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The Vibrant Life and Quiet Passing of Dottie Dodgion

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The Vibrant Life and Quiet Passing of Dottie Dodgion

For fourteen years, through her eighties and into her nineties, Dottie Dodgion played the Inn at Spanish Bay, in Pebble Beach, on Thursday nights. The valets carried her gear into the lounge, which overlooked the Monterey coastline. Battling sciatica, Dodgion usually sat behind her drum kit on a modified bicycle-style seat, later covered with a pillow, and played three sets for a regular crowd. “She would not relinquish her Thursday-night gigs,” Wayne Enstice, the co-author of Dodgion’s memoir, “The Lady Swings,” which was published in March, told me. “She had to suffer to play, but playing was paramount to her existence.” After she shattered her shoulder in a fall, early last year, she sang instead of drumming, backed by her trio. She finished the last set of her life at 10 P.M. on March 12, 2020. Shortly afterward, the regular gig was cancelled indefinitely on account of the coronavirus pandemic. A year and a half later, on September 17th, six days before her ninety-second birthday, Dodgion died, owing to complications from a stroke.

“It’s a sin that someone with her talent and stature is so unappreciated, considering the music she’s brought to the world,” Vince Lateano, a friend and fellow-drummer, told Enstice. Dodgion forged a once legendary but now overlooked career at the conclusion of the big-band era—despite a rocky childhood, difficult marriages, and the steep challenge of breaking into what Enstice called the “hard-core male jazz fraternity on the drums.”

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The drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, who has toured with Herbie Hancock and led late-night bands for Arsenio Hall and Quincy Jones, said, “I completely recognize that I stand on her shoulders, as [do] all the younger women that came after me . . . whether they know it or not.”

Dorothy Rosalie Giaimo was born in Brea, California, at the start of the Great Depression. The new mother was a seventeen-year-old dancer named Ada Tipton; the father, Charles Giaimo, was a self-taught drummer. Two years into the marriage, Giaimo abandoned his young family for life on the road, and Dodgion’s parents divorced. When she was five, her father stopped by under the premise of taking her out for ice cream, and didn’t bring her home—essentially kidnapping her for the next two years. She stayed alone in locked rooms above the roadhouses and strip joints where he played. When her father finally brought Dodgion home, her mother, who had remarried, sent her to board at a convent school. When Dodgion was ten, her stepfather raped her. He was convicted of the crime and sent to prison. Dodgion found solace in tap dancing. “I can’t overstate how much music was a sanctuary and a refuge for her,” Enstice told me. “Rhythm was so important—and moving her body as a dancer. Music allowed her to get free of the hardships and trauma of her early life.”

In the late nineteen-thirties, Charles Giaimo landed a regular gig at a San Francisco club called the Streets of Paris, and Dottie would go to hear him play, mesmerized by the dancers and musicians. “His excellent time attracted all the best strippers,” she later said. After gigs, she and her father would listen to records until four or five in the morning. She loved Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie. She could pick out rhythms quickly, and later worked with the m.c. at the Streets of Paris on her dancing. In 1939, Dodgion took first prize at a children’s dance competition at the World’s Fair in San Francisco. But her father discouraged dancing as a career and pushed singing instead. Dodgion looked older than she was, and soon landed a gig with the jazz guitarist Nick Esposito’s band. She hit the road professionally at sixteen.

In 1948, Charles Mingus heard Dodgion singing at a club, and offered her a spot in his group. She endured five-hour practices and Mingus’s notorious perfectionism, and Mingus guided Dodgion toward a fresh style of singing—vocalizing phonetics instead of words. She received informal drumming lessons from musicians including John Markham, Tony DeNicola, and Albert “Tootie” Heath. Her father bought her first full drum set from a former Mingus bandmate, Johnny Berger, who had become addicted to heroin and needed the money. She kept his eighteen-inch Zildjian ride cymbal for seventy years.

Dodgion married the bassist Monty Budwig in 1952, but he didn’t like that she played a “male” instrument, and there were money troubles. They had a daughter, Deborah, and divorced in 1954. Around this time, Dodgion met her second husband, the saxophonist Jerry Dodgion; they separated in 1975 and divorced a few years later.

Dodgion fully embraced drumming in the fifties, at the urging of the bassist Eugene Wright, who played with Count Basie and Dave Brubeck and became a mentor to her. “What he taught me encompassed everything I ever thought I would want to do in music,” Dodgion writes in the memoir. He pushed her to focus on the total sound of the group. “Swing ’em into bad health, Dottie,” he’d say, while pressing her to find an edge in her rhythm work. “Don’t let anybody tell you, Dot, that you haven’t got it.” Dodgion was known for what the jazz singer Carol Sloane referred to as her “razor-keen time.” She became the house drummer at Jimbo’s Bop City, a Bay Area after-hours joint, where she moved among such jazz greats as Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, and Percy Heath, Albert’s brother. She sat in whenever someone needed a drummer between 2 and 6 A.M. “My success in that male-dominated culture didn’t come easy,” Dodgion writes in the memoir. “The guys were not going to give it up—the drummer was the balls of the band—and I really had to prove it.” Benny Goodman hired her as his drummer, in 1961, but let her go, Dodgion said, after she received too much applause.

“Dottie’s resolve came from a deep source,” Enstice said. “Music was her identity; it came second only to her daughter. She had a passion for rhythm, a natural relationship with it. It was a type of bodily intelligence.” In the sixties and seventies, Dodgion flourished, playing alongside other great female musicians, such as Marian McPartland, Vi Redd, Melba Liston, and Carline Ray. “Those women—the early female drummers like Viola Smith, Pauline Braddy, and Dottie—I have such profound admiration for them,” the drummer Sherrie Maricle told me. “They went through their lives creating great music comparable to that of their male colleagues and got so little notoriety. Not that they were in it for the notoriety.” Maricle added, “Look, I hope I’m out there playing drums on a bicycle seat at ninety, like Dottie. If you love something, you can’t not do it.” Maricle said that she’d always loved Dodgion’s singing, too—though Dodgion devoted herself to the drums, she routinely incorporated singing into her performances. Maricle pointed me to a performance of “Deed I Do.” “She glides through the groove flawlessly, with the coolest rhythm and melodic sense. Dottie had a beautiful touch—the connection between her vocal sensibility and drum playing is inspirational.”

The bassist Eddie Gomez, who played in a trio with Dodgion in 1964, told me, “Dottie’s smile epitomized her—the way she played and how she felt about life. She was dedicated to the swing and the good feeling of the music.” Once, when asked what legacy she would like to leave, Dodgion said, “Don’t let the ego get in the way. Think about the whole sound more than one’s self.” She added, “You’re never gonna swing if you’re the only one who thinks they have the correct time. . . . Listen to each other more. A lot more.”


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The Vibrant Life and Quiet Passing of Dottie Dodgion