I have just been reading an excellent essay by Patricia Martin, an American clarinettist, about Johnny Dodds’ musical career as a classic New Orleans jazz musician. It is quite admirable to see how musicians in that period, even with their lack of musical knowledge and diverse backgrounds, achieved to perform jazz at such a high standard.
Johnny Dodds (1892-1940) was born in a clearly split society. Population were pigeonholed as Blacks, Creoles (people descendant of a mixture of different ethnicities, usually white and black) and Whites, and this matter had an enormous influence in jazz music at that time. People were carefully choosing what bands to go and listen to in order to avoid mixing with other classes. Some bands were even bullied from the crowds while playing.
Johnny Dodds came from a black family so he probably didn’t have an easy childhood, but his hard work made him become a relevant clarinet player in early jazz. He taught himself to play the clarinet and was known for having a large and powerful sound, made somewhat heavy by the use of a hard reed and double-lip embouchure. He, as most of the early New Orleans clarinettists, played on an Albert-system clarinet, which allowed greater flexibility in sound and ability to bend notes and create smears.
Despite his short life, Dodds managed to complete around 220 recordings with different bands and orchestras, such as Kid Ory’s Creole Orchestra, Papa Celestin’s Original Tuxedo Band, Joe ‘King’ Oliver Creole Jazz Band, Louis Armstrong’s Hot Seven, Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers, and Johnny Dodds and his Chicago boys’ own orchestra within others.
First jazz recordings started to happen around 1917-1918. Musicians used to have everything planned before the recording sessions as the chances to record again were limited. Thus there was hardly any improvisation of the tunes on those days. Another important fact is that players used to spread out the recording room/studio to look for a better acoustic balance.
Contemporary clarinettists to Jonny Dodds (1892-1940) were Lorenzo Tío Jr. (1893-1933), Larry Shields (1893-1953), Jimmie Noone (1895-1944) and Sidney Bechet (1897-1959) among others. Jazz kept evolving throughout this time and new tendencies such as the ‘Swing’ kept emerging, but, unlike many musicians, Dodds stayed playing traditional jazz until his death.
It is said that no clarinettist could play blues as he did at the time. Even though his solos weren’t as virtuosic as Jimmie Noone’s, he had a unique blues style. He was known for his expressive melodies, predominant use of the chalumeau register, accentuation to the ‘blue’ notes, pulsing vibrato under the pitch and bending notes.
Below a few examples of recordings that clearly characterise Johnny Dodds’ musical transition in his life. Within an ensemble, he went through being a supporting player (complementing the melody with counter-melodies) to band leader of his own orchestras.
I am providing the links below to facilitate the search of the real recordings involving Johnny Dodds playing the clarinet.
‘Canal Street Blues‘ (April, 1923)
‘Wild Man Blues‘ (April, 1927)
‘Weary Blues‘ (May, 1927)
‘Wolverine Blues‘ (June, 1927)
‘Too Tight‘ (February, 1929)
‘Melancholy‘ (January, 1938)