Don’t make the mistake of asking Dottie Dodgion what it’s like being a female drummer. “I’m so tired of that,” she’s likely to answer. “I’ve been asked that a million times, and being a woman really has nothing to do with the way I feel about the music.”
How does she feel? The daughter of professional drummer Chuck Giaimo, and later the wife of alto saxophonist Jerry Dodgion, music in general, and the music business in particular, have always been a part of her life.
Born in Brea, California, Dottie Dodgion began her career in music as a singer in the San Francisco area, and worked with groups including those of Nick Esposito and Charlie Mingus.
Her career as a professional drummer began in the mid-’50s and has included work with Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, Benny Goodman and Melba Liston. In a feature article, Carol Sloane once said of her: “Dottie’s time is razor-keen, and her complementary accents throughout the stretch-out choruses are subtle, encouraging and tasteful. She is serious about music and has every intention of remaining a working musician.”
She has travelled extensively. She’s worked in Las Vegas, New York, Toronto, Los Angeles and Washington D. C. During the early 1980s, as part of Melba Liston and Company, she travelled to France for the George Wein Jazz Festival and took part in a U.S. Embassy tour of Fugi, Malaya and Taiwan.
Television appearances include a 1973 special taped in Hawaii with Tony Bennett, The Dick Cavett Show, What’s My Line, Dave Garroway Show, and The Today Show.
This year finds changes in her life. Single again, she’s now living in Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania, no longer working full time with Melba Liston and Company, but with a new group, that keeps her busy and has her very excited.
“It’s the happiest I’ve been in a long time, ” she shares. Dottie Dodgion at her best—still playing, still learning, still growing.
KA: Why Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania, rather than New York?
DD: I’ve lived in a lot of places, including New York, and I loved it there. It was great to leave a gig and be right around the corner from home. But I’d have to keep bars on my windows and out here you don’t have to worry about that kind of problem. Here, it’s like living in the country, but it’s only an hour and seven minutes from the Holland Tunnel. There are quite a few musicians out here as well. Phil Woods lives just up the hill from me, and Al Cohn is 20 minutes away. A lot of times some of the musicians will drop in where we’re playing, and we have a ball. So I don’t feel as if I’m missing anything.
KA: Where are you playing now?
DD: I’ve been working with a great group. We’ve got Jerry Harris on vocals, Spencer Reed on guitar, Tony Marino on bass, and Richard Master on trumpet and fluegelhorn. Tuesday nights we’re at a club here called the Bottom of the Fox; on Saturdays it’s the Deer Head Inn with John Coates, and on Sundays we’re back with Jerry Harris at the Blue Note—that’s Pennsylvania’s Blue Note, not New York’s.
KA: When did you first play professionally?
DD: I’ve always said that I learned to play drums before I knew how hard it was. I didn’t really take a serious interest in playing until I was about 22 years old. I was singing by then of course, and what I really wanted to do was dance, but my dad said “No, no. Dancers never make any money. They look great, but you can’t make a living at it.” So I never really pursued it. When I first started playing the drums, I studied for a while, but when I was younger, I’d always been involved in basketball and other sports, so I think the coordination was natural for me. A drummer himself, my dad was very encouraging, and then of course there was Jerry [Dodgion] and bassist Eugene Wright. They taught me the things I needed to know about dynamics, texture, color and discipline. And they didn’t think it was strange for a woman to be playing drums.
KA: Was it strange?
DD: Of course it was. That was the early ’50s, and even a woman playing piano was unusual. But the guys would let me sit in, and a lot of times when a drummer was late, I’d get to play. I spent time with so many professional musicians that I didn’t have half the trouble being accepted that most women did. A lot of times, instead of hiring me, they’d hire a drummer who couldn’t swing half as well, and that used to bother me. But on the other hand, at least I was accepted by them, and I got to play with some of the greats.
KA: When did you play with Benny Goodman?
DD: That was in the early ’60s. We’d just moved to New York, and Jerry was playing with Goodman’s band. They were opening at Basin Street East, and Goodman invited me to sit in. I didn’t realize it, but he’d been trying out drummers, and I got the gig. It was my first night in New York, and Jerry asked, “How do you like New York so far?” Are you kidding? I hadno place to go but down. Zoot Sims was on that band, along with John Bunch, Jimmy Wyble, Red Norvo, Carl Fontana and Buddy Childers. The singers were Maria Marshall and Jimmy Rushing. Now that was a hot band. It was quite an experience.
KA: You’d worked with Carl Fontana before that?
DD: I spent about a year with him and Gus Mancuso in Las Vegas before we moved to New York. It was one of the best years of my life. We were working the lounge area of the Thunderbird, and in after-hours clubs. I was playing day and night; that’s where I really got my chops together.
KA: You also lived in Washington for a while, and as musical director of the Rouge & Jar jazz club you brought in such artists as Thad Jones, Pepper Adams, Herb Ellis and Carol Sloane. Was that a good experience for you?
DD: I did that for about two and a half years, and the music part of it I loved. I got to work with some really good artists, but I found too many things getting in the way of the music. The business side of things became too overpowering and I didn’t like mixing the two. I was quite happy to go back to my drums.
KA: In 1978 you took part in the first Women’s Jazz Festival in Kansas City as drummer for a group featuring Marian McPartland, Lyn Milano, Janice Robinson, Mary Fettig-Park and Mary Osborne. You later joined Melba Liston and Company after moving back to New York in 1979. Do you enjoy working with all female groups?
DD: Not particularly. I like working with artists that enjoy their music, male or female. There are a lot of good musicians around who are women, it’s just that it’s very difficult to get a lot of women together who take their craft seriously enough to stick with it. I mean, let’s face it, you have to be really dedicated to this business, and you have to want to play badly enough, especially in jazz, because you never make a lot of money in jazz. Male or female, you could starve to death trying, so you really have to love it to stick with it.
KA: Do you think attitudes towards women in the music business are changing?
DD: Sure they are. Attitudes towards women in general are changing. We’ve become more liberated and people see us differently. You couldn’t really blame the guys for their attitudes towards women when I started playing. There weren’t that many women out there then. And those who were, dressed in low-cut gowns and played cocktail music. You couldn’t blame them for not taking us seriously. We didn’t take ourselves seriously. But things are changing. I’ve done some work with Sandra Reeves Phillips, and in April I’ll be going to Switzerland for three weeks for the jazz festival, and that’s with an all-female band, and I’m really looking forward to that. I’ll be working with women like Carline Ray and Willene Barton. We’re all professionals, and we’ve all been playing for years before it was fashionable. A lot of times today women are hired just because they’re women, and I don’t go along with that either.
KA: You’ve done a lot of travelling. Have you ever found that part of the music business to be a problem?
DD: I’ve never minded the travelling. When my daughter was younger, I’d have to leave her with my mother, of course, and I hated that part. I’ve always liked to travel. I can enjoy it because there’s gypsy in my soul.
KA: You have just the one child?
DD: Yes, a lovely daughter Deborah. We’re very close. She’s my best friend.
KA: How’s your Dad? Is he still working?
DD: He’s fine. He’s in San Francisco, still playing. Not as much as he used to, but he’s still working and looking great.
KA: How old is he now?
DD: Seventy-five. I can remember when I was young, he had all the hot spots in town. He used to play a lot of the strip joints, and in those days in San Francisco, that’s where all the jazz musicians were playing. He’s a remarkable man with a great outlook on life. He’s never had a bad thing to say about anybody, and he was always encouraging to me as a woman playing the drums. When I played with Benny Goodman, I did everything for him.
KA: In her article on you, Carol Sloane referred to you as a “listening musician, sensitive to all with whom she shares the stand.” Do you agree with her assessments?
DD: I am a listening drummer. The music really is my heart. I love it. I think more than any other form of art, music is an outlet for expression, affecting both the artist and audience. Making the music better is the thing that’s important to me. If the ensemble sound is right, it thrills me to death. I don’t need to solo. I love all the music, but I’ve always been particularly concerned with the rhythm section, because I believe very strongly in working as a team. On the bandstand we should be working as one. I don’t believe that any one musician has the right to interfere with, or to take away from, what the rhythm section is doing as a whole. There may be something going on that you don’t like, or that I may not think is working, but the place to discuss it is at rehearsal or once we leave the stand. We’re there to do a job; to complement one another, and when I’m behind the drums, it’s not to work off frustrations, it’s to get the job done. I’ve seen so many things go on within the rhythm section that I’m really interested in one day writing a book or a column called “Inside the Rhythm Section.” I’ve even got my ending quote: “There are those who know where the time is, and there are those who don’t. And it’s hell to pay for those who do, who play with those who don’t.”
KA: You sound happy about where you are right now.
DD: I am happy. I’ve been singing a little more along with my playing, and this group I’m working with now is fantastic. We work well together and we’ve got a lot of things planned for the near future. We’ll be doing some recording and hopefully a lot more travelling. I used to worry about growing too old to play, and about money and things like that, but I’m past all that now. I love what I’m doing and I intend to keep doing it. I said once in an interview that as soon as I started playing, the music takes over. And it’s true. I feel as if the music’s coming through me rather than from me. Once I hear the time and place it there, I couldn’t put it anyplace else if I wanted to. I have to put it there, because that’s where the overall feeling is; the overall beat. It’s got nothing to do with being male or female, it’s got to do with the music. And the music really is all with me. That’s all I’m trying to get across.