[Updated] Edward “Kid” Ory may not be as well known as the superstars of early jazz, players such as Louis Armstrong and Buddy Bolden, but Ory played with them all, and he left an indelible imprint on each of them, all the while helping to create the most dominant trombone sound of all.
Ory left New Orleans for Los Angeles in 1919. In the mid-1920s, he landed in Chicago with other venerable New Orleanian jazzbos including Armstrong, Joe “King” Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton. Unlike the others, Ory called it quits when the Great Depression hit, retiring from music altogether. Only the New Orleans jazz revival of the ’40s brought the trombonist-turned-chicken-farmer back into the jazz fold.
Ory got his start as a kid in LaPlace, Louisiana, playing a cigar box banjo he made himself. “When I was 13, I formed a band,” Ory told historian Samuel Charters. “We had a homemade violin, bass viol, guitar, my banjo, played on a chair for drums.” After the teenaged band made the rounds, they had saved up some money for real instruments. Ory switched over to trombone. The jazz man of myths himself, Buddy Bolden, chanced upon the kid practicing his new instrument outside of his sister’s place in New Orleans. Bolden liked what Ory did with the instrument, even asking the kid to join up with him. Ory told Bolden he would need his sister’s permission, permission that was not granted. Ory scurried back to LaPlace to hone his chops. His band’s raw talent combined with Ory’s leadership and predatory sense about money meant that by the time he hit 21, Ory had enough cash to move to New Orleans.
The kid had a spectacular ear. He could hear a song once, and know it absolutely. He instinctively knew the role the trombone should play, developing a blowsy tone that both established rhythm and gave tunes that “Ory” spark, an immediately identifiable brassy glissando that managed to leave room for melodic harmonies of the trumpeters and clarinetists. Kid Ory’s growling style was often copied; most every bandleader in early jazz and ragtime utilized his brash syncopations and copped his arrangements.
Luckily for him, Ory had a studious mind. He learned to read music early after arriving in New Orleans. This ability came in handy when he was presented with the opportunity to record while in Los Angeles. He snatched the chance, making the first jazz recordings by an African-American jazz band in New Orleans under the name Spike’s Seven Pods of Pepper Orchestra. It was the heart of the Jazz Age, and the trombone sound he perfected came to be known as tailgate trombone.
He dressed sharp and expected bandmates to do the same. He was quick-witted in business, painting his name on the side of a furniture cart. Ory hung a sign on his house, too: “Orchestra and band for hire.” Word got out, and his skills kept the audience paying.
Most of the jazz musicians of this era ended up playing the Storyville District, the legal Red Light district off Basin Street. A series of highly publicized murders starting in 1913 led to intensified federal scrutiny, which led to the closing of Storyville, which put the jazzers out of work.
When the Great Depression hit, it was the next cultural hurricane to lay waste to a New Orleans musical community and all but ended the Jazz Age. Many musicians’ spirits were broken, including King Oliver, who lost his band and life savings in one fell swoop and never fully recovered, dying in 1938. Others persevered and flourished. Edward “Kid” Ory went back west to help his brother run his chicken farm. He played no music publicly from 1933 until a decade later, when the jazz revival came calling. But he hit his stride right off, creating the Kid Ory Creole Jazz Band. Besides the recordings he did as a member of Armstrong’s Hot Five, it is the Creole Jazz Band’s output for which Ory is best known today. He was a nuanced arranger, and strong composer to boot, penning classics “Muskrat Ramble” and “Savoy Blues.”
Yet, Ory’s influence remains eclipsed by those with whom he worked: Sidney Bechet, the Dodds brothers, Armstrong, Oliver, Mutt Carey and Red Allen. Ory’s gift of rambunctious slide trombone, however, is as unique and lasting a contribution to jazz as that of any of those listed.
He continued to record and lead bands well into his 70s, but by the early 1960s his health was failing. Ory stopped performing and retired to Hawaii, where he died at the age of 87. His swooping trombone sound won’t soon be forgotten, even if you don’t remember his name.
Updated December 3, 2:15 p.m.
The text was revised to say that Ory’s band was the first African-American band in New Orleans to record, not the first African-American band; to omit the reference to his trombone sound spreading like wildfire; and to omit the reference to Jelly Roll Morton becoming a household name.
Also, one photo was wrongly identified as including Ory. It has been taken down.