Kid Ory remembered in book, performance

Creole Trombone: Kid Ory and the Early Years of Jazz boosts the reputation of Edward “Kid” Ory — a trombonist, bandleader, recording artist and composer born on the Woodland Plantation in LaPlace on Christmas day in 1886 — as a key player in jazz evolution.

The refinement Ory cultivated with his early bands in New Orleans contrasted to the gutbucket blues-based music performed by the trombonist’s likewise popular and significant contemporary, cornetist Buddy Bolden.

“Ory played what he called soft ragtime,” biographer John McCusker said this week. “We know it as jazz. Ory brought nuance to it. Sometimes the Ory band would play down so low that the dancers could hear their shuffling feet.”

Beyond Ory’s role in the stylistic development of jazz, his ear for talent and knack for nurturing promising musicians helped make the ascent of two of the genre’s early stars, Louis Armstrong and Joe “King” Oliver, possible.

“He was patient with evolving musicians and he paid them well,” McCusker said.

“Kid Ory was so nice and kind,” Armstrong says in his autobiography. “I was looking forward to bigger things, especially since Kid Ory had given me the chance to play the music I really wanted to play.”

Ory’s finesse helped smooth Armstrong and Oliver’s raggedy edges.

“He described Oliver as being rough as pig iron,” McCusker said. “Oliver was trying to play too many notes. He blasted all the time, much like Bolden had done.”

Oliver and Armstrong’s respect for Ory extended into their post-New Orleans careers. Despite the many trombonists available in Chicago in the 1920s, both musicians asked Ory to leave Los Angeles and join them in Chicago.

“That says a lot about the sound that they wanted and the way they felt about Ory,” McCusker said.

Ory, having worked in California since 1919 and made the first recordings by a New Orleans jazz band there, moved to Chicago in 1925. It was there that he made genre-defining jazz-age recordings with Armstrong, Oliver and another jazz giant from New Orleans, Jelly Roll Morton.

McCusker’s biography of Ory essentially ends in 1933. Ory lived until 1973 and even returned to New Orleans in 1971 to appear at the Jazz and Heritage Festival in Congo Square. He’d fully accomplished his pioneering contributions to jazz, however, in the early 20th century.

McCusker, despite being a New Orleans native, didn’t discover Ory, or jazz, until he was 30. A photographer who worked for The Times-Picayune for 26 years before joining The Advocate’s New Orleans staff in September, McCusker found his passion for his hometown’s indigenous jazz when he and Times-Picayune music writer Scott Aiges collaborated for a jazz history series published by the newspaper in 1993.

McCusker co-wrote the series’ stories and shot portraits of surviving musicians from Armstrong’s era.

“That got me into New Orleans jazz,” he said. “I started listening to it almost exclusively.”

The photographer’s work for the latter jazz series included making a map of historic jazz sites. It occurred to him that sites on the map would make a great jazz-history tour.

McCusker began leading jazz tours in 1994. During one such trek, Dave Ruffner, a tour participant and trombonist from California, criticized the photographer-turned-tour guide for not giving Ory enough credit. Riled, McCusker consulted Bruce Boyd Raeburn, curator of Tulane University’s Hogan Jazz Archive. He was shocked when Raeburn agreed that Ory was much more than a sideman for Oliver, Armstrong and Morton.

“Bruce said Ory was the conduit between the earlier guys like Bolden and the ultimate jazz man, Louis Armstrong,” McCusker said.

Encouraged by his wife, Johanna, McCusker embarked upon the writing of the first Ory biography. Breakthroughs, such as locating Ory’s daughter, Babette, guardian of the musician’s family photos, instruments, sheet music and unpublished memoir, as well as tragedies, including Hurricane Katrina, ensued.

Before flood water from the London Avenue Canal filled the McCusker family’s home in the Gentilly neighborhood, destroying everything inside, the photographer, almost as an afterthought, gathered up his research for the Ory book and hid it in The Times-Picayune’s photo studio.

“The day after the storm, that’s all I owned, because my house took eight feet of water,” he said. “Later, my wife asked me, ‘You couldn’t have saved our family photos, too?’ But the whole time that Katrina was coming, I was working for the paper, running around shooting hurricane-preparation pictures.

“That night, I knew we’d be spending a night at the paper, so, because I had the Ory stuff in boxes, I took those boxes and threw them in my car. That was 10 years of work. As devastating as Katrina was, to have lost all that work, would have made it that much worse.”

Following the citywide stress of surviving the flood and its aftermath, the sudden death of McCusker’s wife in 2010 sent him down another rabbit hole.

“About a year went by, but then I did something I never thought I’d do again,” he said. “I went on a date. We were getting to know each other and I told her about this book.”

A still unfinished book. Inspired, McCusker returned to the writing woodshed, finishing the project in the summer of 2011.

“I took it as an awesome responsibility to tell a man’s story,” he explained. “Because Ory is a major figure. And I realized that, no matter what I wrote, anyone who writes about Ory after me is going to base what they write on what I have written.”

John McCusker will sign copies of “Creole Trombone: Kid Ory and the Early Years of Jazz” before and after Sunday night’s performances at Snug Harbor.