Born Waveland, Mississippi, he moved to New Orleans in his youth, studied clarinet with Lorenzo Tio. Played with bands of Frankie Duson, Kid Ory, and Joe "King" Oliver. Dodds went to Chicago, played with Oliver's Creole Jazz Band, whom he first recorded with in 1923. After break up of Oliver band in 1924, Dodds replaced Alcide Nunez as house clarinetist and bandleader of Kelly's Stables. He recorded with numerous small groups in Chicago, most notably with Louis Armstrong's Hot 5 and Hot 7, and Jelly Roll Morton's Red Hot Peppers.
Dodds was noted for his professionalism and virtuosity as a musician, and his heartfelt heavily blues laden style. He was an important influence on later clarinetists, notably Benny Goodman.
Dodds died in Chicago in 1940.