Tribal Elders



Baby Dodds

Baby Talk

Playing For The Benefit Of The Band

By Bill Russell & Chip Stern




Warren "Baby" Dodds (1898-1959) was among the most accomplished drummers to emerge from the New Orleans jazz scene at the dawn of the recording era—right at the point where the technology shifted from mechanical to electrical recording.  For all intents and purposes, as the rhythmic rudder for the classic ensembles of King Oliver and Louis Armstrong, Dodds is the father of modern drumming.


Here in this revealing 1953 interview with the legendary composer-jazz historian-record producer

Bill Russell (1905-1992), Dodds shares his insights on the spiritual and human side of the percussionist's art, in an impassioned soliloquy about how a drummer can learn to play for the benefit of the band.


Now each man has a solo, I gives him a different beat.  It may sound to someone that’s listening close by the same, but it’s not.  I would say it’s a different sound to it, because I gives every man a chance of his opening.  In other words, like a guy gonna come in, I give him something for him to come in on—and make it different from the fellow that’s got through.  Even if it’s piano or trumpet or clarinet or trombone, I give some kind of indication that something else is comin’. 


Baby Dodds

The Drummer As Psychologist

“You gotta be thinkin’ all the time.”


And that a lot of drummers don’t do, because you got to think.  And while you're thinkin’, you have to work with your companion or work with your band or work with your outfit.  You gotta be thinkin’ all the time.  When they’re thinkin’ about doin' something, you gotta be thinkin’ something, too.  And I try to make a distinction of some sort—and to the change—that you know, even if the guy don’t come in, you know somethin’ should come in there.


And that's the way I play.  I play for the benefit of the band.  And when I change like that, something else comin’—something different.  And it’s got to be different, ‘cause I’ve changed it.  And you can feel a change.  Even if you don’t hear it, you can feel it.  And that’s why I drum along, and I do that practically with any band that I work with, because it’s up to me to make the changes.  Blowing instruments I play with, they make a change, but it’s up to me to give an indication of that.  Just like you would say “What we do next?” and someone say “Well, I'll tell ya.”  Something like that, see?  It’s an indication that something else is comin’—or something different is comin’.


King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band

Featuring Louis Armstrong and Baby Dodds

“You Can Feel A Change, Even If You Don’t Hear It.”


Well, if you just go along and beat‑beat, crash‑criddle, well, it’s no indication, and it don’t give you nothin’ to look forward to.  But when you make something a little different in there, somebody say,  “What's comin' up now?” Then maybe you hear the clarinet; or the clarinet’s playin’ or the trombone come in; or ‘ya hear something else come in...the piano’s in, and I make something abruptly or something different, that’s the trumpet must be comin’ in.  See, that’s the way I do.  And it makes it very, very distinct where I do it, and makes it very...lovely for a band, because somebody know it’s their time.


And I don’t make a finish.  It’s not exactly a finish.   But that’s what you gotta be thinkin’ all the time: what the next person is going to do; who’s comin’ in next?  And that makes you have a distinction of different ones comin’ in with solos.  And don’t mean for you to beat louder than the solo—means for you to keep down.  If it’s a clarinet, you know it’s a clarinet, you must keep down.  Piano, you must keep lower.  So those things, fellows don’t think about.  They beat the same way if a clarinet’s playin’, be just the same—bam, bam—now that don’t, that don’t make sense.


And you must play along with drums—drummers are essential in the band, they’re very essential.  And of course you must drum like that.  You got drummers who know that they are essential, which they are, because you play a band or hear a band who haven’t got any drums or the drummer hasn’t got no spirit or the drummer’s just beatin’—it don’t sound so good.  Now, that’s a study I had to pick up my‑self.  No one told me that.  No one showed me how.  That was just what I had to do, because I do work all the time with my fellow man.  I wanna see him happy, same as I—even, even if I'm not happy.  If I’m unhappy, I wanna see him happy.  Therefore it makes a big difference.


Regardless of how I feel, so long as he feel alright.  Then when you do that, and work in conjunction with your band, your people are dancin’ or sittin’ ‘n listenin’, they will have a different reaction.  Without someone that’s drummin’ think about these things, it’s no good.


Baby Dodds Drum Kit

Courtesy A Drummer’s Tradition


Even if you feel in yourself  “He’s not doing nothin’,” somebody’ll say “Gee, there’s a difference in the band there.”  Why?  Because you’ve done something different.  No one wants the same beat all the time…even though you can do it.  But it makes the band.  And then the band’s got no pep that way.  So that's my i‑dea of changin’ like that—it's for the benefit of the band.


And goin’ along with the man blowing the instrument—I will say mostly blowing or piano—he must follow the phrases.  And that’s why I wants to know each time a band starts to playin’, I want to know what they goin’ to play.  That way, if it’s a number that I don't know, I follow very closely—pay strict attention.  If it’s one I know, well, I know where the phrases come—that’s why I can keep up.  A lotta fellows don’t think about that. 


And in a lot of bands you would say “Whatcha goin’ to play?”



Whatchu want to know for?  You only the drummer.”



But they don't know—that’s very essential.  You need to know what’s gonna play, what they going to play, and what tempo it’s going to be in.  Well, that gives you a chance to give them something to work with.  A man workin’, he can’t dig a posthole unless he’s got a spade, can he?  If a man’s gonna nail somethin’, he can’t nail a nail unless he got a hammer.  Now those are the things what I think of with drumming, what a lot of fellows call me old‑fashioned, ‘cause they don’t know what I'm doin’.  And if they was good drummers, they wouldn’t say I was old‑fashioned.  They would say that I was more up‑to‑date than what they doin’ today.  Because they know I had to study what I’m doing to make things sound like it do.



Drumming On A Mississippi Riverboat With Fate Marable

“…The Catcher Has Got This Pitcher In Mind, To Know Exactly What To Do.”


That’s why a lotta fellows, I play in the band, they like me to drum.  I feel them all out.  I work with all of ‘em: the guitar, banjo, the bass; I work with all of them—'cause they all belongs to me.  I feel that I’m the key man in that band, and it’s up to me to make all them feel like playin’.  Even if it’s no more than joking with ‘em.  You can joke along with a band, and you have somebody with a grin on their face, and still they’re blowin’.  And you can pass the word along, that somebody’ll feel good—well, that’s all up to spirit.  I’ll say, just like a pitcher and a catcher.  Now you would wonder, why do a catcher go out to the pitcher and talk to him on the mound, and the pitcher never comes in and talks to the catcher?  Because the catcher has got this pitcher in mind, to know exactly what to do, and for him to not to get excited.  Well, that’s like my job.  In drummin’, you have got to pay attention to each and every one, and you must hear that person distinctly, and hear what he wants—you gotta give it to him.  If he don’t like that, if he don’t go with it, give him somethin’ else.  And that way you keep your band smooth.  You have to keep your band jumpin’ and keep everybody lively.


There’s More Besides Drummin’ Than Just Beating

“If They Was Good Drummers, They Wouldn’t Say I Was Old‑Fashioned.

They Would Say That I Was More Up‑To‑Date Than What They Doin’ Today.”


You know, you must, you must be a musician.  You can’t just be anybody.  Anybody can’t drum.  Anybody can beat a drum, but anybody can’t drum.  You must study those things.  Study a guy’s human nature.  Studies about what he will take or see about what he will go for—all that’s in a drummer.  And that’s why all guys is not drummers that’s drumming!  So frankly, you got to use diplomacy—you must use that.  You got to study up something that will make them work.  You can’t, you can’t holler at a man, you can’t dog him.  You can’t do that, not in music.  Now it’s up to me to keep all that lively—that’s my job.  There’s more besides drummin’ than just drummin’.  There’s more besides drummin’ than just beating [honk honk].  And it’s my job to know what that part is—I got to find it.  And when I sit down with a band, that I hunts for.  A band that’s playin’ is an ensemble: I find the kick to send ‘em off with—I find something.  Now, unless a drummer can find those things, well, he don’t even talk to me as a drummer, ‘cause I know he's not.


Baby Dodds And Art Hodes

“If you are evil, you going to drum evil.”


You see a band dead: a drummer can liven up everybody; make everybody have a different spirit; and he can make everybody pretty angry, too.  And he can have ‘em so that they be so angry with him, but they have to play.  So all those things, all and all, a drummer's a big factor in a band, which you know that.


Then again, I think about the situation, how it derives with me now.  There’s lots of things I’ve learnt even sitting down doing nothing, just thinking—a lot of things.  I do believe, when I ever get back to my drums, I think I’ll be a different drummer than I used to be—because I have a deeper study in mind.  I need my spirit study.  Now I know that sounds very funny to a drummer to hear me say spirit, but drummin’ is spirit!  You gotta have that in your body, in your soul.  You gotta have it even in your drumming that go along, you gotta have that spirit.  And it can’t be an evil spirit—it’s got to be a good spirit.  Now I know it puts you way back to thinkin’, why?  Because music is no good if you’re evil.  That’s no good.  If you are evil, you going to drum evil.  And when you drum evil, you goin’ to put evil in somebody else’s mind.  Now, first thing you know somebody put the evil in somebody else’s mind, well, what kind of band have you got?  Nothin’ but a evil spirit band.  That’s what I mean by spirit.


The Drummer's Beatin’ His Head Off—Well, Who Cares?

“So We Gotta Keep Up With The Drummer,

Drummer’s Gonna Drown Us Out,

Well, He’s Gonna Blow Louder. 

So If He Feels That The Drummer Is Soft,

Well, He’s Gonna Come Down, Too.”


Now, if the spirit is good, any good spirit will dwell with good spirits—and God help a bad spirit band.  But you know that it’s liable to do anything.  They liable to step on each other’s instruments—anything.  Might put limburger cheese on a man’s piano—anything.  And that’s what the spirit is.  That you has got to keep up…what I worked at so many times, Bill, until I just couldn’t do any different now.


‘Course, I haven’t got the spirit of liveness that I used to have, because I'm gettin’ older, but, I still have a little bit left.  So you’ve got to keep a spirit in ‘em, and that’s a drummer’s job, ‘cause he’s not playin’ nothin’; he hasn’t got nothin’ in his mouth.  He’s got to keep that spirit—that chatter—all the time in that band.  Not loud enough to ruin the music, but loud enough that somebody can hear ‘em, and it’ll go around.  His job is to keep everybody in good spirit: keep everybody’s jaw full; keep everybody playin’; keep everybody’s mind on what they are doing.


And the changes is still up to you.  Now if you wanna make a band play louder, you can make it play louder.  You wanna make a band play medium‑soft, you can make it play medium‑soft.  You wanna make a band play pi‑ano—very soft—you can do that.  And no band is not goin’ to play and the drummer’s not doin’ nothing; they’re gonna feel that something's wrong—they gonna come down, too.


The drummer's beatin’ his head off—well, who cares?  So we gotta keep up with the drummer, drummer’s gonna drown us out, well, he’s gonna blow louder.  So if he feels that the drummer is soft, well, he’s gonna come down, too.  I think if the average young drummer today were to feel that his part is to help the other fellow, not make him play himself to death, or not make him play something that he don’t want to play—his place is to help him.


And without help, there’s no band.  Without a drummer that knows how to help, it’s no band.



* * * * * * * * * *



POSTSCRIPT:  When I originally contacted Bill Russell about publishing my transcription and edit of his interview with Baby Dodds for a stillborn drum publication back in 1989, the first thing he told me was that it was in the public domain and that I didn’t have to get his permission.  How’s that for a totally unexpected response. 


Bill Russell

An Indomitable Champion Of New Orleans Jazz


Be that as it may, to me it was purely a matter of credit and respect: Bill Russell was a brilliant post-modernist composer, jazz historian-producer and a champion of New Orleans music; the man who re-discovered Bunk Johnson; a fixture at Preservation Hall—and if anyone deserved props, it was him.  I told Bill that I wanted to send him a check for $500.  Bill told me that this was way too much money, because I had done all of the work of transcribing Baby’s soliloquy.  Say what?


Try as I might, I could not talk him into it.  Bill finally haggled me down to fifty bucks.  When I asked for an address where I could send him a check, he allowed as how he hadn’t filed an income tax return in his entire life, and that he didn’t accept checks.  If I was going to insist on sending him money, mail it to him in cash.  There was no way I could coordinate that with my incredulous publishers, so I ended up sending him a U.S. Grant out of my own pocket.  As it turns out, neither our piece nor the magazine itself was ever published.


At that time I did this transcription from a cassette, courtesy of producer-collector Ralph Jungheim, as LPs of Russell’s American Music label were long out of print.  A year after Russell’s death, producer and fellow New Orleans devotee George H. Buck Jr. of Jazzology re-issued the complete Baby Dodds (American Music AMCD-17), including some previously unreleased materials, and subsequently made Bill’s entire American Music catalog available on Compact Disc. 


This recording and the entire George H. Buck Jazz Foundation Family of Record Labels are a cornerstone of American music, and I would urge all of you to follow this link to their Website, check out their fine selection of recordings and dig deeper into the roots of the music we play today—and get hip to all the Tribal Elders upon whose achievements we swing into the 21st Century.  They have a whole lot of hip roots music for sale…and Pilgrims, we’re talking about music that swings so hard, you like to lose your mind.  You can e-mail Jazzology or write to them directly at 61 French Market Place, New Orleans, Louisiana 70116.  You can reach them via telephone (504-525-5000) or Fax (504-525-1776), and by all means ask for George.  He’ll give you an earful of knowledge and enthusiasm.    


George H. Buck Of Jazzology Has An Out Of Body Experience

Music That Swings So Hard, You Like To Lose Your Mind


Also, as you check back in on this Webzine from time to time in the foreseeable future, we hope that you will follow the Navigation Bar to our HUMORESQUE section (still under construction), where we plan on gathering together varied sound samples of interest.  Mr. Buck has generously granted Chip Stern’s Epicenter Of Hip permission to share the experience of hearing Baby Dodds speak on track # 10 of his Baby Dodds collection: “Talking: Playing for the Benefit of the Band.”  We think that you’ll be very moved by the spiritual depth, musical compassion and practical wisdom of hearing this legendary Tribal Elder speak.    Much as we hope you will enjoy reading a transcript of the life lessons Bill Russell elicited from his brother in rhythm some fifty-plus years ago. 


Likewise, you can also find Baby Dodds (American Music AMCD-17) for sale at, and for a real treat, follow this link to Bernhard Castiglioni’s wonderful Drummerworld Website, where you can sample an excerpt from a rare film clip of Baby Dodds making funky use of a tom-tom (manipulating the pitch with his foot) on a performance of “Tea For Two” (available as part of The Classic Drummers Series from Hudson Music). 





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