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Riverwalk Jazz Salutes Clarinet Pioneer Johnny Dodds This Week


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Riverwalk Jazz this week pays tribute to first-generation jazzman and clarinet pioneer Johnny Dodds. Present-day New Orleans-based clarinet star Evan Christopher joins the Jim Cullum Jr. Jazz Band to perform Dodds classics like “Dippermouth Blues," “Melancholy Blues" and “Wild Man Blues." The program is distrubuted in the US by Public Radio International and XM/Sirius and can be streamed on-demand from the Riverwalk Jazz website here.

Johnny Dodds settled in Chicago but never strayed from his New Orleans roots. Dodds' clarinet sound, with its 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 well-known local 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 aboard Mississippi riverboats.

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 choruses that are today performed as 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 was 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 as a sideman for recording sessions.

In late 1925 Johnny was working at Kelly's Stables when Louis Armstrong hired him for his first recordings as a leader. The Hot Five and Hot Seven featured New Orleans-style ensembles but also provided plenty of space for Dodds' dramatic solos such as on the classic “Potato Head Blues."

In less than a decade, Johnny Dodds appeared on sessions led by King Oliver, Louis Armstrong's Hot Five and Seven, and Jelly Roll Morton's Red Hot Peppers.

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