One day in 1994, John McCusker was conducting his regular jazz tour when he came to Edward “Kid” Ory’s old home on Jackson Avenue. As he delivered his talk, he noticed something bothersome. “One of the guys in the tour was shaking his head,” McCusker recalls. “The representation I gave of Kid Ory was the one I had gotten from most of the books out there. Which is that yeah, Kid Ory was a guy that played in New Orleans but what was really important about him was that he had recorded with Louis Armstrong and King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton in the 1920s. And what this guy came back at me with was, ‘No, that’s not who Kid Ory was. Kid Ory was the hottest bandleader in New Orleans between 1910 and 1919 and it was out of his band that the first generation of future jazz stars arose. Louis Armstrong. King Oliver. Johnny Dodds. All those guys cut their teeth in Kid Ory’s bands.’”
“I was sorta peeved about this. So I went to Bruce Raeburn at the Tulane Jazz Archive and he sided with the guy on my tour! He said ‘Well, yeah, he’s absolutely right. Kid Ory’s probably the most overlooked figure in early New Orleans jazz.’”
That realization started McCusker on a nearly twenty-year quest of jazz historical discovery. This October, that journey reaches a climax with the publication of his Ory biography Creole Trombone by the University Press of Mississippi. The book’s looming publication prompted a seminar that McCusker will be delivering at Satchmo Summerfest on August 5th, on the subject of Ory’s influence on Louis Armstrong.
How important was that influence? “Immeasurable,” says McCusker. “It’s in Ory’s band that Louis comes into his own as a musician. He’s paid well. He’s got regular gigs… With Kid Ory’s band jazz crosses over from a ‘race’ music, which is what it was in [Buddy] Bolden’s period, into the music of the moment. Everybody’s playing it, everybody’s listening to it. All these sexy dances were coming along around 1914-1915: the “Turkey Trot,” the “Bunny Hug,” the “Grizzly Bear.” You can’t dance those to some uptight band. You’ve gotta have a hot band to play. And in that period, whether you were white or black, whether you were Irish or Italian, your goal was to hire the Kid Ory band. And that opened up the world to Armstrong.”
Yet all this might still leave one with the impression that the great trombonist’s proper role in history is that of just another disposable rung in the ladder of Louis Armstrong’s rise to fame. Nothing, in McCusker’s opinion, could be further from the truth. This gets at the heart of his qualms with the popular conception of jazz history, in which individualistic, charismatic geniuses like Armstrong are propelled toward inevitable fame and immortality by the sheer force of their personal talent. He sees an equally important role for figures like Ory, whose genius was not his musicianship (“There were greater trombone players, certainly,” McCusker says) but his higher-level conception of the music. “You can take it from any musician you ask,” he says. A great bunch of musicians does not necessarily make for a great band. But having an effective bandleader with a good musical concept—and a good business concept—makes all the difference in the world.”
“[Ory] knows what he wants his band to sound like, and he gets that sound from them. Whether he’s got top-of-the-line legendary musicians like King Oliver and Louie Armstrong or whether he’s got guys you haven’t heard of as much like Mutt Carey or Joe Darensbourg. Today people don’t talk about [Duke] Ellington as being necessarily the greatest pianist that ever lived. But he was a great bandleader. And he knew how to get the sound out of his band. Ory in his milieu is the same thing… it’s a disservice to history and to Kid Ory to think of him as merely a musician.”
Some facts of Ory’s life will already be familiar to fans of early jazz. He was raised on the Woodland Plantation in LaPlace, Louisiana, then moved to New Orleans in his 20s where he established himself as a popular trombonist. Yet when McCusker first set out to learn about Kid Ory, he had some basics to sort out. “There was a controversy about his birthdate,” he says. “Since Ory came from LaPlace and my first posting as a Times-Picayune photographer was in the River Parish bureau, which is based in Laplace, it wasn’t hard for me to figure out what Catholic church Ory had gone to. So I wrote away to get his baptismal certificate and a week later, I get a copy in the mail, written in French.”
The writing of Creole Trombone involved a lot of original statistical research. McCusker found Ory in the census, dug up his property records in St. John the Baptist Parish and even found his name in New Orleans arrest records. In 2000, he tracked down Ory’s daughter Babette, whom Ory fathered at age 67. She handed him an artifact that would be a coup for any historian: Ory’s unfinished autobiography. “It sounds sexier than it is,” says McCusker. “It’s not a cohesive document by any means. It’s a bunch of loose pages that are collections of stories that Ory told about his life in New Orleans and in LaPlace and a little bit about what he did in Chicago and California.”
As he learned more and more about Ory, what surprised McCusker the most was the esteem in which the Ory band was held — its sheer popularity in this city during its heyday in the 1910s. “It becomes very clear that though there were many bands in New Orleans in the 1910s and everybody was making their own contributions to the mix, the Kid Ory band was without peer. They were immensely successful. When a debutante was having a ball on Saint Charles Avenue, she said, ‘Daddy, I’ve gotta have the Kid Ory band.’”
The history of jazz (and New Orleans music more generally) is littered with the names of misunderstood or underappreciated geniuses who languished in obscurity and died in poverty. Which is why Ory’s talent for the managerial and business aspects of the music are also worth noting. “Ory didn’t die in some hotel in the Delta, unknown and forgotten,” notes McCusker. “The guy retired to Diamondhead, in Hawaii. He knew his business. He knew his strengths and he played to them at all times.”
Anyone can listen to a mature Armstrong recording and appreciate the force of his musical conception. But it must have taken an unusually keen observer to recognize his potential when he was just one kid in a brass band made up of juvenile delinquents. “Louis Armstrong and Kid Ory meet for the first time at a Labor Day parade in 1913,” says McCusker. “Louis is playing with the Colored Waif’s Home and Kid Ory’s band is playing behind them. And Ory walks up to Armstrong and says, ‘Young man, you’re doing well on that horn and I think you’re gonna be pretty good some day.’ He was this keen spotter of talent early on… Ory embraced and nurtured that, and Louis never forgot it. And if you read the things that Louis says about Ory in his autobiography, that’s very clear.”
When Armstrong set about assembling the Hot Five (with whom he would create some of the most enduring jazz recordings ever), the group he put together ended up looking a lot like the Ory band. That, says McCusker, speaks to the lasting importance for Armstrong of Ory’s musical vision. “I think it’s very instructive that he chose Kid Ory and Johnny Dodds and Johnny St. Cyr, all people who had played in Ory’s band in New Orleans,” says McCusker. “For Louis’ money, if he’s gonna have a trombone player in his band he is just fine with Kid Ory being that trombone player.
“Louis and Kid Ory stayed in touch throughout their lives. In 1946, the film New Orleans brought the two of them together again… It was that experience of making the film and playing ensemble New Orleans-style jazz again that really pushed Louis to break up his big band and found the All Stars, to go back to playing in the small band format. And even as late as the late fifties, there are letters where Joe Glaser, Armstrong’s manager, writes to Ory and asks him to join Louis Armstrong’s All Stars. No matter how out of style Kid Ory was, Louis was still just fine with him. And he would have been very comfortable with him being a member of the All Stars.”
After twenty-six years as a photographer with the Times-Picayune, McCusker is among the unfortunate employees who will be departing from the paper in the fall. The TP has an interesting supporting role in the genesis of Creole Trombone. “The day before Katrina, I boxed up all my notes and hid them at the Times-Picayune, in the photo studio,” McCusker remembers. “And it’s a good thing I did because when the levee broke one hundred yards from my house I lost everything. The day after Katrina, the only things I owned in the world were my notes for the Kid Ory book.”
McCusker is guardedly sanguine about the prospects for his post-Picayune career. “You don’t fire 50 members of your newsroom and lose that vast institutional knowledge and still be the entity that you were before. You just don’t. But I’m taking this as a cue to pursue the things that I love, and one of them is researching New Orleans jazz and sharing my research in that history with other people. There’s nothing I get a gas out of more than that.”