The vibrant life and silent passage of Dottie Dodgion
For fourteen years, aged 80 to 90, Dottie Dodgion performed at the Inn at Spanish Bay in Pebble Beach on Thursday nights. The valets carried his equipment into the living room, which overlooked the Monterey coast. Battling sciatica, Dodgion usually sat behind his drums on a modified bike seat, later covered with a pillow, and played three sets for a regular crowd. “She wouldn’t give up her Thursday night concerts,” Wayne Enstice, co-author of Dodgion’s memoir, “The Lady Swings,” which was released in March told me. “She had to suffer to play, but acting was essential for her existence.” After smashing her shoulder in a fall, early last year, she sang instead of playing the drums, supported by her trio. She completed the last set of her life at age 10 PM on March 12, 2020. Shortly after, the regular concert was canceled indefinitely due to the coronavirus pandemic. A year and a half later, on September 17, six days before her 92nd birthday, Dodgion died of a stroke.
“It’s a sin that someone with her talent and stature is so little appreciated, 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 neglected career at the end of the big band era, despite a turbulent childhood, difficult marriages, and the difficult challenge of breaking into what Enstice called the “male jazz fraternity at the drums “.
Drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, who has toured with Herbie Hancock and led late night bands for Arsenio Hall and Quincy Jones, said: “I totally agree that I stand on his shoulders, like [do] all the younger women who 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 after the wedding, Giaimo abandoned his young family for life on the road, and Dodgion’s parents divorced. When she was five, her father stopped under the pretext of taking her for ice cream and didn’t bring her home, essentially kidnapping her for the next two years. She was left alone in locked rooms above truck stops and bars where he played. When her father finally brought Dodgion home, her mother, who had remarried, sent her to boarding school at a convent school. When Dodgion was ten, her stepfather raped her. He was convicted of the crime and sent to jail. Dodgion found solace in tap dancing. “I can’t stress enough that music was a sanctuary and a refuge for her,” Enstice told me. “The rhythm was so important – and moving her body as a dancer. Music allowed him to free himself from the trials and traumas of his youth.
In the late 1930s, Charles Giaimo landed a regular gig at a San Francisco club called Streets of Paris, and Dottie would hear him perform, fascinated by dancers and musicians. “Her great time drew all of the best strippers,” she said later. After concerts, she and her father listened to records until four or five in the morning. She loved Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington and Count Basie. She could pick the rhythms quickly, and later worked with the mc des Rues de Paris on her dance. In 1939, Dodgion won first prize in 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 her and quickly landed a gig with jazz guitarist Nick Esposito’s band. She took to the road professionally at sixteen.
In 1948, Charles Mingus heard Dodgion sing in a club and offered him a place in his group. She endured five-hour practices and Mingus’ notorious perfectionism, and Mingus guided Dodgion to a new style of singing – vocalizing phonetics instead of words. She received informal drum lessons from musicians such as John Markham, Tony DeNicola and Albert “Tootie” Heath. Her father bought his first complete drum set from a former member of the Mingus group, Johnny Berger, who had become addicted to heroin and needed the money. She kept her eighteen inch Zildjian ride cymbal for seventy years.
Dodgion married bassist Monty Budwig in 1952, but he didn’t like her playing a “male” instrument, and there were money issues. They had a daughter, Deborah, and divorced in 1954. Around this time, Dodgion met her second husband, saxophonist Jerry Dodgion; they separate in 1975 and divorce a few years later.
Dodgion fully embraced the drums in the fifties at the behest of bassist Eugene Wright, who performed with Count Basie and Dave Brubeck and became a mentor to her. “What he taught me encompasses everything I thought I wanted to do in music,” Dodgion wrote in the memoir. He urged her to focus on the whole group sound. “Put them in bad health, Dottie,” he said, urging her to find an advantage in his rhythm work. “Don’t let anyone tell you, Dot, that you don’t have it.” Dodgion was known for what jazz singer Carol Sloane called her “razor time”. She became the drummer for Jimbo’s Bop City, a Bay Area bar, where she played among jazz greats such as Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Percy Heath, Albert’s brother. She would sit down whenever someone needed a drummer between 2 and 6 A M “My success in this male-dominated culture has not been easy,” Dodgion wrote in the memoir. “The guys weren’t going to give up – the drummer was the balls of the band – and I really had to prove it.” Benny Goodman hired her as a thresher in 1961, but let her go, Dodgion said, after receiving too much applause.
“Dottie’s determination came from a deep source,” Enstice said. “Music was his identity; he was just after his daughter. She had a passion for rhythm, a natural relationship with it. It was a kind of bodily intelligence. In the sixties and seventies, Dodgion flourished, performing alongside other great musicians, such as Marian McPartland, Vi Redd, Melba Liston and Carline Ray. “These women – early drummers like Viola Smith, Pauline Braddy and Dottie – I have such a deep admiration for them,” drummer Sherrie Maricle told me. “They have gone through their lives creating great music comparable to that of their male colleagues and achieved so little notoriety. Not that they were there for the notoriety. Maricle added, “Look, I hope I’m playing drums in a bicycle seat at the age of ninety, like Dottie. If you like something, you can not not do it. Maricle said she had always loved Dodgion’s vocals, although Dodgion devoted herself to drums, she regularly incorporated vocals into her performances. Maricle showed me a performance of “Deed I Do”. “She fits perfectly into the groove, with the coolest rhythm and melodic sense. Dottie had a nice touch – the connection between his vocal sensitivity and his drumming is inspiring. “
Bassist Eddie Gomez, who performed in a trio with Dodgion in 1964, told me, “Dottie’s smile personified her: the way she played and how she felt about life. It was dedicated to swing and the good feeling of music. Once when asked what legacy she would like to leave, Dodgion said, “Don’t let the ego get in your way. Think about the whole sound more than yourself. She added, “You’re never going to swing if you’re the only one who thinks he’s having the right time. . . . Listen to yourself more. Much more.”