A first generation jazzman, clarinet pioneer Johnny Dodds settled in Chicago, but never strayed from his New Orleans roots. Dodds' clarinet sound, with its moving low register vibrato and piercing upper register, was a cornerstone of landmark recordings by King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong.
Jazz writer Bill Russell said of Dodds' greatness, "His was probably the fullest and roundest tone ever produced on the clarinet. Johnny never needed a microphone to be heard—even with the loudest of New Orleans’ great cornetists blasting against him."
One moment Johnny Dodds was a kid playing his clarinet for pennies on the streets of New Orleans—and the next, in high demand with big-name bandleaders. In his early years in the Crescent City Dodds worked with Kid Ory, Frankie Dusen's Eagle Brass Band and King Oliver. Like many New Orleans musicians of his generation, he honed his music reading skills working in dance bands aboard Mississippi excursion riverboats.
In 1920 Dodds moved to Chicago to replace Jimmie Noone in King Oliver's powerful and popular Creole Jazz Band, based at the Lincoln Gardens Cafe. Dodds was in this band when they made their historic recordings for the Gennett label. Today these records are studied and revered as among the best examples of classic New Orleans ensemble jazz. The band’s 1923 debut recording sessions produced Dodds' first famous clarinet solo—two classic blues choruses that became part of the song—"Dippermouth Blues."
Prohibition-era Chicago was full of cabarets and dance halls. For six years in the 1920s Bert Kelly's Stables on Rush Street—in the city's ‘Towertown’ area—was Johnny Dodds' musical home. There he led a series of small ensembles—usually with his longtime New Orleans pal Natty Dominique on trumpet and brother 'Baby' on drums. Before the 20s were over Johnny Dodds’ weekly gig at Kelly’s Stables was earning enough to support his family, and pay the mortgage on a three-story apartment building in Chicago. Yet, Johnny’s major artistic accomplishments would be the result of side jobs he picked up in the recording studio.
In late 1925 Johnny was working at Kelly's Stables when Louis Armstrong invited him to play an important role in his first recordings as a leader. Armstrong was the shining star of these remarkable performances, yet Dodds was showcased and blended in beautifully with the leader. His blues-drenched clarinet sounded right at home with Armstrong on classics like "S.O.L. Blues." The Hot Five and Hot Seven both featured New Orleans-style ensembles and provided plenty of space for the horn players to solo. And Johnny Dodds took dramatic solos on some of Louis' finest Hot Seven tracks including the classic, "Potato Head Blues."
In less than a decade Johnny Dodds had been featured on the King Oliver sessions, performed as a major soloist with Louis Armstrong's Hot Five and Seven, and participated in sessions led by Jelly Roll Morton with his seminal group, The Red Hot Peppers.
Johnny Dodds was one of the most original and talented of all the clarinetists to emerge from New Orleans. Had he lived past 1940 he would almost certainly have been celebrated in the traditional jazz revival as an icon of the movement.
One could imagine hearing Johnny Dodds, with his full, round tone, coming across the airwaves on Eddie Condon's Town Hall radio broadcasts, or his reunion concert tour with Louis Armstrong, or even— his moving to New York to lead the band at Jimmy Ryan's.
But in the very early days of revived interest in New Orleans Jazz, Johnny Dodds made his only visit to New York—for a recording session that would turn out to be one of his last.
Photo credit for Home Page: New Orleans Clarinetist Johnny Dodds Photo courtesy sffeetwarmers.com.
Text based on Riverwalk Jazz script by Margaret Moos Pick ©2010