His mother was the daughter of a Hispanic and an African American, so he had one black grandparent. Under racial segregation, however, he was simply regarded as black and educated in the local black school through fifth grade
Ory’s early career
He was born and raised on Woodland Plantation in LaPlace, Louisiana and began his musical career playing on home made instruments with likeminded boys who called themselves the Woodland Band. They first played at fish fries and ball games. When they had made enough money to buy real instruments, Ory bought a trombone. Here’s how he described that early experience:
My first instrument was a banjo which I made myself out of a cigar-box. When I got to age ten my father bought me a proper New Orleans banjo.
At thirteen I put together a band in the place I was living at then, Laplace, Louisiana, about thirty-two miles from New Orleans. We had a home-made violin, a bass, a guitar, a banjo and a chair as a drum kit. We put aside all the money we could, to buy better instruments as we went along. We went wherever there were lots of people and we worked hard. Our takings were mounting and I decided to organise ‘picnics’, providing beer and salad: admission 15 cents including dancing. We played the same numbers as today, like ‘Pallet on the Floor’ and a few waltzes. We used to go into New Orleans on a weekend to listen to the different bands playing the public parks. When they had played a number once, we could play it too. If we hadn’t quite got it all, we would take bits of two of their tunes to make one.
He moved to New Orleans to make his living as a musician as soon as he some time before 1910. Starting with a four-piece group, he brought the rest of the Woodland Band to New Orleans as soon as he had enough money. After about a year, original members began to leave, and Ory found replacements who, likely as not, played better. Ory discovered Louis Armstrong, among others, and gave him his start.
Ory proved to be a shrewd business man. He took what had been an advertising medium for social events–a horse-drawn wagon full of musicians–and turned it into a way to promote his band.
At first, he simply put the name of his band and his telephone number on the side of the wagon. He got a lot of business that way, but New Orleans jazz was becoming more and more crowded.
Bands used to drive their wagons around town and meet for “cutting” contests, each trying to win the crowd’s approval. After a while, Ory traded his wagon in for a truck, which gave him certain advantages.
The noise of the engine frightened his adversaries’ horses. It’s hard to play when the horses in front of your wagon are bucking. If, by chance, the other band appeared to be winning over a larger crowd, the truck enabled Ory’s to make a quick exit.
As a trombonist, Ory had to stay in the back of the wagon or truck and aim the slide over the tailgate, that is, away from the other band members. That’s where trombonists in other bands sat, too. Ory took advantage of that position to develop a new style of trombone playing.
The tailgate styleNew Orleans had long been a musical town and a parade-loving town. Musicians educated in the city read music. Musicians, like Ory, who moved in from the countryside, had always improvised everything. Jazz arose from the blending of these two traditions.
Besides reading music, musicians with a more formal education (white or black) strove to play with rhythmic accuracy and a clear sound. Uneducated musicians knew nothing about either.
The trombone in a New Orleans marching band played the bass line and laid down the beat. It didn’t matter whether they read from musical notation or played by ear. Ory realized that sitting in the tail gate instead of marching offered a new role. Instead of a simple bass line, he started playing fills between the melodic phrases of higher instruments.
The melodic material Ory improvised was, in a sense, no different from what he heard other instruments playing in marching bands or circus bands. What set it apart was his countrified approach to phrasing and technique.
Freed from the bass line and keeping a strict beat, Ory could indulge in the same rhythmic imprecision that jazz trumpet and clarinet players used. He also took full advantage of what had traditionally seemed like a weakness of the trombone to be avoided at all costs: the glissando.
European trombonists who left any written record hinted at the glissando, always with strong disapproval, as early as 1687. The name wasn’t invented that early, but Daniel Speer complained,“Some slur the trombone’s sound with the breath, but it comes out better and livelier when it is cleanly articulated with the tongue.” He was a teacher, and trombone teachers to this day have to deal with students who just don’t get the concept of using the tongue to start anything but the first note of the phrase.
Trombonists with good technique probably started using the glissando deliberately some time in the 1830s or 1840s on both sides of the Atlantic. Russian composer Alexander Glazunov even wrote a glissando in an orchestral piece, The Sea, in 1889. The first public glissando in the United States very likely happened at or not long after the first trombone solo in a minstrel show.
The tailgate style, therefore, has no elements that were especially new or innovative. Whoever played the first tailgate trombone style took a number of things he had heard–fills, jazz rhythm and phrasing, and the glissando–and combined them in a new sound that captured the imagination of other New Orleans trombonists.
Ory was not the first trombonist to develop the tailgate style. He just used it prominently and consistently in one of the best bands in New Orleans. He was the first trombonist to play the style on a commercial recording. Therefore he became and remains its best known exponent.
There is much more to say about this fascinating character. Expect more than one future post here.
Edward “Kid” Ory (1886-1973) in KnowLA Encyclopedia of Lousiana
Kid Ory story — 1886 Le monde Créole / by John McCusker
I remember Buddy Bolden, King Oliver and the kid in short pants who wasn’t yet called Satchmo / by Kid Ory
Photos are public domain (taken before 1923).