Kid Ory - Biography

By Stuart Kremsky


            Influential trombonist and bandleader Kid Ory was one of the true innovators of New Orleans style jazz. The foremost early proponent of the “tailgate” style, his powerful sound and gritty tone set the early standard for the instrument. When his band entered the studio in Los Angeles in June 1921, they became the first black group from New Orleans to make a record. A much-valued sideman, Ory was an integral part of some of the greatest recordings of early jazz, including classics by Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives, Jelly Roll Morton and his Red Hot Peppers, and King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band.


            Edward “Kid” Ory was born in LaPlace, Louisiana, on Christmas Day, 1886. Details of his early years are sparse, but he was apparently attracted to music from the very beginning. As a child he built and played homemade instruments. His first regulation instrument was the banjo, but at some point he switched to trombone. It has often been surmised that Ory's early experience with banjo, with its link to earlier styles like ragtime and the cakewalk, influenced his approach to the trombone.


            The “tailgate” style gets its name from the days when a band would announce a dance by playing on the back of a wagon in the streets of New Orleans. Since the trombonist needed room to manipulate his slide, he would sit at the back of the wagon, or the tailgate. As David Wilken, faculty member at University of North Carolina at Asheville and a major contributor to the Online Trombone Journal, describes the style, “The trombone would either outline the chords by playing something similar to a tuba or bass, or – more likely – play a countermelody to the cornet. The most striking feature of the countermelody was the glissandos and other raucous effects that could be produced with the slide trombone.” Ory proved to be a master of effects and he established a trombone language of growls, smears and glissandos. Wilken notes his “…raw and energetic quality that made him one of the most feared musicians when it came to contests between the bands of New Orleans.” Saxophonist Jack Kelson, known as Jackie Kelso, played with Ory in the forties. He marveled that he “could say more with one or two notes than any other trombone player I know.”


            Between the years 1912 and 1919, Ory led one of the preeminent bands in the New Orleans area. Some of the future stars who passed through his groups include cornetists King Oliver and Louis Armstrong, clarinetists Johnny Dodds and Jimmie Noone, and soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet. By 1919, in the face of faltering health and a run-in with powerful local promoter Pete Lala, Ory decided to relocate to Southern California. In Los Angeles, Ory put together a new band, including cornetist Mutt Carey and clarinetist Dink Johnson. Known variously as the Original Creole Jazz Band, Kid Ory's Brown-Skinned Babies and the Ory’s Sunshine Orchestra, Ory and his musicians played steadily up and down the West Coast in clubs like the Creole Café in Oakland and the Wayside Park Café in Los Angeles. Ory made his first recordings for the enterprising Spikes Brothers, first backing singers Roberta Dudley and Ruth Lee, and then presenting two of his own songs. Although most discographies date these sessions to June 1922, jazz historian Floyd Levin believes that the recordings actually took place one year earlier. In either case, “Ory's Creole Trombone" and "Society Blues," credited to Spike's Seven Pods of Pepper Orchestra, are the first instrumental recordings by any New Orleans group. The band included Carey, Johnson and bassist Ed Garland, who would continue to play with Ory for decades. The original labels mistakenly read “Nordskog,” with the Sunshine logo pasted over, according to research by Levin. The Rhino compilation Central Avenue Sounds: Jazz in Los Angeles 1921-1956 (1999) begins with a pitch-corrected version of “Ory’s Creole Trombone.”


            Ory was easily coaxed into moving to Chicago, where Oliver and Armstrong were already established, in 1925. Late in the year, he turned his band over to Carey and joined Oliver’s Dixie Syncopators at their regular gig at the Plantation Club. In November 1925, Ory participated in the Armstrong Hot Five session that produced “Yes! I’m in the Barrel” and “Gut Bucket Blues.” It was the beginning of a amazing two year run of absolutely classic recordings. Ory was back in the studio with the Hot Five in February 1926 when the group waxed “Heebie Jeebies,” “Cornet Chop Suey,” and “Muskrat Ramble,” Ory’s best-known composition (although Armstrong later claimed that he’d written it). In March, he was a member of the Oliver band that recorded “Snag It” and “Too Bad” for Vocalion. June found him back with Armstrong to make “King of the Zulus,” “Big Fat Ma and Skinny Pa” and “Lonesome Blues” for OKeh, and that September he took part in the historic Victor session with Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers that resulted in such gems as “Black Bottom Stomp” and “The Chant.”


            Ory continued to play and record extensively until the end of 1927, appearing on well-known titles like Morton’s “Dead Man Blues,” “Grandpa’s Spells” and “Original Jelly Roll Blues”; Oliver’s “New Wang Wang Blues” and “Doctor Jazz”; and Armstrong’s “Skid-dat-de-dat,” “Big Butter and Egg Man” and “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue.” He also found time to squeeze in recording sessions with blues singers Ma Rainey and Lovie Austin, and pianists Lil Armstrong, Tiny Parham and Luis Russell.


            In 1930, with the Great Depression starting to be felt, Ory decided to return to California. He joined his brother as a chicken farmer, largely abandoning music for the decade. He picked up the trombone again in the early forties. By May 1943, he was appearing with trumpeter Bunk Johnson in San Francisco. Ory regained some of his former prominence with radio broadcasts of a jazz history series on “Standard Oil Schoolroom,” as well as a recurring featured spot on the “Orson Welles Wonder Show” in the spring and summer of 1944, where he played with such notables as Noone, Carey, reedmen Barney Bigard, Omar Simeon, Albert Nicholas and Joe Darensburg, and drummer Zutty Singleton. Ory’s 1944 and 1945 sessions for the Jazz Man label are often credited with helping rekindle interest in New Orleans jazz, and performances like ”Creole Song” and “Blues For Jimmy” are considered to be masterpieces of the style. “Creole Song” also featured the first recorded example of Ory’s vocals. Levin writes that he “enjoyed teasing audiences with improvised patois lyrics frequently containing subtly masked bawdy remarks.” His reputation intact as one of the early stars of New Orleans jazz, and with his powerful sound undiminished, Ory found his career revitalized, and he was able to keep a regular working group together. In the mid to late forties, Ory and his revived Creole Orchestra recorded many sessions for Columbia, Decca, and an array of small West Coast labels.


            Ory was reunited with Armstrong when they appeared in the feature film New Orleans in 1947. While Armstrong was in Los Angeles for filming, Ory joined the trumpeter’s Dixieland Seven for a Victor recording session. Around 1950, Ory signed with the Good Time Jazz label, the traditional jazz imprint of Los Angeles-based Contemporary Records. Over the next six years, the association yielded such albums as This Kids’s the Greatest (1953), The Legendary Kid (1955) and Kid Ory’s Favorites! (1966). Prominent sidemen included trumpeters Teddy Buckner and Alvin Alcorn, clarinetist George Probert, pianist Don Ewell, bassman Wellman Braud, drummer Minor Hall, and for a few sessions late in 1954, guitarist Barney Kessel. Many of Ory’s performances originally recorded during his mid-fifties residency at San Francisco’s Club Hangover later surfaced on the German Dawn Club and Danish Storyville labels.


            Ory appeared as himself in the 1956 biopic, The Benny Goodman Story. Ory and the band, now signed to Verve Records, made a European tour at the end of 1956, recording a concert album in Paris. In July 1957, Ory appeared at the Newport Jazz Festival as part of an all-star group with fellow ‘bone stars J.C. Higginbotham and Jack Teagarden, plus trumpeter Henry "Red" Allen, pianist Claude Hopkins and drummer Cozy Cole. The Creole Jazz Band continued to record extensively for Verve, including the well-received Kid Ory Plays W.C. Handy (1959) and Henry "Red" Allen Meets Kid Ory (1959). Mosaic’s 8-CD box set of The Complete Kid Ory Verve Sessions, complete with more than 30 previously unissued tracks, came out in 1999.


            Ory continued to play as a studio musician for a few years after his Verve contract ended at the end of 1962. He retired to Hawaii in the late sixties. His final recording took place on a visit to New Orleans in April 1971 when he led a sextet with Ewell and guitarist Danny Barker through a program of New Orleans classics for the English Upbeat label. Edward “Kid” Ory died in Honolulu, Hawaii on January 23, 1973. He was inducted into the Jazz and Big Band Hall of Fame in 1986.


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