Warren “Baby” Dodds (December 24, 1898 – February 14, 1959) was a jazz drummer born in New Orleans, Louisiana. He is regarded as one of the best jazz drummers of the pre-big band era, and one of the most important early jazz drummers. He varied his drum patterns with accents and flourishes, and he generally kept the beat with the bass drum while playing buzz rolls on the snare. Some of his early influences included Louis Cottrell, Sr., Harry Zeno, Henry Martin, and Tubby Hall. Dodds was among the first drummers to be recorded who improvised while performing.
“Baby” Dodds was the younger brother of clarinetist Johnny Dodds. His mother, who died when he was nine years old, taught him valuable lessons about persistence and putting one’s whole effort into endeavors, and he carried these with him through his career as a jazz drummer. He was born into a very musical family. His father and uncle played violin and his sister played harmonica. In addition, his father was religious and the family regularly sang hymns together. Dodds, in his autobiography The Baby Dodds Story, told the story of making his first drum: “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”. At age 16, Dodds saved up enough money to buy his own drum set. Although Dodds had several paid teachers during his early years as a drummer, various jazz drummers around New Orleans also influenced him. He started playing in street parades around New Orleans with Bunk Johnson and his band and then got a job playing in Willie Hightower’s band, the American Stars. The band played in various venues around New Orleans, and Dodds recalls hearing many musicians along the way, including Buddy Bolden, John Robichaux, and Jelly Roll Morton. He played with several different outfits including those of Frankie Duson and Sonny Celestin, and he was part of the New Orleans tradition of playing jazz during funeral marches. Dodds describes this experience in his autobiography: “The jazz played after New Orleans funerals didn’t show any lack of respect for the person being buried. It rather showed their people that we wanted them to be happy”.
Dodds gained reputation as a top young drummer in New Orleans. In 1918, Dodds left Sonny Celestin’s outfit to play in Fate Marable‘s riverboat band. A young Louis Armstrong also joined the band, and the two of them were on the boats for three years (from 1918 to 1921). The band played on four different boats, and usually left New Orleans in May and travel to St. Louis, though they also sometimes traveled further north. They played jazz, popular, and classical music while on the boats. Dodds and Armstrong left Fate Marable’s band in 1921 due to a disagreement about musical style, and Dodds soon joined King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band. At this time, the personnel in Oliver’s band were Joe “King” Oliver on cornet, Baby Dodds’ brother Johnny Dodds on clarinet, Davey Jones on alto saxophone, Honoré Dutrey on trombone, Lil Hardin on piano, Jimmy Palao on violin, and Eddie Garland on bass fiddle. They moved to California in 1921 to work with Oliver there, and they played together for about fifteen months. In 1922, the band, excepting Garland, Palao, and Jones, followed Oliver to Chicago, which would be his base of operations for several years. They began playing at the Lincoln Gardens, and Louis Armstrong also joined this outfit. Dodds describes playing with this band as “a beautiful experience”. Dodds recorded with Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Art Hodes, and his brother Johnny Dodds. Dodds played in Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven groups. In May 1927 Armstrong recorded with the Hot Seven, which consisted of Johnny Dodds, Johnny St. Cyr, Lil Hardin Armstrong, John Thomas, Pete Briggs, and Baby Dodds. From September to December 1927 the Hot Five Armstrong assembled consisted of Johnny Dodds, Kid Ory, Johnny St. Cyr, Lonnie Johnson, and Baby Dodds.