Creole Trombone:Kid Ory and the Early Years of Jazz
University Press of Mississippi
2012: Jackson MS
Ed ‘Kid’ Ory was a pioneering New Orleans musician who was associated with some of the most important artists of the new jazz music of the early part of the 20th Century including Buddy Bolden, King Oliver and Louis Armstrong. Leading the Creole Jazz Band in California he made one of the earliest (if not earliest) recordings by a Creole New Orleans Jazz Band. He was an important component of some of Louis Armstrong’s most important small group recordings of the twenties and also some of King Oliver’s Chicago sessions.
In writing Ory’s story, McCusker was given access to Ory’s unpublished autobiography that was narrated in 1950 to Barbara GaNung, at the time his mistress and later his wife. It was initially taken in shorthand and later typed. This combined with his research into statistical, sacramental and public records. He weaves his story in the context of a creole, born 25 miles upriver from New Orleans, at a time when the racist southern white assault on the rights of non-whites occurred. Louisiana was the state whose law requiring separate accommodations was upheld in the infamous case of “Plessy v Ferguson.”
McCusker traces Ory’s early musical experiences growing up in a world where a racist caste system was imposed and all persons of color were disenfranchised. Ory first acquired a banjo when 13, a gift from his ailing father. As a child he became familiar with Creole folk songs which he would perform later in his life. Brass bands of St. John Parish, where he grew up, piqued Ory’s curiosity and itinerant music teachers would come from New Orleans and offer musical instruction, with a James Brown Humphrey (father of grandsons Willie and Percy themselves noted jazzmen). Humphrey led the Onward Brass Band in LaPlace, taught children and young adults on the plantations and remote communities. Humphrey would also rehearse bands from the students he rehearsed including the Pickwick Brass band which Ory played in. McCusker’s narrative also discusses the traveling musicians and bands and the social functions that music would be heard at.
Ory displayed an entrepreneurial spirit in addition to a musical one. He acquired a beat up valve trombone and later changed to the more modern slide trombone. Moving to New Orleans, he met Buddy Bolden, who left a definite impression on Ory. Bolden’s musical innovation, as detailed by McCusker, was playing the blues for dances and such songs as Make Me a Pallet On the Floor and Funky Butt, were sensations. While not able to accept Bolden’s offer to play trombone, but watching Bolden play, as well as the competing John Robichaux with its musicality, he was able to have his own idea on how a band might sound.
After Bolden’s passing, Ory started leading bands in St.John Parish, sometimes playing in New Orleans. In 1910 he finally moved to New Orleans, first living with family members. Here Ory and his band would play at the dance halls country dances and picnics, and would enter cutting contests with other bands (such as that of Freddie Keppard) and an association with other individuals who would become major figures in early jazz as Johnny Dodds, an early encounter with young Luis Armstrong who would sit in with Ory’s Band at a picnic. Later the arrival of King Oliver (replacing Mutt Carey) would solidify Ory’s Band as the leading band in New Orleans and they would become known as the Ory-Oliver Band. When Oliver left for Chicago, Armstrong replaced him.
Not simply a successful bandleader and musician, Ory was astute as a businessman and successful in sponsoring dances. When a former benefactor started sponsoring dances with Ory, Ory became dissatisfied with their deal and started sponsoring dances on his own. This led to police raids and probable threats on his life that led him to leave for California in August 1919 where he would be until 1925. Armstrong and Dodds were supposed to have joined Ory, but they didn’t so some of his former band members were recruited. His band became a leading band in Los Angeles and he met Arnie Norakog and the Spike Brothers In 1921 he would be recorded by Norakog and these were released by the Spike Brothers. These were some of the earliest jazz recordings by African-American musicians, including the original recording of Ory’s Creole Trombone, that later would be recorded by Louis Armstrong with Ory in the band. McCusker spends considerable space discussing the session, its importance and the music. These recordings are available on, Cabaret Echoes: New Orleans Jazzers at Work, 1918-1927 on the Off the Record label.
Musically things cooled off so in 1925 Ory moved to Chicago, settling in the Windy City and becoming a sideman on some of the most famous recordings of the twenties, starting with Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five recordings. Ory’s recollections of making the recordings are included along with McCusker’s discussion of some of the recordings and Ory’s role on them. Ory would join and tour with King Oliver’s, The Dixie Syncopators until 1927. McCusker also details Ory’s relationship with Jelly Roll Morton with whom Ory recorded as a member of the Red Hot Peppers for some important recordings such as Black Bottom Stomp, but did not participate on later Morton recordings. He also recorded in Chicago with Luis Russell, Irene Scruggs and Butterbeans and Susie with his final recordings of the 1920s being with Johnny Dodds’ Chicago Footwarmers.
Before the end of the decade, he followed his wife back to California. He would struggle playing music until in 1933 at the age of 46 he quit and took a job as a janitor with the Santa Fe Railroad. He didn’t totally quit music and by September 1942 was playing in Barney Bigard’s band that included Charles Mingus on bass. Bigard, as detailed by McCusker, helped Ory get paid royalties for Ory’s tune “Muskrat Ramble. In 1944, Orson Welles had Ory lead a band for his radio show and with this visibility Ory’s Band recorded for several labels. Various albums have reissued transcriptions of Ory playing on Wells radio program and these are available as a download as well.. There are also details about his relationship with his second wife, a white woman, Barbara GaNung. She is depicted as a manipulative and controlling woman who was abusive to Ory, leading him to deny his African-American background and cut him off from many of his old friends and bandmates. This chapter, on his post Chicago years, is somewhat summarily presented in contrast to the discussion of his life which is the subject of the main body of the book.
In addition to this detailed narrative of Ory’s life, McCusker has included a couple of short excerpts from Ory’s Autobiography, a selected Discography of Ory’s recordings, and the music for four “lost” compositions by Ory. There are also some rare photographs and label shots included, nearly 30 pages of end notes and an index. Creole Trombone is an invaluable look at a gentleman who played a substantial role in the development of jazz as well as the times and social context in which he lived. It is a significant addition to the jazz literature.