Notes by JOHN DODDS II:
Father played his clarinet at home every day. Sometimes he would
put it down and take up his alto or soprano sax for a while, but
soon he would be back at the clarinet for another hour or two.
Usually he played softly (although the upstairs renters said he
never bothered them; they liked to hear him). Sometimes he played
records - including his own - and then he would try variations on
the passages he had heard.
In our teen years we three kids (my brother William, sister
Dorothy and myself) began to ask for tunes, and he would usually
play them for us. But there were some popular and swing tunes
that he simply refused to fool with saying "That's a stupid
nursery riff" or "It's trash' - and we knew enough not to badger
him for that one again.
After we were grown, he told us about the time Al Capone asked for a tune that Father had to admit he didn't know. Capone tore a $100 bill in two and poked half into Father's handkerchief pocket with "Nigger you better learn it for next time!". When Capone came in again a week later, Father earned the other half. Father was sensitive but also sensible.
Mother said that she went from New Orleans first to San Francisco
shortly before I was born in November, 1921. I was told that we
lived in the Fillmore district there. A few years after coming to
Chicago, in 1924, Father began the purchase of a "three-flat - a
three story apartment house - on South Michigan Avenue.
In that home I first became acquainted with a jazz band.
After playing a while they might rest while Mr. Jones brought out some music and explained it to everyone. Sometimes he and one other instrument would play for a time, but the action would be plodding compared to the first tunes. That was much less interesting to me and at that point I might go into the kitchen where Aunt Stella Oliver and Mrs. Dutrey and Mother would be preparing dinner (which would be served just as soon as the rehearsal room could be cleared and converted back into the dining room).
There never was any question about who was the boss; it was Uncle Joe. Thereby he also became the father figure for our whole intimate social group. I was painfully disillusioned when later I learned that these musicians were not in fact close relatives. For a long time I was the only child at rehearsals, and everyone spoiled me rotten, bringing crackerjacks, Baby Ruth bars, Halloway suckers and taffy apples. Of course I wanted them all for aunts and uncles!
The revelation that they were not related may have occurred at about
the time Father began to talk to Mother about dissension in the band.
There had been a basic understanding that if a member secured a
suitable substitute he could take a day off, or even a week for a
trip back to New Orleans. But later Uncle Joe had taken to hiring
substitutes for outside jobs and recordings. The morale of the
fraternity began to change. While still with Oliver Father mentioned
to us playing at Kelly's Stables. (Especially after he described the
stalls and the wall decorations of reins and collars. I wondered why
horses had to have music!).
In that same year Mother began to suffer cardiac murmurings. As she felt herself declining she became more religious and felt that she must be baptised, a rite that had been overlooked when she was a child. In September, 1931, she insisted on being helped by friends to the Pilgrim Church (where Prof. Thomas Dorsey was and is still the choir director). The exertion and excitement were too much. She died at the font.
Uncle Bill Dodds was an auto mechanic and he persuaded Uncle Baby and Father to enter a taxicab venture with him. At one time they owned eight cabs and a garage, but neither Father nor Uncle Baby ever drove cabs. Father also was responsible for our three-flat building, he hired someone to do the janitor-gardener-maintenance work until we boys were big enough to take on those jobs. Father impressed upon us by his personal care (chap-preventive applications to his lips; wearing gloves in the cold; and dieting to avoid unsightly bulges) that his occupation was solely that of a musician!
There were several persons at the house almost every day. Some had music to demonstrate or sell, some talked about recording, and some called socially. Every holiday we would have big dinners with the table crowded with friends, the women often eating in a second shift at the table. Some of the musicians I now know to have played with Father were then only slightly familiar names. I don't remember ever having met Jimmy Blythe, Charlie Jackson or Lee Collins. I don't remember what Junie Cobb or George Mitchell or the Reeves brothers looked like. I thought Tommy Ladnier's name was "Laneer" and I can't remember his face. Barney Bigard and Albert Nicholas were good friends to the whole family but I don't think Jimmy Noone ever stopped by. We used to see Lovie Austin or Clarence Williams playing piano at the theaters where Father would sometimes play in the pit for a Saturday or Sunday matinee, while we Dodds kids were left backstage in the care of doting chorus girls in satin and spangles. Oh, I liked that. I knew Tiny Parham when these records were made, but I didn't know he was a musician. Jelly Roll Morton played piano at several of our parties. Benny Goodman came to visit several times and I remember Frank Teschemacher. Jimmy Dorsey was a good friend of Father's. Musicians would compare Father and Baby to the Dorsey brothers - they quarrelled often, even on the bandstand. Once Baby threw a drumstick while they were playing and Father ducked it, without either of them missing a beat. The dancers thought it was comedy business and Mr. Kelly suggested that they make an act of it, but Father preferred to keep his quarrelling sincere and meaningful!
I can recall hearing Father mention that holding a clarinet toward horizontal allowed a shade more competition with brass instruments. But he would say firmly: "If they can't play it, they have to clown it" when we came from a theater where Wilton Crawley "the human worm", would contort with his instrument or Fess Williams would point his at the ceiling. Father also was a conservative on bandstand deportment. He didn't even encourage Baby to carry his washboard to work; after Baby had worked so hard (in about 1928) to play a washboard with thimbles in the manner of Jasper Taylor. The record people liked it - but Father was no hokum man!
Major John Dodds II (U. S. Air Force, retired) returned to Chicago in 1964 after 23 years of military service that included long terms in Japan and Congo. ln 1969, at 48 (the age of his father when he died in 1940), John II is District Manager for Equitable Life Insurance Company and lives on Michigan Avenue, just south of the Loop, with his son John III. When this project was mentioned, he immediately found time in a very active personal schedule to set down his reminiscences of his father. These notes are drawn from a much longer account taped by John Steiner - and are also based in part on a recent interview of Major Dodds by Italian jazz authority (and Johnny Dodds specialist) Alessandro Protti.
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