Kid Ory, Trombonist, Businessman

Kid Ory by John E Reed

Portrait of Kid Ory by John E Reed

Music history has no shortage of musicians with no business sense.

In jazz, Jack Teagarden never led a successful band; he drank too much, was too generous with friends, and had no idea how to make contracts.

Fletcher Henderson failed so miserably financially that he had to sell all of his arrangements to Benny Goodman just to get money.

In contrast, Kid Ory, the legendary tailgate trombonist, displayed his business sense at the age of 8, the same time he started performing music.

Kid Ory, child and bread winner

Kid Ory's Woodland Band 1910

Kid Ory’s Woodland Band, 1910

Edouard (Kid) Ory, born on Christmas Day 1886 in La Place, Louisiana.

He was the sixth of eight children and second son of Ozeme Ory, a French-speaking white man, and his mixed-race common-law wife, Octavie.

Her father was a free man of color and her mother’s heritage was Spanish and Native American.

Octavie died in 1896, by which time Ozeme was invalid. At the age of 9, Edouard and his brother John (12) had to become bread winners.

Edouard had already decided to make his living from music and started his first band with four other children, who all played home-made instruments. He would sneak away from home to get tips for playing in local saloons. But he also apprenticed with a brick layer.

When he was 10, his father died. He got up at 4:00 in the morning to catch crayfish, which he sold until about 7:00. Then he started delivering water to local farm workers, which kept him busy until the late afternoon. After that, he picked and sold mushrooms and blackberries.

He had no time for school, but a neighbor gave him a rudimentary education for 10¢ a lesson in the evenings. His band also rehearsed in the evenings.

He later recalled, “We would go out on the bridge and practice, then go around crowds and hustle. We saved all the money we made except fifteen cents for car fare. We saved the money, and I decided to give picnics with beer, salad, fifteen cents to come in and dance.”

When the band had enough money to buy a real instrument, Ory, as leader, bought a valve trombone for $7.50. Other members soon acquired their own store-bought instruments. By that time, Ory was allowed to visit one of his older sisters in New Orleans on weekends. Soon enough he bought a slide trombone.

As he taught himself to play his new instrument, Buddy Bolden, an important New Orleans band director, heard him, knocked on the door, and asked if Ory would join his band as trombonist. His sister wouldn’t hear of it. He had promised his mother to stay in LaPlace until he was 21. And the brothels of Storyville were no place for a 12-year-old.

Kid Ory as upstart band leader

Kid Ory, 1916

Kid Ory, 1916

On his 21st birthday, Christmas Day 1907, he moved with his band to New Orleans, but instead of tackling the city, Ory chose to work in the suburbs until he thought they were good enough to compete with established bands.

Ory’s band was one of the best in town within four years and always on the lookout for new talent. He discovered Johnny Dodds, Jimmie Noone, King Oliver, and Louis Armstrong.

The handsome Ory was very popular with the women of New Orleans. If his band stayed away from Lincoln Park too long, they would shout, “When’s the Kid coming?” The nickname stuck for life.

Social events had long advertised with musicians playing from a horse-drawn furniture wagon. Ory began to use a wagon to promote his band. It displayed signs with the name of the band and his telephone number.

Quickly the Woodland Band became known as “Kid Ory and His Ragtime Band” or “Kid Ory’s Creole Ragtime Band.” Only two earlier bands were known by their leader’s name.

Ory claimed to be the first to use a truck for advertising and street performances instead of a horse-drawn wagon. It helped him beat other bands to prime locations.

His band played in many other venues from lawn parties to fish fries. Dodds later recalled jobs with Ory at “every white and colored hotel in New Orleans.” During Lent, when dancing was forbidden, the band played at cabarets in Storyville.

If work was slow in the city, he looked to the countryside. The band traveled as far as his old home town of LaPlace by wagon and as far as Baton Rouge by train. In addition to his dance band, Ory led a 12-piece brass band with blue uniforms for parades and funerals.

His sharp business practices eventually got him in trouble. The band performed at Pete Lala’s Theatre and drew very well. Ory thought he could do even better without Lala, a Sicilian. He rented two halls, Economy Hall and nearby Cooperators Hall, but always kept one of them empty to avoid competition.

He did not count on Lala’s political connections and perhaps underestimated the significance of Jim Crow laws under which he was regarded as black and Lala as white. At Lala’s behest police began to harass customers lining up to get tickets to Kid Ory’s performances.

So in the fall of 1919, when he was at the height of his success in New Orleans, he moved to Los Angeles. Later he claimed it was because his doctor recommended a dryer climate for his emphysema.

Boom and bust in Kid Ory’s career

Kid Ory's Sunshine Orchestra record cover

Kid Ory’s Sunshine Orchestra record cover

After Storyville closed in 1917, many New Orleans musicians moved to Chicago. Ory claimed that his wife preferred Los Angeles.

With King Oliver and Louis Armstrong in Chicago, Los Angeles also had less competition.

He found great interest in jazz there and invited other musicians from New Orleans to join him.

His new band opened at the Cadillac Cafe and soon became a favorite with the stars of silent movies. It recorded six sides for the Sunshine label in 1922, including “Kid Ory’s Creole Trombone” and “Society Blues”–the first instrumental recording made by a group of black musicians.

Kid Ory with Armstrong Hot Five

Kid Ory, Louis Armstrong, Johnny Dodds, Lil Armstrong, Johnny St. Cyr

In 1924, both King Oliver and Louis Armstrong asked him to join them in Chicago, promising good money from recording sessions. Over the next five years, he participated in landmark recordings with Armstrong’s Hot Five, Oliver’s Dixie Syncopators, Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers, the New Orleans Wanderers (basically the Hot Five with George Mitchell on cornet instead of Armstrong’s trumpet.)

He returned to Los Angeles in 1929 and formed another band, but the times had turned against him. The Depression hit, and people had less money to spend on entertainment. Audiences had started to prefer big bands, such as Ellington’s or Basie’s, to traditional New Orleans jazz. It became hard to get gigs and hard to get paid for the ones the band played.

Kid Ory could have adjusted to the new style if he wanted to, but he wasn’t interested. So in 1933 he decided to retire. His work ethic and ability to make a comfortable living hadn’t left him. He opened a chicken and turkey farm with his brother John. He sorted mail at the post office in Santa Fe station, swept out a morgue, and performed other odd jobs.

His friends in the jazz world stopped by his house for good conversation and good Creole cooking whenever they came to Los Angeles. The public eventually assumed he had died if they remembered him at all.

The comeback Kid Ory

Kid Ory in Europe jacketInterest in vintage jazz began to pick up by about 1940. Marili Morden, co-owner of the Jazz Man Record Shop, asked Ory go to the home of his former trumpet player, Mutt Carey, to be photographed.

She also asked him to bring his trombone so the photographer could take action shots. So for the first time in nine years he played some choruses.

After that session, he and Carey occasionally joined some of his other ex-sidemen to play informally.

Ory rekindled his interest in music, and it appeared that jazz improvised by a small group was coming back.

In 1942 clarinetist and saxophonist Barney Bigard left Ellington because he was tired of traveling. After about a month in, Los Angeles, Billy Berg, owner of a club called Capri, called him and asked him to form a band for a six to eight week engagement. After the band started playing, Bigard ran into Kid Ory, a childhood friend.

Bigard urged Ory to play with his band a little. Ory was reluctant and needed persuasion, but he showed up with his trombone one night. He was, of course, very much out of shape and stumbled through some numbers, but the audience loved it.

Members of the band wondered why Bigard wanted to have the old man around, but he pointed out how Ory had made “that audience break up like that.” He knew that Ory would bring a lot of business to the club.

Bigard’s modern style was far removed from what Ory had developed in New Orleans, but by that time he wanted to play regularly. He accepted, and Bigard added some more traditional tunes to his repertoire. Ory found engagement difficult at first, but he remained determined.

Many of Ory’s old band mates also lived in LA, and Bigard persuaded him to get them together for a new band. Again, Ory was reluctant, not thinking he could get any work.

Orson Welles, already famous for Citizen Kane, had a radio program on which he presented a different musical group every week. In 1944 he asked Marili Morden if it would be possible to round up a group that could play authentic New Orleans jazz.

She called Kid Ory, Carey, and others and quickly assembled the New Orleans All Stars. Welles immediately started receiving mail asking for more of the group, so he hired it for a thirteen-week engagement. They also made some recordings and started to get gigs.

Eventually Ory moved to San Francisco and bought a night club. By that time he was wealthy enough to buy a house in Marin County. He also took bands on national tours and two tours of Europe. His trombone playing continued to astound audiences until he was past 70.

Anderson, Gene. “Johnny Dodds in New Orleans.” American Music 4 (1990): 405-440, excerpt.
Giltrap and Dixon. Kid Ory (place of publication and publisher not identified, 1957?). Jazz Information Series, no. 7
Raeburn, Bruce “Kid Ory (1886-1973)Encyclopedia of New Orleans (May 20, 2011).
Stuart, David et al. “Kid Ory Story in Five Parts.” The Kid from LaPlace: the Kid Ory Archive.

Photos from The Kid from LaPlace: the Kid Ory Archive

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