Warren "Baby" Dodds
by Rick Mattingly
'I’ve been through the mill, from drum pad on up to soloing,' comments Warren 'Baby' Dodds in his landmark recording Talking and Drum Solos. 'That takes in every bit of it. Drum pad is where you start. No bass drum at all, just a pad. No snare drums. Sticks. From pad…to drums, from drums to street drums, from street drums to orchestra work, from orchestra work to pit work, from pit work to concert work, from concert work to show work.'
During a career that began with New Orleans street bands around 1916 and continued into the 1950s, Dodds paved the way for much of the jazz drumming that followed. His press roll evolved into the standard jazz ride-cymbal pattern, he was the first to use a cymbal as a timekeeping element, and he gradually moved away from the use of 'traps' to a selection of drums and cymbals that foreshadowed the modern drumset.
Born in New Orleans on Christmas Eve, 1898, Warren Dodds acquired the name 'Baby' early in life. 'My name was the same as my father’s,' Dodds recalls in Larry Gara’s biography The Baby Dodds Story. 'My mother would call ‘Warren’…and my father would answer, and she’d say, ‘I’m calling the baby.’ That’s where the Baby came in. My sisters and brothers carried it to school. I used to get angry about it and I’ve jumped on many kids and fought them for calling me Baby. After I got into the music business, people found out my name was Baby and it fit perfectly. For some reason, an alias or nickname will go much farther in life than a real name.'
When Dodds’ older brother, Johnny, took up the clarinet, Baby got jealous. 'John would go and play at parties, and he would get all the ice cream and cake,' Dodds recalled. 'So I took a lard can and put holes in the bottom and turned it over and took nails and put holes around the top of it. Then I took some rounds out of my mother’s chairs and made drumsticks out of them. I used to kick my heels against the baseboard and make it sound like a bass drum, using the can as the snare drum.'
Of course, Dodds had his heart set on having some real drums, but although his father bought Johnny a clarinet, he refused to buy Baby any drums because of the potential noise. But after Baby’s persistent pleading, his father finally said he could have some drums—if he bought them himself. Baby got a job with a wealthy family as a butler and yard worker, saving his money until he could get a snare drum and some sticks. Then he got a better-paying job in a factory, eventually earning enough for a rope-tensioned bass drum, a foot pedal, and such 'traps' as a cymbal, woodblock, ratchet, and whistles, all of which came secondhand from pawn shops.
As Dodds was working to earn the money for drums, his biggest inspiration was a drummer he remembered only as McMurray. 'I first heard him when I was about fifteen,' Dodds recalled. 'He played in street parades and in the Robichaux band. When playing for dancing McMurray used a very small snare drum which looked like a banjo. He used ebony sticks and you would never know they were so heavy. He played beautiful drums. When he made a roll it sounded like he was tearing paper.'
After acquiring his drums, Dodds went to a teacher named Dave Perkins, who taught Baby the rudiments. 'He gave me a drum pad to use,' Dodds remembered. 'He didn’t want me to use a bass drum. Well, he didn’t know I owned one, so I practiced there with the pad, and I’d go home at night and execute what I knew on both bass drum and snare.'
By this time, Baby was starting to do street parades with Bunk Johnson’s band. Dodds also started taking lessons from Walter Brundy, who taught him to read music.
'I got ideas and pointers from a lot of others who were playing in New Orleans at the time,' Dodds recalled. 'I went to Louis Cottrell and learned some more of the rudiments of technique from him. I also got some pointers from a very good drummer whose name was Paps, but we called him Rabbit. He was with tent shows and I heard that he used to drum for Ma Rainey. I learned just by looking at him work. I got my press roll from Harry Zeno, Henry Martin, and Tubby Hall. The guy who used it most effectively was Henry Martin, who played with Kid Ory. It was a pretty hard thing to learn, but I worked at it until I got it. Of course, I did it in my own way and according to my ability, and it never was exactly like someone else’s. I used to study the rolls of different drummers at dances and in parades and worked out a long press roll which I preferred to the shorter ones.'
Dodds’ way of playing press rolls ultimately evolved into the standard jazz ride-cymbal pattern. Whereas many drummers would play very short press rolls on the backbeats, Dodds would start his rolls on the backbeats but extend each one to the following beat, providing a smoother time flow.
Dodds’ first major gig was with Willie Hightower’s band, the American Stars. 'We played what was later called ragtime but was then called syncopation,' Dodds explained. 'On New Orleans dance dates we also had to play mazurkas, quadrilles, polkas, and schottisches. Of course, we also played the blues. The blues were played in New Orleans in the early days very, very slow, and not like today, but in a Spanish rhythm.'
Dodds played with a succession of bands in New Orleans, eventually landing a gig with Sonny Celestin’s band at Jack Sheehan’s Roadhouse, a cabaret-style establishment. There, Dodds came up with what he referred to as his 'shimmy beat.'
'It was wartime, around 1918,' he told Gara. 'One night a French soldier came in. When he heard the music he couldn’t dance to it, but he just started to shake all over. I saw him do it and I did it too. The people got such a kick out of seeing me shaking like that that they all came around and watched. When I saw that it caused such a big sensation, I continued it.'
In the notes to Talking and Drum Solos, Frederic Ramsey, Jr. notes that: 'For the shimmy beat [Dodds’] loosely hinged stomach wobbles up and down in perfect time while his arms flail at the drumheads. Throughout, a steady beat from his foot sets the tempo.'
In late 1918, Dodds started working with Fate Marable’s riverboat band, which included a young Louis Armstrong. Dodds said that he learned a lot about music during the three years he played on the riverboat. 'We had an hour and a half or two hour rehearsal every day, all new music,' Dodds told Gara. 'That’s why we learned to be such good readers. And we had to be perfect with it. That was the first place I learned what ‘time’ was. They would hold a metronome on me, and a stop clock, and I wouldn’t know anything about it. I had to be a very strict time keeper in those days.
'It was on the riverboat that I began using the rims instead of the woodblocks,' Dodds added. 'The woodblock gave a loud sound, and I substituted the shell of the drums, and it sounded so soothing and soft, and it still would make the number lively.'
Dodds also had a hand, or rather a foot, in the invention of the sock cymbal. 'I was in St. Louis working on the steamboat and William Ludwig, the drum manufacturer, came on the boat for a ride. I used to stomp my left foot, and Ludwig asked me if I could stomp my toe instead of my heel. I told him ‘I think so.’ So he measured my foot on a piece of paper and the space where I would have it and he made a sock cymbal. One day he brought one for me to try. Well, I had just taken the cymbal off the bass drum because I didn’t want to hear that tinny sound any more, and I didn’t like the sock cymbal either. Now it’s a big novelty for drummers. Some drummers can’t drum without them. I can’t drum with them.'
Early in 1922 Dodds joined the band of Joe 'King' Oliver in San Francisco. A few months later the band relocated to Chicago, where Louis Armstrong joined the group.
'One day Joe bought me some wire brushes,' Dodds remembered. 'It was a new thing and I was probably the first guy that ever worked with wire brushes in this part of the country. But I still beat heavy even with the brushes. I didn’t like the brushes and couldn’t get anything out of them. But I realized that I should learn to be lighter with the sticks. I worked on this and began getting very technical with the drumsticks. That’s why I can beat so light now with sticks.'
Dodds said that Oliver’s band gave musicians the chance to work out their own ideas, and Baby took advantage of the opportunity to develop a sense of color. 'It was my job to study each musician and give a different background for each instrument,' Dodds explained in The Baby Dodds Story. 'The drummer should give the music expression, shading, and the right accompaniment. It’s not just to beat and make a noise. I tried to play different for each instrument in the band. With the piano I tried to play as soft as I could with a low press roll—not too soft, of course, but just the right volume. For my brother [clarinetist Johnny] I would play the light cymbal on the top. And for [trombonist Honore] Dutrey I would hit the cymbal the flat way so it would ring, but not too loud. For [trumpeters] Joe and Louis I would hit the cymbal a little harder and make it ring more.'
Dodds made his first recordings with Oliver in Chicago, which ultimately led to Baby leaving the band over an argument about royalties. Dodds stayed in Chicago for nearly twenty years. He played with a variety of groups, including several bands led by his brother, until Johnny Dodds’ death in 1940.
Other drummers came to study Dodds’ playing during his years working Chicago clubs. 'George Wettling often watched me at Lincoln Gardens and he once asked me to show him how I held my drumsticks when I worked,' Dodds told Gara. 'I showed him, and for a while his drumming was very much like mine. Dave Tough watched me closely, but he had been drumming ever since high school and was already a very good drummer. Ray Baduc used to ask me how to do various things. When we were working at the K-Nine Club Gene Krupa had just got a job with Buddy Rogers’ band, and he wanted to know about doing show work. He couldn’t see how it was possible to watch the show, the conductor, and his drums all at the same time. I told him to the best of my knowledge how it was done.'
He also recorded with several artists, including Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton. 'Sometimes when recording with Louis I used the afterbeat cymbal to back him up,' Dodds said. 'I used this on the record we made of ‘Willie the Weeper.’ It was my style of playing and I used it often for dancing. Some people today think my drumming was heavy; it wasn’t that at all, but rather it was because my technique was so sharp. Each time I hit the cymbal it was clear and distinct, but it wasn’t that I was hitting it hard. I was careful to try to hit the cymbal or rims, or even the woodblock, just right, and the way I tried to drum required a good-thinking brain and a sharp ear.'
In Gara’s book, Dodds noted an important characteristic of Armstrong’s music that reflected a transition in the jazz style. 'With Louis’ recording outfit we used four beats to the measure,' he explained. 'That was different from the older days in New Orleans when we always used two.'
When recording some trio dates with Morton, Dodds adapted his sound to fit the music. '[Jelly Roll] just wanted to feel us, not to hear us. Because he wanted the drum so very soft I used brushes on ‘Mr. Jelly Lord.’ I didn’t like brushes at any time, but I asked him if he wanted me to use them and he said yes. On the ‘Wolverine Blues’ I decided to try using my Chinese tom-tom. I figured it would change the beat yet still sound good, and Jelly left it in the record.'
Around 1940 a revival of New Orleans jazz put Dodds in great demand, and he played with traditional groups led by Jimmie Noone, Bunk Johnson, Sidney Bechet, and others. He returned to New Orleans in 1944 where he worked and recorded with Johnson, and then went to New York with Johnson for an extended gig at the Stuyvesant Casino. Dodds also recorded with Johnson during this period, often playing just snare drum while Lawrence Marrero played bass drum, in the New Orleans street band style. And on one tune, ‘Listen to Me,’ Dodds contributed an improvised vocal.
In 1945 Dodds also recorded under his own name. 'My name was on the contract, but I didn’t tell anyone how to play or even what to play,' he said. 'As leader I felt that it was my place to let everybody else have a showing. By the time my chance came it was all over and the recording was finished. But I didn’t care about that. I was interested in having my name on the records.'
In 1946 Dodds recorded several drum solos along with spoken explanations and demonstrations of some of his techniques. Several of these recordings were issued by Folkways as Baby Dodds, Talking and Drum Solos. On the standard tunes 'Careless Love' and 'Maryland,' Dodds just played the regular drum parts he would have played with a band. But the other solos were improvised on the spot.
'My favorite solo was the one I called ‘Improvisation Number Two,’' Dodds said. 'I especially liked it because of the changes in it and the different tempos. I also liked ‘Tom-Tom Workout’ very much. I made that with only three tom-toms and used my snare drum for my fourth. I named another one of the solos ‘Spooky Drums’ because making those records was the spookiest thing I had ever done in my life. And it struck me that hearing such sounds late at night would be very spooky.'
Dodds worked with several different artists in New York over the next couple of years, including playing solo drums for a Merce Cunningham dance recital and participating in jam sessions at the Hotel Sherman and Congress Casino. 'One time at a jam session I used a novelty I had worked out using two sticks and my foot to play a solo on my tom-tom,' he recalled. 'I put my foot on the head of the tom-tom and got different tones by moving my foot around. I worked out another little novelty using three tom-toms and the snare. I took a soft mallet and played ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’ using only the four drums. Those tom-toms were tunable and I would tune them to get the right pitch.'
After a European tour with Mezz Mezzrow in 1948, Dodds returned to Chicago and worked with Miff Mole. Shortly after returning to New York in 1949, Dodds suffered his first stroke. He still played from time to time until 1957, and he died in February of 1959.
'I always worked to improve my drumming, and I never drummed just for money,' he said in The Baby Dodds Story. 'I loved it and I felt that drums have as much music in them as any other instrument. A drummer provides a very important foundation for the rest of the musicians. You can’t get into a locked house without a key, and the drum is the key to the band.'
Dodds, Baby. Talking and Drum Solos. Folkways Records. 1951.
Gara, Larry. The Baby Dodds Story. Louisiana State University Press. Revised Edition, 1992.
Read, Danny L. 'Baby Dodds. Modern Drummer. VIII/8, August 1984.
Robinson, J. Bradford. 'Baby Dodds.' The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz. Macmillan Publishers Ltd., London. Second Edition, 2002.
Spagnardi, Ron. 'Warren ‘Baby’ Dodds.' The Great Jazz Drummers. Modern Drummer Publications. 1992.
Baby Dodds Selected Discography
by Mark Griffith
Louis Armstrong, 1923, Volume 1 and 1923–24, Volume 2
This is a collection of the 37 songs that Baby Dodds made with King Oliver’s Jazz Band (which also featured Louis Armstong) in Chicago. These recordings best show Dodds’ more sparse New Orleans jazz drumming style before it began to combine with the busier Chicago style of jazz drumming. On these recordings you can notice Dodds’ varying his orchestrations behind the different soloists. However, it must be noted that these recordings were made on early recording devices that caused drummers to greatly alter their playing style (as to not obscure the band, and to prevent the recording machines from skipping).
Louis Armstrong, The Hot Fives and the Hot Sevens Volumes 2 and 3
After Dodds was in Chicago for a while, his style began to evolve. His accompanying skills became more refined, and he continued to alter his playing even more to fit the soloist and the music around him. These legendary recordings (made in 1927) capture Dodds’ more refined Chicago-style of jazz drumming.
Jelly Roll Morton, The Pearls
When Dodds was in Chicago he made two very important trio recordings with Jelly Roll Morton and his brother, clarinetist Johnny Dodds. This collection includes many of these recordings. The tunes 'Wolverine Blues' and 'Mr. Jelly Lord,' capture a much more modern jazz drumming approach. On the Morton trio recordings we can hear Dodds playing in a 'catch and release' jazz ride-cymbal style, possibly for the first time on record.
Johnny Dodds, South Side Chicago Jazz
This collection of 1927–1929 recordings captures Baby working with his brother, clarinetist Johnny Dodds. This collection also captures Dodds’ washboard playing. Although he didn’t enjoy playing the washboard, he excelled in this unique percussive art form. We can hear his jazz drumming evolving even further with his brother’s band, The Black Bottom Stompers. And we get to hear several tracks of Baby’s fascinating and modern approach to washboard playing with Jimmy Blythe’s Owls and the Beale Street Washboard Band. Of special note, check out his washboard adaptation of the jazz ride-cymbal pattern on 1929’s 'Forty and Tight.'
Bunk Johnson, The King of the Blues and 1944/45
By the mid-1940s, Dodds had moved back to New Orleans, where he began working and recording with trumpet player Bunk Johnson. Baby sounds comfortable in the recording studio environment, and the more modern recording styles allowed him to play in a more natural style, making these recordings an essential document of Dodds’ evolving jazz drumming style.
Upon Dodds’ return to New Orleans, historian William Russell took the opportunity to record Baby playing with many different bands. He also had Dodds record numerous drum solos and spoken explanations of drumming and music. All of these recordings (a couple of which appeared on Talking and Drum Solos on Folkways), appear on this self-titled recording on the American Music label. The recordings, made between 1944 and 1946, are an important document in jazz and jazz drumming history. American Music also made a video entitled Baby Dodds New Orleans Drumming, which features clips of New Orleans drummers Baby Dodds, Josiah Frazier, Alfred Williams, Abbey 'Chinee' Foster, and Milford Dolliole.
George Lewis, Of New Orleans: With the Eclipse Alley Five and the Original Zenith Brass Band
George Lewis was one of the most popular bandleaders on the 1940s New Orleans music scene. However, he played music in a more traditional marching band style that predated the innovations of King Oliver and Louis Armstrong. This recording is a collection of two of Lewis’ bands (which both featured Dodds) that played in this 'pre-jazz' style. Because Dodds never made any recordings as a young man, this is an important look into the musical roots of Dodds’ playing in the style that was popular before he moved to Chicago in the early 1920s.
Baby Dodds Trio
In 1945, Dodds made this recording as a bandleader. It features two unaccompanied drum improvisations, a duet between drums and piano, and three other tunes. This is one of the last recordings where Dodds sounds absolutely comfortable playing in the jazz drumming style he helped invent.