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Jazz Legends

Jazz Legends - their life & music


On a cold windy day in 1920, the train from New Orleans pulled into Chicago and discharged a short man carrying a travel bag and a small bundle wrapped in news paper ..his clarinet. An onlooker would have been excused for taking little notice of Johnny Dodds, who that evening was to join the Creole Jazz Band at the Dreamland and who was shortly to establish himself as one of New Orleans’ greatest clarinetists, performing and recording with Oliver, Keppard, Armstrong and Morton – the giants of jazz.

Born in New Orleans in 1892, Johnny grew up as one of six children in a musical family. From a humble start – playing tin whistle accompanied by his younger brother “Baby” on toy drums – Johnny soon graduated to clarinet and for a while took lessons from Lorenzo Tio. But Johnny was mostly self-taught and his music school was New Orleans itself, with it’s never ending parades and funerals, picnics and dances.

By age 15, Johnny was working at a rice mill and at noon he would eat his lunch outside and practice his clarinet. One day the great string bass player Pops Foster heard him playing there and got Johnny his first gig with trombonist Kid Ory, leader of the Eagle Band. For six years Johnny played professionally with the popular Eagle Band, which featured a lot of blues – Johnny was a fine blues player and in the low register had an especially low down and dirty style. He did a stint on the riverboats with most of the Kid Ory band and with brother Baby Dodds on drums. Johnny was responsible for helping get young Louis Armstrong his first regular gig on the riverboats.

Then Johnny received an invite from the cornet legend Joe “King” Oliver to replace Jimmy Noone in the Creole Jazz Band at the Dreamland in Chicago. Johnny accepted and never looked back. In 1922, the Creole Jazz Band was booked into the Chicago’s Lincoln Gardens, brother Baby Dodds was on drums, Louis Armstrong came north to play second cornet and the band with its two cornet frontline was a big draw. Other musicians appreciated the band and would drop by after hours, recognizing that here was the apex of New Orleans jazz.

In April 1923, the Creole Jazz Band made history when they recorded nine tunes in a single day for the Gennet Record Company. These recordings were a breakthrough, representing the first by any of Chicago’s African American jazz bands. More recoding sessions followed for Paramount and Okeh. On these great tracks, Johnny Dodds lays down the role of the clarinet in New Orleans jazz and producing powerful solos tinged with blue notes. Johnny went on to record with Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five and with his own bands: the New Orleans Wanderers, The New Orleans Bootblacks, the Black Bottom Stompers and the Chicago Footwarmers.

Johnny died of a heart attack in 1940. His music and his recordings continue to have a profound influence on the jazz revival musicians.

-------- ©   Mike Slack, 2002

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