band.

In the photo (admittedly posed in a photography studio, but we have no reason to suppose this wasn’t Dodds’s regular kit), sandwiched between Honoré Dutrey’s trombone and Louis Armstrong’s shoulder, we see young Dodds hunched over a large (presumably 28”) wooden bass drum and a snare drum tilted at a steep angle. Clamped to top of the bass drum in some way (the photo isn’t clear enough to deduce exactly how) in a handy playing position Dodds has a collection of ‘traps – I can make out at least three cowbells and perhaps other things too. Above this two considerably large cymbals hang suspended from horizontal arms: that on his left Chinese-style and that on his right Turkish-style. They both look to be at least 16” in diameter – the Chinese could be even larger. We might reasonably suppose that it is this exact Turkish-style cymbal, or one very like it, which Dodds uses on the 1923 King Oliver recordings.

To gain an insight into how Dodds used the rest of these instruments in a live context, his book is invaluable:
“In 1923 I always used very heavy sticks […] But I realized I should learn to beat lighter with the sticks. I worked on this and began getting very technical […] I played differently for each instrument in the band. With the piano I tried to play as soft as I could with a low press roll […] For my brother [clarinet], I would play the light cymbal on top. And for Dutrey [trombone] I would hit the cymbal in a flat way, so it would ring, but not too loud. For Joe and for Louis [cornets] I would hit the cymbal a little harder and make it ring more.”
Despite the limitations of the small kit he was using, Dodds’s playing on ‘Canal Street Blues’ is characteristically propulsive, and on the instruments that are audible we can hear evidence of his driving beat on the woodblock and fine ear for the right moments to punctuate the music with his cymbal – about which, much more ought to be said.

Unlike the ragtime and ‘jass’ drummers of the 1910s and early 20s (whose cymbals, once struck, were allowed to vibrate freely), Dodds frequently ‘chokes’ his cymbal by grasping its edge with his hand and cutting the sound off dead; this choppy burst of noise does much to heighten the overall excitement of the music and kick the band along. Interestingly, Baby  has the distinction of being among the first (preceded only by Frank Snyder of the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, mere months before) to have been recorded using the choked-cymbal technique, which would become one of the most distinctive and immediately-recognisable features of 1920s drumming. Surprisingly, he does not appear to have received any credit for this possible innovation, either during his lifetime or subsequently, and in none of his written or spoken legacies does he mention whether the choked cymbal was his own idea, or whether Snyder or another drummer had originally devised it. Unfortunately, the well-informed and well-intentioned interviewers who worked with Baby in the 40s and 50s  seem to have  rather fixated on questioning him about his press roll (which, alas, he definitely didn’t originate), and perhaps neglected to quiz the master in enough detail about the provenance of his cymbal work. With the benefit of a great deal of hindsight, perhaps Dodds’s most important early contribution to 20s jazz drumming can be reappraised.

Dodds’s famous press roll, however, should not be completely overlooked. During his lifetime he frequently highlighted his use of the roll (or, as he dubbed it, his ‘shimmy beat’) as one of his stylistic trademarks. The first part of the instructional video above shows Dodds demonstrating this texture; keeping a steady two or four to the bar on the bass drum, his left stick beats out all four on the snare while his right plays slurred ‘press’ rolls on beats two and four, giving the otherwise crisp, march-like rhythm a smooth, louche element which one can imagine was very attractive behind a band. Dodds claims he was using this device from his early days, and although there is no way to verify this assertion – on the Oliver sides no snare drum is audible – he was certainly using it as far back as the late 20s, when he recorded a number of sides with the great pianist Jelly Roll Morton.

On ‘Wolverine Blues’ we hear Morton in a trio setting alongside Baby Dodds and his older brother Johnny. The intimate setting and improvements made in recording technology by this date allow us to hear a great deal more of the subtle nuances of Dodds’s drumming. Entering halfway through the track (the first half being a piano solo) Baby first plays delicate syncopated patterns on a thick-sounding cymbal behind his brother’s solo, then picks up the brushes for a chorus – and note how punchy his backbeat is with these, whilst still sitting below the other instruments! – before shifting to his Chinese tom-tom for the last chorus. This idea of varying textures from one chorus to the next is another subject Baby Dodds evidently felt strongly about:
“It was my job to study each musician and give a different background for each instrument […] That’s the drummer’s job […] The drummer should give the music shading and the right accompaniment. It’s not just to beat and make a noise. I played differently for each instrument in the band.”

Another favourite technique of Dodds’s, which he appears to have innovated, was using the hoop of the bass drum as a playing surface. Striking the hoop or rim of the snare drum for an unusual effect was not an entirely new idea (Rossini had already used it in opera and Sousa in marching-band music, for example) but Dodds’s use of the wooden bass drum counterhoop as an alternative or complementary sound to his woodblock appears to be original. In his autobiography he explains his discovery: “The woodblock had a tone that was too shrill and sharp for the band […] on most numbers I used the shells or rims of the drums instead […] The sound of the rim was much better.”

Dodds also played his rims in conjunction with his assorted ‘traps (woodblocks and cowbells) of various pitches, setting up a host of syncopated melodic patterns and making a hell of a din in the process. This device can perhaps be heard best with Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers in 1927 on ‘Billy Goat Stomp’.

Vaudeville goat-bleating notwithstanding, this record is a tour-de-force and endlessly fascinating from a drumming point of view too. Dodds is playing a full kit now, he’s playing loudly, and it’s well-recorded. He is allowed several solo breaks [0:05 – 0:20] to show off the various sounds of his ‘traps and TWO full choruses of solo (likely the first recorded example of a jazz drummer playing multiple solo choruses!) The first [1:00] he plays Chinese tom-tom, the second [1:10] he plays what sounds like a largish Turkish-style cymbal (the same one again!?) and the highlight of the whole record, when the whole band finally enters on a furious stomp, is kicked along by Dodds’s scintillating, polyrhythmic rim-and–‘trap work [1:20].

Dodds himself later recalled, “One number that was pretty complicated for me was ‘Billy Goat Stomp’. There were places in that where the vocalist made a noise like a billy-goat and I had to do something else on the drums at the same time. It was in Spanish rhythm like so many of the numbers used to be played in New Orleans. I used the cymbal and soft mallet on that number, and also the Chinese tom-tom.” 
I may well return to dicuss ‘Billy Goat Stomp’ in more detail in a future article – there are two separate released takes of the tune which have several significant differences, and some of what Dodds plays on both is worth much closer scrutiny.

By all accounts Baby Dodds was a gregarious, fun-loving character fond of whisky, high-jinks and practical jokes, though still obviously someone who worked extremely hard at and thought deeply about his art. In later life he not only took rightful pride in his playing achievements but also in nurturing the second generation of jazz drummers. There is so much more to say about him, but as he is the only one of these Heroes whose life story and philosophies on music can be extensively read and even heard, I urge anyone interested to know more to go directly to the source.