Jazz luminary Dottie Dodgion celebrates 67 years of making music
A conversation with Dottie Dodgion is like walking into a library filled with stories about the golden era of jazz and her full and fortunate life, accented with winks and humor. At 82 years old, Dodgion continues to awe behind the drum kit that cooked up the fire and cooled off the harmony with such legendary musicians as Charles Mingus, Billy Mitchell, and Stanley Turrentine.
Born in 1929 in Brea, Calif., and raised in Woodland, near Sacramento, Dodgion’s childhood memories are seasoned with humor, adventure, and the limitless freedom that came with having a father who was a “swinging drummer.”
“As early as I can remember, I was sitting by his drum kit or the piano at his gigs,” says Dodgion. “After they split, my mother would send me down to San Francisco to be with my father. Little did she know I was heading to the Paris Street strip joints where he worked, and I spent my joyous time by his drums, or getting dolled up and pampered by the ladies in their sparse wardrobe room!”
The World War I era was a conservative time, but Dodgion’s father would show her what life had in store beyond the walls of conformity. And what better way to tear down those walls than with the rhythms of jazz music?
“By the age of 15, I was singing jazz music regularly in a ‘vocalese style’ (scatting rhythmic chords),” says Dodgion. “I wasn’t playing the drums yet and didn’t know I could. As a matter of fact, the reason I began was the drummers were always late! The guys would say ‘give us a little beat with your brush on that magazine.’”
Over time, Dodgion found that the hours she sat next to her father’s drum kit became lessons stored away and waiting. With a tuned ear, her rhythm came naturally, and her wrists had the snap and precision of Bruce Lee.
“But the most important thing is the heart,” she says. “There’s not a soul in this world that can lie on the bandstand. You’ve got to feel that music and swing. And when they feel it, you know it.”
At 23, Dodgion and her first husband, bassist Monty Budwig, were at the epicenter of the San Francisco jazz scene. Even in the patriarchal times of Jim Crow, she had the privilege of playing with Nick Esposito and the great jazz bassist Charles Mingus, and was considered a well-respected up-and-comer in the scene.
Once she was invited out to New York in 1961 by the tenor sax jazzman, Benny Goodman—who first heard her groove at a residency gig with Zoot Sims in Las Vegas—life would begin anew for Dodgion. She spent the next 20 years of her life there, jamming with her heroes, Coleman Hawkins, Lester “Prez” Young, and Johnny Hodges, and recording with the likes of Billy Mitchell and Stanley Turrentine.
Dodgion has been back living in Monterey since 1990, performing weekly at the Inn at Spanish Bay in Pebble Beach, and sketching out her autobiography. “I feel music—all hours of the day, every day, there’s a song or tune in my head,” she says. “And that’s the gift I’ve followed, and never put a toe in the sand of its changing tides. I want to dedicate my show at Kuumbwa this 25th to that unspoken truth on the bandstand: You can’t tell a lie up there. It’s my life. Not sometimes, but always.”
Dottie Dodgion plays at 8 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 25, at Kuumbwa Jazz, 320-2 Cedar St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $20/adv, $25/door. For more information, call 427-2227.