The Remarkable Dottie Dodgion

A few posts back (“Blog Baroque”), I paid homage to a gifted local musician, composer, sound sculptor, inventor, author, entrepreneur, key player in the alternative energy industry for over thirty years, and “great guy,” Bob Danziger—and I said that in the future I would like to do the same for other local individuals who possess a solid string of accomplishment.

Which brings me to the remarkable Dottie Dodgion: jazz drummer/vocalist, an amazing woman who, as I wrote in a profile piece for Modern Drummer, “started her jazz career singing with Charles Mingus. But she took up drumming in the early 1950s, and from that time on she played with everyone from Benny Goodman, Wild Bill Davison, Carl Fontana, and Ruby Braff to Marian McPartland, Gus Mancuso, the Al Cohn-Zoot Sims Quintet, and Melba Liston. Her father was also a drummer. But when Dottie–a warm, totally at-ease and open person with a smile that fully deserves the accolade ‘infectious’–is asked about his influence on her, she replies, ‘You know, he never showed me one lick.’ He did, however, buy her first full set, after she got stranded in Omaha at the age of seventeen.”

Which is just the beginning of one of a multitude of amazing tales that Dottie can tell about her own life: “I was singing on the road with Roscoe Ates. He went across the line and spent everybody’s bread. Frank Ross, with the Mary Kay Trio, was at the sister club of the one we were working. ‘Look, Dottie,’ he said, ‘we’ll get you to Springfield playing a little stand-up drums, and then  back home. All you’ve got to do is play ‘apple pie, apple pie, apple pie’ [a phonetic description of the standard swing rhythm].’ And that is how I started playing drums, honest to God.”

Dottie Dodgion is as delightful off the bandstand as she is on it. A natural-born raconteur, teller of tales, blessed with the gift of gab, a way with words as well as drum sticks, a genuine “original,” and historian when it comes to the music, it’s a joy to hear her talk about the musicians she’s known and played with over a long and productive career (Dottie is 84 years young), talk about them as if they’d been “neighbors,” folks that just happened to live next door or down the street. Here’s a photo of Dottie singing at age twenty (she’s the blonde at the microphone, with a few of those “neighbors” on hand to accompany her).

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You may recognize Dizzy Gillespie (playing piano), Miles Davis (standing beside Diz), Percy and Jimmy Heath, Sonny Criss, Milt Jackson, Carl Perkins, Kenny Dorham, and others. How’d you like to start out your musical career THAT WAY?! And next to it, a photo of her a few years later (a brunette!), standing with: left to right facing: Steve Novosel (bass), Al Cohn (tenor saxophone), Zoot Sims (tenor saxophone), and Jimmy Rowles (piano) (photo credit: Roy Porter)

Dottie and I recently sat down for a chat and I asked her about a special local musician, flugelhorn player Jackie Coon, a man regarded by many as one of the best ever (and no longer with us). When I asked her what it was like to work with Jackie, she responded with one word, “Heaven”—and then more: “He was such a pro. I would have put him in New York, with Clark Terry or next to anybody. Jackie had a special special magic. He could put the cherry on top! He could make anybody swing. He’s the reason I stayed in Monterey.”

Dottie had known two other local musical heroes—bassist Buddy Jones (who once roomed with Charlie Parker) and pianist Bob Phillips in New York. When they relocated in Monterey, California, and Dottie was living and playing (mostly dance music) in Sacramento, they phoned her and said, “We haven’t found a drummer. We’ll send you gas money if we have to,” and Dottie commenced the commute each weekend to Monterey, “five hours in my little Volkswagon.” Bob and Buddy, and another legendary player, Papa Jake Stock on saxophone, had “one of those drummers who, when solo time came, would jump off the bandstand and go around and play on the walls and tables and chairs,” but the guys wanted someone to play some time behind them; it’s as simple as that”—so she found herself providing the reliable, swinging “apple pie, apple pie, apple pie” (“triplets on the cymbals”) again, and that’s how she landed in Monterey, and stayed.

We talked about the fine art of accompanying a vocalist, mainly on the part of pianists (I brought the subject up because I’ve been trying my hand(s) at the task lately, more and more—and “comping” IS an art, in and of itself).

Dottie: “That’s a deep subject with me too. I was so fortunate to be around pianists who liked to comp. It’s another artistic way of playing. They enjoyed playing for somebody else—a horn player, a singer, whatever. And you could have your own lane as a singer. Nobody’s supposed to play over you.”

I asked her about one of my favorite pianists, Nat “King” Cole. “Nat was holy. He was about the only musician that I knew of that all the cats loved. Now, he knew how to comp for himself! Nat could sing, he could do anything—and he would!”

Dottie even provided me a “live” example of how to comp—singing the opening phrase of “It Had to Be You” (music by Isham Jones, words by Gus Kahn), saying, after, that a good accompanist, “lets me get out the ‘you’. They might play something quick, but they leave it blank after and let me come back in when I want to. I phrase differently. I like to sing “It had to be you” as in one sentence, and it’s very important that the accompanist leaves that open for me. I don’t know if some are afraid for me—that I’m going to lose the time because I don’t come in when they usually hear a singer come in … or they even panic! I see so many piano players who panic, thinking I don’t know where the time is—but I’m a drummer! I know where the time is! You have to really listen. That’s the whole secret. And you have to have respect for whomever you’re playing with.”

It’s grand advice for both fledgling artists and working pros alike. If Dottie were going to assemble a handbook for both instrumentalists and singers, what other insights might she include? “Know your tune ass backwards,” she swiftly replies. “And your tempo and your key. And then kick it off yourself. Give a little. Make it warm. That’s the Duke Ellington, Count Basie school. And that was the era I grew up in, and I was so fortunate to have witnessed that.” She backs this up with a tale from her Chicago days, playing with tenor saxophonist Billy Mitchell, who, “really cookin’,” after unleashing about fourteen choruses on a tune, turned to Dottie and said, “It’s easy when you know how!” The laugh that follows this statement is, on her part, one of pure joy.

Dottie has recently received well-earned recognition; being included  in the Wayne Enstice/Janice Stockhouse book Jazzwomen: Conversations with Twenty-One Musicians (a sixteen page profile devoted to her alone), and being honored at the Jazz Heritage Center in San Francisco with an interview (“Conversations with Sonny”: a dialogue with long-time friend Sonny Buxton) followed by a performance with her trio—the group with which she performs every Thursday night at The Inn at Spanish Bay in Monterey: Marty Headman on piano, Heath Proskin on bass. And Wayne Enstice is, at present, working on a biography in conjunction with Dottie.

She is not only a delight to talk to (hosting so many great stories from her life) but, having completed a gig and feeling that edge, or “high,” that doesn’t allow a musician to sleep just yet, she has the healthy habit of recording her thoughts and feelings on paper, keeping a journal that provides considerable insight into the art of making music. Here’s a sample:

“10-20-11: You’re at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center, known world-wide—and a very prestigious ‘notch in one’s belt,’ West Coast and East Coast. I’m being filmed by the best Recording Engineer. The best! I have a piano player who doesn’t ignore me, or my requests. Gives me 100% of his talent, and his respect. Bass player has the same MO! Plus, he’s trying for the ‘ging-gang’ feeling I asked him to work on (you know, tip your stroke, just a ‘gnat’s ass’ on top of ‘one’ and ‘three.’). Mind you now: you don’t put that ‘Cherry Stroke’ on top of where you’re hearing yourself first, of course; but you place that ‘hint’ of an edge on where you’re hearing the overall sound of where the time or tempo is. You let go of your ‘ego’ for the good of the music—and everybody will have a grand time swinging!! It’s true. And another thing! It doesn’t matter what kind of day you’ve had, for (of course) it’s been a different kind of ‘blues’ on everybody’s day. This is the secret of playing music & enjoying every minute of it. When you place your foot on that bandstand, you leave that part of your life off the bandstand … The bandstand is the one place in your life where it’s OK to tell the ‘Whole Truth’—because you can’t ‘lie’ on the bandstand! … Said the preacher to his constituents—heh, heh, heh. Goodnight, ‘Gracie.’”

Such a journal—with its genuine “behind the scenes” first-person insight—is a treasure, in and of itself, and should be made available for anyone who aspires to play jazz! Thank you, Dottie. And here she is: on a promo card for the “Conversations with Sonny” session, in mid-career (playing with Benny Goodman), and NOW–plus two of her CDs; to order the first, call or write: Dottie Dodgion, C/O Monterey Mattress Marquee, 1714 Contra Costa, Sand City, CA 93955, (831) 899-5464 (I’ve got my own signed copy of the first CD—because I wrote the liner notes!), and the second is available from Amazon.com.

Dottie Dodgion5  Dottie Dodgion2

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Click on cover to purchase from AMAZON.COM

And if you live near or are visiting the Monterey Bay area, be sure to hear The Remarkable Dottie Dodgion sing and play–each Thursday night–at The Inn at Spanish Bay!

For the next post, I’ll offer a re-take (reassessment) of Where I Am Now with regard to Bill’s Blog. See you then!

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Author: William Minor

I am a writer and musician who has published twelve books: most recent: Gypsy Wisdom: New & Selected Poems; also The Inherited Heart: An American Memoir, a comic novel (Trek: Lips. Sunny, Pecker and Me); three books on jazz (most recent: Jazz Journeys to Japan: The Heart Within), and seven books of poetry. A professional musician since the age of sixteen, I have released three CDs (most recent: Love Letters of Lynchburg--spoken word and original musical score commissioned by the Historic Sandusky Foundation in Virginia). I was educated at The University of Michigan, Pratt Institute, The University of Hawaii, UC-Berkeley (MFA in Painting and Drawing), and San Francisco State College (MA in Language Arts). I taught for thirty-two years (English, Creative Writing, Humanities at The University of Hawaii, Wisconsin State University-Whitewater, and Monterey Peninsula College). Originally trained as a visual artist, I have exhibited woodcut prints and paintings at the San Francisco Museum of Art, The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and the Smithsonian Institution. I have been married to Betty for fifty-nine years and we have two grown sons: Timothy and Stephen. We live in Pacific Grove, California where, retired from teaching, I just write and play music, both of which I love.

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