Dottie Dodgion, one of the very few high-profile female drummers in the male-dominated jazz world of the 1950s and ’60s, died on Sept. 17 in a hospice center in Pacific Grove, Calif. She was 91.
The cause was a stroke, said her daughter and only immediate survivor, Deborah Dodgion.
Ms. Dodgion, who was known for her steady and swinging but unobtrusive approach to the drums, worked for more than 60 years with some of the biggest names in jazz, including Benny Goodman, Marian McPartland and Ruby Braff. She also led her own combos. But she rarely recorded.
“She didn’t get the exposure that she might have gotten through recording because of her gender,” said Wayne Enstice, who collaborated with her on her autobiography, “The Lady Swings: Memoirs of a Jazz Drummer” (2021). “She wasn’t taken as seriously as she should have been — not by other musicians, but by people on the business side.”
Unlike some drummers, Ms. Dodgion was more concerned with keeping the beat than with calling attention to herself.
“There’s no denying that many drummers love the spotlight,” she wrote in her autobiography. “That’s why I sometimes say I’m not a ‘real drummer.’”
She rarely took solos, she wrote, and when she did solo her approach “came from being a singer. I’d hear the melody inside my head so the rhythms I laid down always followed the song form of whatever tune I played.”
She continued to play until she was 90, with her own trio, on Thursday nights at the Inn at Spanish Bay in Pebble Beach, near her home in Pacific Grove — a gig that lasted 14 years. After breaking a shoulder in 2019, she sang while another drummer, Andy Weis, filled in for her, until the coronavirus forced the hotel to shut down temporarily.
“She swung hard — and that meant there was a lesson to be heard in watching her play,” Mr. Weis said by phone. “She knew exactly what tempo would swing the hardest.”
The celebrated jazz drummer Terri Lyne Carrington recalled that she had begun playing drums at 7 and first saw Ms. Dodgion about two years later at a women’s jazz festival. As far as Ms. Carrington knew at the time, Ms. Dodgion was the only female drummer around.
“She always had a beautiful time feel, which is the most important part of being a drummer,” Ms. Carrington said in a phone interview. “She was never the fanciest, trickiest drummer in the world who dazzled with solos, but she really captured the essence of being a drummer.”
Dorothy Rosalie Giaimo was born on Sept. 23, 1929, in Brea, Calif. Her father, Charles, was a drummer. Her mother, Ada (Tipton) Giaimo, aspired to be a dancer but became a waitress after her husband left the family when Dottie was 2.
One day, when she was 5, her father stopped by her grandparents’ house in Los Angeles, where she was living, and, as she said, “kidnapped” her, taking her on the road for two years to the hotels, road houses and strip joints where he led a band. Absorbing the sounds and rhythms of her father’s drumming was her introduction to show business, albeit against her will. She was 7 when she returned to her mother, who had remarried.
Her stepfather, a chicken farmer, raped Dottie when she was 10; he was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison. After she and her mother moved to Berkeley, Calif., Dottie found peace in her weekend bus trips to San Francisco to see her father’s band at a strip club, Streets of Paris.
“His excellent time attracted all the best strippers,” she wrote.
As a teenager, she sang at private parties and weddings, which led to work in the mid-1940s with bands led by the jazz guitarist Nick Esposito and the renowned bassist Charles Mingus. Singing eventually gave way to drumming, which she picked up by listening to her father, and through the 1950s she played in clubs in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Nevada. For a time, she was the house drummer at Jimbo’s Bop City in San Francisco.
Meeting the bassist Eugene Wright, who would become an integral part of the Dave Brubeck Quartet, had a transformative effect on how she viewed her role in a band.
“Eugene coached me on the nuances of playing in a rhythm section,” she wrote, “including the intangible insides on how to fit with the piano and the bass.”
Ms. Dodgion’s first marriage, to Robert Bennett, was annulled; her marriages to Monty Budwig, a bassist, and Jerry Dodgion, a saxophonist, ended in divorce.
With Mr. Dodgion, who was in Benny Goodman’s band, Ms. Dodgion moved to Manhattan in 1961. On their first day there, the band rehearsed for an engagement at Basin Street East. Ms. Dodgion dropped her husband off; when she returned at the end of the rehearsal, she was surprised when Goodman, who was looking for a new drummer, asked her to sit in with the band.
“I thought it was just a jam session,” she told The New York Times in 1972. “Benny’d call out a number — ‘Gotta Be This or That’ — and I’d start looking for the music. But he’d say, ‘Don’t open the book.’ Every tune, it was the same — ‘Don’t open the book.’ At the end of the rehearsal, Benny said: ‘See you tonight, Jerry. You, too, Dottie.’ That was how I found out I was going to play with the band.”
Ten days into the engagement at the club, Goodman forgot to introduce her when he name-checked some other members of his 10-piece band. When the crowd demanded that he announce her name, he relented, and she received a standing ovation. But as she left the bandstand, she later recalled, Goodman’s manager whispered “’Bye” in her ear, indicating that she was being fired for getting more applause than her boss.
She was not out of work for long. She quickly got a job with Tony Bennett at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Over the next 40 years, she played with Marian McPartland, Ruby Braff, Zoot Sims, Wild Bill Davison, Joe Venuti and others.
“She could adapt from swing to bop, to Latin rhythms, all without calling attention to herself,” Mr. Enstice said. “She could fit in with anyone.”
Ms. Dodgion worked with Ms. McPartland in 1964 and again 13 years later, when Ms. McPartland led an all-female band.
“Dorothy had a natural sense of swing,” Ms. McPartland told The Sacramento Bee in 1989. “She keeps steady time and she swings — those are the most important things for a good drummer.”