Let’s Not Forget Pioneering Pianist Dolly Adams

Dolly Adams was a popular performer in her own time. Born Odalie Marie Douroux in 1904, the New Orleans bandleader and pianist joined a musical dynasty, sandwiched between her trumpet-playing parents and three professional musician sons—whom she trained. Dolly’s career spanned five decades from the 1910s to the 1960s, during which she appeared alongside Louis Armstrong, Kid Ory, King Oliver, and her famous uncle, Manuel “Fess” Manetta.

But the years have not been kind to Dolly’s memory—the well-liked, successful entertainer gets few mentions in the literature and no page on Wikipedia, Discogs, or AllMusic. Googling her name brings up many more results for a Broadway actress known as the “Water Queen,” whose tragically short life overlapped with Dolly’s. (Born Ellen Callahan in 1860-something, this Dolly Adams’ stellar career as a “human mermaid” is an equally fascinating tale, but one for another periodical.)

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Dolly’s virtual disappearance from jazz history could be down to the ephemeral nature of her participation—though she performed live many times, it appears she was never recorded. Fortunately, a few researchers have seen fit to preserve her memory as “a key participant in [the] historical shift” which saw female jazz players join their male contemporaries on stage. This summary is mainly indebted to music historian Sherrie Tucker and her paper A Feminist Perspective on New Orleans Jazzwomen, plus several other scant and scattered references.

Growing up in NOLA’s Ward 15 (also known as Algiers), little Dolly Douroux was desperate to learn the piano. Her mother Olivia and father Louis were popular party entertainers, a trumpet duo known for the precision of their triple tonguing technique. (Olivia also played piano, violin, and cornet.) Although Louis, who was a butcher by day, would perform with the likes of the Eureka and Excelsior Brass Bands after dark, Olivia would not—it was uncouth for girls to play brass outside the home, or even at all.

But the booming jazz scene and its many male improvisers needed backing players and transcribers with a grasp of music theory—New Orleans’ ample supply of classically-trained, female amateur pianists made ideal accompanists. Dolly was all of this and more, having also learned to play bass and drums, guitar and trumpet. With training from her mother and later her maternal uncle Fess Manetta, multitalented Dolly would turn pro by the age of nine.

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At first she entertained private partygoers alongside one of her brothers. Aged thirteen, she was hired by Uncle Fess to play piano in his professional outfit, where her bandmates included Armstrong, Ory, and Oliver. Manetta had been his own band’s pianist, but he vacated the stool for Dolly. Her other duties included carrying Manetta’s instruments and cash. This was because no-one would dare rob a teenage girl, as Dolly’s son Placide Adams Jr. tells it. (Placide Jr. went on to tour Japan with clarinetist George Lewis).

Dolly Adams Placide Adams
Dolly Adams on piano at Don’s Million Dollar Room, with her son, Placide Adams, on drums in 1953. (Photo by Ralston Crawford; courtesy Tulane University, William Ransom Hogan Archive Of New Orleans Jazz)

Not that Fess was doing himself out of a job. The musical polymath—a veteran of both Bolden and Ory bands—also played violin, guitar, cornet, saxophone and trombone. In fact, Al Rose and Edmond Souchon’s jazz catalogue New Orleans Jazz: A Family Album lists his favored instrument as “all instruments.” With Dolly on keys, Fess played clarinet—and whatever else took his fancy. His party piece was even more impressive: Fess could play two brass instruments at once, and harmonize them too. These ample talents would later see him become one of the most sought-after educators in jazz technique.

After finding her feet in her uncle’s outfit, Dolly branched out into other bands—including one of her own making. The group accompanied vaudeville acts and silent movies at the Othello Theatre, South Rampart Street, for a few years until 1922, when Dolly met and married a man named Placide Adams. Her career took an extended break—fifteen years without a single professional engagement. Tucker suggests that this “sabbatical” was Dolly’s choice, but other sources claim that the elder Placide put a stop to his wife’s unseemly activities.

Dolly bore her husband seven children, all of whom she trained in music. Three of them—Jerry, Justin, and Placide Jr.—would become respected pros in their own right, while the other four played for pleasure. In 1937 Dolly returned to the stage, accompanying her brothers: trombonist Irving and trumpeter Lawrence. Placide Sr. was dead against the idea, Placide Jr. would later reveal—but his income alone was not enough to keep seven children in food and clothes, so he reluctantly relented.

Later, after Irving’s death, Dolly would form another family band with her three sons, playing famous New Orleans clubs like the Varsity, Gay Paree, and Moonlight Inn. By the early 1960s she was still playing and leading revivalist events at Preservation and Dixieland Halls. In 1965 her bassist, former Bolden band member Papa John Joseph, collapsed and died right on stage—an event which shocked 61-year-old Dolly into taking things a bit easier.

The following year she suffered a stroke which almost completely ended her musical career, but Dolly was nothing if not a fighter—first against the social norms which kept female musicians at home, then against her traditionalist husband, and finally against her own failing health. One of her last engagements was in 1968, when she played the Creole Spring Fiesta Association Ball with Uncle Fess and her sons, Justin and Jerry.

When Dolly died in 1979, aged 75, she was honored with a cover feature in Second Line. The New Orleans Jazz Club presented her family with a certificate memorializing “the role she played in the history of jazz”—something which has been largely forgotten by the world since then. Dolly’s playing will never be heard again but, thanks to the likes of Sherrie Tucker, Kay D. Ray, and other dogged biographers, we can at least recognize her pioneering participation.

Dave Doyle is a swing dancer, dance teacher, and journalist based in Gloucestershire, England. Write him at [email protected]. Find him on Twitter @DaveDoyleComms.

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