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Dottie Dodgion & Wayne Enstice: The Lady Swings: Memoirs of a Jazz Drummer (University of Illinois Press)

Review of the autobiography of a pioneering percussionist, now 91

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Cover of The Lady Swings by Dottie Dodgion and Wayne Enstice
Cover of The Lady Swings by Dottie Dodgion & Wayne Enstice

If some of your first gigs were with Charles Mingus, Benny Goodman, and your dad, you too would have the basis of a pretty good book on your hands. But you didn’t (right?), so leave the colorful autobiographical musings and stoic-to-silly storytelling skills to cymbal-riding drummer/vocalist Dottie Dodgion and her co-author Wayne Enstice, of Jazzwomen: Conversations with Twenty-One Musicians fame. In short order, they portray the pioneering efforts of a young Italian family woman working the skins (an oddity in the 1950s through 1970s) along rough roads, literal and figurative, that line the Vegas Strip, the Big Apple club scene, the snowy slopes of the Delaware Water Gap, the macho brotherhood of jazz, and beyond, without relying on either cliché or a man’s shoulder.

An honest writer/conversationalist and a genuinely funky drummer (when called for during, say, early-’70s gigs with Ruby Braff or Joe Venuti, or ’80s showcases with Melba Liston or the Brecker brothers), Dodgion acc-ent-uates the positive but isn’t afraid of the negative or the just plain lowdown. 

Belittled as a “wop,” detoured (but never derailed) by several “surgical catastrophes”—including one truly harrowing abortion scene that will raise the hairs on your arm—and with an uneasy childhood topped by the cherry of a musician father playing in strip joints, Dodgion was no pushover as a woman or as a musician. She learned to sing as an accompaniment to egotistical men’s pompous on-off switches (“Mingus could be a sweet huggable bear one moment and intimidating the next”). She rocked even when husbands griped and groused: “I packed my bags and the finality floored Monty [Budwig, her first husband]. He thought he could talk me out of leaving him because of the baby, but that didn’t impress me.” Damn. She played loose and free with the best of the free and the loose (Harold Land, Eric Dolphy). She became an infamous part of the Mount Airy Lodge boys’ club that included Phil Woods and Bob Dorough, and talked tough with Terri Lyne Carrington (“You said you were going to break my fingers,” Carrington says, recalling the drummer’s mock threat). And she ends her book at age 91 with a life fulfilled. “I got what I got: the ultimate thrill of playing with the ultimate musicians,” she writes.

The Lady Swings undulates as much with dynamic rhythm as it does with delicious drama and laugh-out-loud storylines. If this doesn’t get made into a film by someone smart, there’s no justice in jazz.

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