John McCusker’s biography of the early New Orleans jazz trombonist, Edward “Kid” Ory, his family called him “Dutt,” is interesting and enjoyable because he tell us of both Kid’s life and of what was going on in the musical, social and racial scenes around him.
Ory’s life began in a cabin in the former slave quarters on The Woodlands Plantation about 25 miles upriver from New Orleans. McCusker tells us of life and work on the plantation.
Dutt’s parents were sharecroppers and he worked with them in the fields from an early age.
Dutt sang in children’s quartets and beginning in his early teens, taught himself to play different instruments, some of which he made.
Eventually, he settled on trombone, which he played in various local ensembles, including his own band. From time to time, he took his band to New Orleans and also played in City ensembles.
Because of his German ancestry, he called himself Creole, not colored. Creole, a French term, had different meanings. It served to distinguish the Acadian and other inhabitants of Louisiana from the Americans who flooded the area after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.
It included descendants of eighteenth century French, Spanish and German settlers.
It applied to free people of color and to those of mixed race. He grew up speaking French. Clearly, Edward Ory was Creole.
However, the law did not recognize Creole - a person was either white or black, therefore, Ory was black. Due to the long history of racial mixing, segregation was not as severe in New Orleans as it was elsewhere in the South at that time. Ory was able to play in bands with both blacks and whites for events that were attended by both races. He was given the name, “Kid,” in 1908 by Buddy Bartley, the manager of Lincoln Park, where he often played.
In 1910, he moved to New Orleans, where he worked in construction as a marble cutter until his playing career caught on. Eventually, his became the top band in the City.
New Orleans had four kinds of bands, brass, dance, string and gut-bucket; the last played in the brothels in both black and white Storyvilles which existed from 1897 to 1917.
In another sense, New Orleans had two kinds of bands, those who could read music and those who could not and had to improvise. Ory’s was the latter. He later took private trombone lessons and learned to read music.
Collective improvisatory New Orleans jazz evolved in the late nineteenth century from the formal European style, which the reading bands played.
Charles “Buddy” Bolden was a leader in the improvisation movement and Kid learned to play by listening to him.
Bands played while riding on wagons for advertisers. They also played for concerts, dances, funerals, parades, parties and competitions.
Competition between the bands was very cutthroat but eventually Kid’s band came out on top.
“Creole Trombone” also tells about the other bands in the city and who played in them. Throughout the book, we read the names and dates of many of the musicians Ory worked with or knew over the years. Some of these individuals went on to national and international fame.
Kid’s life and times prior to his moving to California in 1919 occupies nearly three-quarters of “Creole Trombone.”
Kid lived and played in the Los Angeles and San Francisco areas for six years, performing in various venues and bands for different race record labels. He worked as a sideman in established bands and also formed his own using people whom he had played with in New Orleans.
Kid moved to Chicago in 1925. From there he went on to play in New York and other places around the country.
Sometimes he had his own band and other times he was a sideman, playing for live audiences and making acoustic and electrical recordings on race record labels. He retired from music around 1933 and moved back to Los Angeles, where he worked as a janitor.
Not much of great interest happened after that. McCusker devotes only five pages to the next forty years of Kid Ory’s life. He started a comeback in 1942 and remained musically active until he retired to Honolulu in 1966, where he lived out his life.
McCusker includes 10 pages of pictures of Ory and scenes important to him. He also included a select discography.
John McCusker is a jazz history enthusiast who uses the usual primary and secondary printed sources. He also quotes at length from Ory’s unpublished, hand-written autobiography and from people whom he interviewed.
“Creole Trombone: Kid Ory and the Early Years of Jazz” is a reading about the jazz scene in its earliest days in its city of origin.
Christopher Banner is a Manhattan resident.