Jerry Dodgion, saxophonist and flutist who embodied the versatile grace of a sideman, is dead at 90
Jerry Dodgion, a saxophonist and flutist whose pure, lyrical sound and consummate professionalism made him a first-call sideman for more than 65 years, died on Feb. 17 in Queens, New York. He was 90.
The cause was complications from an infection, his longtime partner, Ruby, tells WRTI.
Dodgion’s professional career cut across the spectrum of American music and show business in the second half of the 20th century: he performed behind Frank Sinatra, Quincy Jones, Antonio Carlos Jobim and countless others.
His home base was jazz, from an early stint with the Red Norvo Quintet to his role as a charter member of the influential Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra. He amassed over 500 recording credits; among them are classic albums like Herbie Hancock’s Speak Like a Child, Jimmy Smith and Wes Montgomery’s Jimmy & Wes: The Dynamic Duo, and Donald Byrd’s Fancy Free.
With proficiency on alto and soprano saxophones, flute and piccolo, and clarinet, Dodgion was the very embodiment of a sideman: an affable, rock-solid pro, seldom in the limelight, who nonetheless brought a personal and widely admired approach to his role.
“The great majority of lead alto players play with a lot of force and volume,” Loren Schoenberg, his fellow saxophonist and the senior scholar at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, tells WRTI. “Jerry was more sotto voce and ‘light.’ His style was very clear, but you had to listen for it, and it made everyone in the band play with more delicacy so they could hear what he was doing.” One fine example of Dodgion’s surpassing subtlety is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it solo on “The Girl from Ipanema,” as arranged by Eumir Deodato for Jobim’s 1970 album Tide.
Dodgion did compose and record as a leader: he fronted a quartet on two tracks of the 1956 Fantasy compilation Modern Music from San Francisco, and performed his original “Between 8th & 10th on Mission Street” with the Vince Guaraldi Quartet. He co-led the Mariano/Dodgion Sextet with fellow altoist Charlie Mariano, releasing the 1958 World Pacific album Beauties of 1918, featuring Jimmy Rowles on piano, among others. And a 2004 release, Jerry Dodgion & The Joy of Sax, consisted mainly of his own music, including the resplendent ballad “Thaddeus.”
Jerry Dawson Dodgion was born on August 29, 1932 in Richmond, California. He took up alto saxophone in his junior high school band, and soon got his professional start with leaders such as Rudy Salvini and Vernon Alley.
The big jump came around 1953, as he told woodwind specialist Ed Joffe in a recent interview: “My jazz life really started when I played with Gerald Wilson.” Dodgion “went to school” in Wilson’s innovative saxophone section, setting in motion his ultimate move to New York in the early ‘60s.
It was in Wilson’s early band that Dodgion saw Jerome Richardson, in the next chair, doubling on flute. Thus began a quest for mastery on that instrument as well. Dodgion’s flute and alto flute playing loom large on Speak Like a Child, one of Herbie Hancock’s most probing and original Blue Note dates, recorded at Rudy Van Gelder’s famed New Jersey studio. And Ed Joffe points to the flute feature on Donald Byrd’s “Fancy Free” as some of Dodgion’s finest work.
For a decade beginning in the early 1990s, Dodgion was a member of the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band, a top-shelf repertory and commissioning orchestra founded by George Wein and led by trumpeter Jon Faddis. In a 2002Village Voicecolumn bemoaning the band’s abrupt end — a unilateral decision by the new executive director of Carnegie Hall — critic Gary Giddins called the CHJB “just about the finest traditional jazz orchestra in the world.” (He also remarked on its spirited farewell concert, whose highlights included an improvisational flute exchange by Dodgion and Frank Wess.)
In the mid-aughts, Dodgion had a full-circle moment, reuniting with Gerald Wilson on the composer’s late-career Mack Avenue albums New York, New Sound and In My Time. He had already worked with Gerald’s son, guitarist Anthony Wilson, appearing on the 1998 nonet album Goat Hill Junket. Getting to know Dodgion was “a master class in all the detail that goes into large ensemble work,” Anthony Wilson tells WRTI. “He seemed to internalize my arrangements in an instant, and his gorgeous sound and playing would become determining factors in setting the tone for the whole horn section as they interpreted the music and brought it to life.”
Dodgion’s first marriage, to the former Dorothy Giamo, lasted 20 years, ending in divorce. She was a singer as well as a drummer, but as Dottie Dodgion recalls in The Lady Swings: Memoirs of a Jazz Drummer, which she wrote with Wayne Enstice, her husband “wisely discouraged me from doubling as a singer to protect my reputation in New York as a serious musician who specialized in one instrument.” Dottie Dodgion, hailed as a jazz trailblazer, died in 2021 at 92.
Their children, Debbie Dodgion and Michelle Dodgion, are among Dodgion’s surviving family. Ruby Valme, his partner of 18 years, has two children, Rudy Valme and Nadine Valme, as well as two grandchildren. Dodgion is also survived by three stepchildren from a previous marriage: Eric Weisman, Roy Weisman, and Carol Chenkin.
As word of Dodgion’s passing spread over the weekend, tributes poured in on social media. Dave Pietro recalled working alongside him as a sub in the saxophone section of Toshiko Akiyoshi’s band, and then taking his place when he left. “Every time I sat next to Jerry,” Pietro wrote on Facebook, “it was a lesson in musicianship, grace, humility, soulfulness, melody, and patience.”
His composition “Thank You,” with its alluring chamber-jazz sonorities, expresses a sentiment that many in the music world are feeling as they remember a dear friend.
Additional reporting by Nate Chinen, with special thanks to Joshua Lee.