“Kid” Ory is by far the most famous and familiar of the early Dixieland trombonists. Ory’s career spanned the mid 1890s to the 1960s; during this time he continued to play in the Dixieland style while jazz progressed in other areas. With the revival in Dixieland style in the 1960s, Ory again found himself in the forefront of performance circles, being one of the few original musicians still alive from that era. He was a noted leader of Dixieland jazz bands, a trait he learned early in childhood.
Ory grew up on the Woodland Plantation in La Place, Louisiana; the tenant families on this plantation were light-skinned Creoles who spoke only French.1 Early on, Ory’s skill for organizing and running a musical group were realized; while very young he created a “humming” band of playmates, earning his moniker “Kid”. “We used to stand on the bridge, you know, at night… in the dark, just couldn’t see anyone, no one could see us [or] hear us, you know, singing on the bridge. Get us a few ginger cakes, and we was all right.”2 Ory kept the group together beating on a drum, and he harmonized their singing into three and four parts, although “sometimes we couldn’t get the correct chord…we couldn’t get it all the way through.”3 He soon made instruments for his ensemble, such as a banjo, guitar, violin and bass, consisting of soap and cigar boxes for bodies, thread and fishing cord for strings; he used a hot iron to burn sound holes in the boxes. Using these instruments, he put his first band to profitable use, holding fish fries, and charging admission. He soon had enough money to buy seven factory-made instruments for his ensemble, and with the support of his family began his entrepreneurial career in earnest. Soon he had raised enough money to buy his band matching uniforms, consisting of white shirts, bow ties, and new suits costing $7.95, which he kept and protected after each engagement.4 Ory claims that by the age of ten he had taken his band on tour to the sawmill towns between Baton Rouge and Kenner, a sixty-mile stretch. During his adolescence he often walked from the plantation to New Orleans, “29.3 miles [from the] plantation door,” to hear music, though he promised his family not to move there until he was twenty-one.5 On the morning of his twentry-first birthday, he was on a train to New Orleans, and said, “I’ve been gone ever since.”6
Ory’s organizational skills and business sense gave him an edge in New Orleans. At first Pete Lala hired his band in 1907 at the rate of a $1.50 per member a night, barely a subsistence wage. However, Ory utilized this opportunity to his advantage, and began the practice of advertising his band by parading them through town on the back of a horse-drawn wagon.7 Within a few years, Ory had enough money to rent two concert halls, a practice he used to keep competition down. Competition between bands was fierce at this time, fed by the atmosphere of violence present in New Orleans. When his first hall was no longer able to accommodate his audience, he opened the second hall with another band of his creation, while still promoting his first band as a top billed attraction.
In a city where bands had names such as the Olympia Band, The Onward Brass Band, and Reliance Band, Ory started a new tradition of patriarchal association with his ensemble, using his name within the title, such as “Kid Ory’s Creole Band.” This practice became popular and quickly spread to the other bands in the city, such as “Tom Brown’s Dixieland Band.”
Ory’s period in New Orleans was also responsible for giving many famous musicians one of their first starts in the city. Joseph Oliver, crowned “King” by Ory, and Louis Armstrong are only two examples of the musicians who received an important start in Ory’s band.8
In 1919, Ory left New Orleans for health reasons, the humid air and high temperature aggravated a respiratory condition, and traveled west to Los Angeles and Oakland. On the West Coast he established a new band under the name, “Ory’s Sunshine Orchestra,” consisting of transplanted New Orleans musicians. In 1921-22 this was the first black jazz band to record an album available to the general public. The two sides of this record were Ory’s Creole Trombone and Society Blues. Another first for Ory was in 1923, when his band was featured on several radio broadcasts, possibly the first such airing of a true New Orleans Dixieland band.9
In 1925 Ory moved to Chicago, where he participated in many famous recording sessions with artists such as Louis Armstrong and the “Red Hot Five,” “Red Hot Seven,” King Oliver, and Jelly Roll Morton. After several years in Chicago, he returned to California, and during the Depression was a chicken rancher with his brother. In the late 1930s, Ory came out of retirement, and reestablished himself in the Dixieland jazz scene. He continued to play until the mid 1960s, when he moved to Hawaii for his second retirement.
The number of firsts for Ory’s bands, and his infallible mastery of the Dixieland tailgate style gives Ory a place in trombone history almost unequalled by any other jazz artist, and his role in the history of jazz in general can be compared to the likes of Louis Armstrong; while Armstrong may have been the founder of the soloistic jazz style, Ory was equally important to the traditional ensemble style of playing.