Thursday, August 25, 2016

Vic Dickenson - A Melodic Trombonist

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

A recent feature on trombonist J.C. Higginbotham brought to mind Vic Dickenson, Dickie Wells, and Trummy Young.

You don’t hear their names mentioned very much in Jazz circles, although I would suspect that Trummy gets a nod or two occasionally because of his long association with Louis Armstrong, but all three were individual stylists who made their mark on the instrument and the music.

As part of its continuing effort to remember those Jazz musicians who shaped the music during the early years of its creation, the editorial staff at JazzProfiles searched out sources and developed the following profile of Vic Dickenson from Stanley Dance’s articles about Vic that he wrote for Melody Maker [1954] and Down Beat [1964] magazines and as part of the insert notes for Vic’s recordings on the Vanguard label. We’ve also included some material by Michael Shera and Sinclair Traill who reviewed Vic’s Fontana and Vanguard recordings for the Jazz Journal.

What never ceases to amaze me when I research one of these back-in-the-day stories is how much local work was available for musicians outside of the major cities. Of course, one of the reasons for this was if you wanted to hear music then you had to “make it” and not just reproduce it in some sort of technical fashion. The radio and records were making their presence felt but music was still something that you went to hear played by real, live musicians. It was a means to socialize not a form of solitary musing and a way to close out the world with ear buds plugged into an Mp3 player or downloading digitalized music from The Cloud.

According to Leonard Feather's syndicated column, when Vic Dickenson flew out to Monterey, Calif., for the jazz festival there in September 1964, he received a "standing ovation from the youthful audience"  for his "tongue-in-horn trombone ... on Basin Street Blues" A short time before, Down Beat's International Jazz Critics Poll, in which some 52 critics participated, showed Dickenson sharing third place in the trombone section with Lawrence Brown.

This is remarkable at a time when a jazz musician's popularity depends a great deal upon successful phonograph records. There isn't a single album under Dickenson's name in the Schwann catalog, and he has done relatively little recording of any kind in the last few years. During that period he has seldom played in any of the major jazz venues, but he has not been inactive. With pianist Red Richards he has been a mainstay of a sextet called the Saints and Sinners, which plays regularly to a loyal and devoted following in cities like Pittsburgh, Pa.; Columbus, Ohio; and Toronto, Ontario.

There were quite a few persons at the Pittsburgh Jazz Festival early last summer who hurried eagerly down the hill on the festival's last night and into the Riverboat Lounge of the Pitt-Sheraton Hotel, where this group was appearing. With Dickenson in the front line were two other veterans, clarinetist Buster Bailey and trumpeter Herman Autrey. The rhythm section was completed by bassist Danny Mastri and drummer Jackie Williams.

The Saints and Sinners play some Dixieland when they work in that room, but what they were playing about 1 a.m. that particular Sunday was a long-lost Benny Carter song called Blues in My Heart, and they were playing it with feeling and imagination in a neat head arrangement, with backgrounds to each other's solos, as though they were a team.

They have a lot of numbers like that, including a Lonesome Road that rocks at a singularly appropriate medium tempo, and they play them in a way that suggests the Eddie Heywood and John Kirby groups of a few years ago, except that it is more down and more punchy. In their version of Bourbon Street Parade, there's a very effective background figure that Dickenson said came out of Alexander's Ragtime Band.

"I contribute a little," he added modestly. "We all get together, and I give a few ideas."

He is not a little unusual today in his love and knowledge of melodies and in a mind that inclines to original tempos and treatment for them.

"He knows about a million numbers," his friend trombonist Dickie Wells once said, "and he always likes to play melodies."

"That's partly true," Dickenson said. "I like to play the melody, and I want it still to be heard, but I like to rephrase it and bring out something fresh in it, as though I were talking or singing to someone. I don't want to play it as written, because there's usually something square in it. Now, Johnny Hodges, he plays melody; but he makes such beautiful melody because he plays it his own way. He's one of the best soloists I know. You've got to feel it, and Johnny does. He's the greatest alto, I think. Sidney Bechet had a lot of what Johnny has, but it wasn't as smooth and tender. He played with more drive and was rougher."

Dickenson was born 58 years ago in Xenia, Ohio, in a musical milieu. There was an organ in the house, but he never, he noted with sadness, heard his mother play it. His father played a little violin—"folk music, you might call it," he recalled—and his own first instrument was harmonica. "I could play things like There's No Place Like Home" he said, "but I couldn't play them well."

His brother was supposed to be taking trombone lessons but failed to give much time to the horn, which lay about the house, neglected. The time came when the principal at young Vic's school decided to form a band and asked all the children who had instruments to bring them. Vic told him he had a trombone at home but didn't know anything about it. "Bring it on in anyhow," said the principal, who formerly had been a trombone player.

He showed the youngster positions by the solfeggio method and left him to find where they were in every key by himself.

"I had been something of a singer when I was a kid, and that was the way the singing teacher had taught us, so it wasn't too hard to understand," he said. "But it takes time to learn trombone. It's the brass horn most like the violin, and it's a matter of position rather than valve. You just have to learn to feel it, so you won't play this note too flat or too sharp. I used to copy records at first, and I loved Mamie Smith's Jazz Hounds, but then I got tired of hearing the trombone and wanted to play like the other instruments. The singing and the words meant nothing to me; it was the horns and the melodies that I heard. The trombone's part was too limited, and I learned what everybody played on the records, the saxes and clarinets, too."

Dickenson's father was a plastering contractor, and his two sons were learning the trade in Columbus when Vic met with a serious accident. "I had a heavy hod full of mortar on my shoulder, and a rung of a ladder broke," he explained. "I was bent back double and never could lift anything heavy after that, so I had to quit hard, physical work."

Vic and his brother, Carter, who played clarinet and alto, joined Roy Brown's band in Columbus. A cousin, also a plasterer, was playing piano in it, but only in F-sharp. "And I could play very good in F-sharp," Vic said. This was his first professional band, and after that, he and his brother were in another local group, the Night Owls. Work and money were not plentiful around Columbus, however, and eventually Carter joined a band from Cleveland while Vic went off to another led by Don Phillips in Madison, Wis.

"I was up there until I was fired because I couldn't read," he recalled. " Play the C scale,' the leader said one day. I didn't know the C scale from any other, because I was playing from do-re-mi-fa, but I could pick up the horn and play anything I heard on it. It was just like singing to me. I was fired without being given any notice or transportation back, and that made me mad. I had to play piano and sing to make enough money to leave.

"After that experience, I learned to read and to arrange by myself, from books and by asking questions. That would be about 1926.

"I found that to play melody on a trombone, you had to transpose pieces to a brighter key than the one they were originally written in. I'd heard Claude Jones with the Synco Septet by this time—he was with McKinney's Cotton Pickers later—and been very impressed. He didn't play the instrument like a trombone. He played all over it. Then I heard Jimmy Harrison with Fletcher Henderson's band, which was popular around that time—1926-'29. I also used to buy all the Gennett records by Ladd's Black Aces, and I liked the way Miff Mole played melody, rather than the old way that sounded like a dying cow in a thunderstorm.

"The trombone was late developing as compared with the other horns. Jimmy Harrison and Jack Teagarden both sounded like Louis Armstrong, and they influenced me because they were playing the way I had wanted to play before I heard them."

While he was still studying, Dickenson went to Kentucky for a period and then to Cincinnati, where he took J.C. Higginbotham's place with Helvey's Troubadours.

Then he went back to Madison and a band that contained trumpeter Reunald Jones and some of the musicians he had previously worked with, but this time they were fronted by Leonard Gay.

On his return to Columbus in 1929, he joined Speed Webb's band for a little over a year.

"It was a very good band," he said. "Webb had Roy Eldridge, who used to come down from Detroit with his brother, and Teddy Wilson and his brother. Teddy was crazy about [pianist] Earl Hines and was playing beautifully even then. Seven guys arranged in that band, including Teddy's brother Gus, and every week we had seven new arrangements. Of course, we played everything in the way of dance music in those days — waltzes, pop songs, everything. I did some arranging, but I didn't bother with it much because I found it held me up in my playing. I'd be thinking about the other horns and get mixed up. I wouldn't want to get into it now unless I stopped playing. I imagine that was how it was with Sy Oliver. It's not the same for a piano player, because he's got everything there. Playing a horn is a different thing.

"Sy Oliver was in Zack Whyte's band, which Roy Eldridge and I joined in Cincinnati. Several guys left Speed Webb because there was no work. Zack was playing walk-athons. That was what they were called, but people just danced, for hours and hours and hours. It was like pole-sitting, to see how long they could do it. We'd play for a time, and then another band would take over.

"After we'd been to the Savoy in New York, we went out on a five-band tour with Bennie Moten, Blanche Calloway, Andy Kirk, and Chick Webb. We played all around, and the tour broke up in Cincinnati. The guys weren't making so much, but the ballrooms used to be jammed, and the promoters made money. That was how the Kansas City guys came to know about me. When Bennie Moten's band was splitting up, they sent for me. So I went out there and played with Thamon Hayes for a while. Harlan Leonard was in that band, and later he took it over. I left after a few months but went back the following year."

This time they had a booker and went down the Missouri on a boat, up the Mississippi and on to Peoria, Illinois. From there they went to Chicago, where a lot of negotiating went on but not much happened, Dickenson said. Eventually he got a wire from Blanche Calloway and joined her band. Her brother Cab was famous then, and besides Blanche there was a Ruth Calloway and several other Calloways trying to cash in on the name. "But so far as I know," Dickenson said, "Blanche was the only other one to have a good band, with people like Ben Webster in it."

On records, she did a lot of singing, but in person the band played plenty of dance music. Dickenson stayed with her from 1933 to 1936 and then joined Claude Hopkins. After a year with Benny Carter in 1939, the trombonist joined the flourishing Count Basie Band.

"All the musicians knew me," he remembered, "but it wasn't until I was with Basie that the writers and people seemed to become aware of me. Dickie Wells and Dan Minor were in the section with me. Being with Basie was a big help to me. Dickie and I played the jazz solos, and we had many a nice drink together. There were two or three numbers on which we both used to solo.

"When I left Basie in 1941, I worked with Sidney Bechet. He and I got on fine together, personally and musically. He had a style of his own, and you had to
know it. He just didn't like trumpet players. He said they got in his way."

The next job was with trumpeter Frankie Newton, and Dickenson was with the band at Cafe Society in New York City when Newton's contract ran out. Pianist Eddie Heywood's trio was hired and after about one night of the trio, the boss called to see if Dickenson wanted to come down and play with Heywood. The trombone was the first horn Heywood had. After playing the downtown cafe, they went to California and then came back and played the Cafe Society Uptown as well as 52nd St. By this time the Heywood group was a sextet, with trumpet and alto saxophone added to Dickenson's trombone in the front line.

"I got very sick when I was out on the coast again in 1947," Dickenson said. "I had a lot of trouble with an abscessed ulcer, and I had to hang around a long while and have a second operation. In the meantime, I formed my own band, and it was pretty nice, though the fellows in it were not well known."

When he returned east, Dickenson "played around Boston for a long, long time—about eight years." He went into the Savoy there with clarinetist Edmond Hall and stayed on as a kind of house trombonist until the manager opened his own club downtown. Dickenson took over there with his friend Buster Bailey and stayed on to play first with Jimmy and Marian McPartland and then with Bobby Hackett. After working in New York with Hackett, he went back to Boston and George Wein's Mahogany Hall. Pianist-promoter Wein's appreciation of the trombonist's talent subsequently led to Dickenson's appearances at Newport and in Belgium, Germany, and Japan.

In 1957 Dickenson returned to New York and once more took J.C. Higginbotham's chair, this time with Red Allen and Buster Bailey at the Metropole.

With Red Richards, the story comes up to date. "I'd known Red since the early '30s, when we both lived in Harlem," Dickenson said. "He would go out and play piano as a single, but he and I used to sit down and talk about getting a group together, and the Saints and Sinners really began about 1960. Since then, that has been the main thing."

Today, Dickenson, a musician of considerable and varied experience, still has a number of unresolved ambitions.

"I always wanted to record with my brother, Carter," he said, "but he died earlier this year. He played alto and clarinet very well, and he was due to retire from the mail service in 1964, and then I thought it would be easy to get him to come and make a record with me, if only someone would have backed me.

"I would like to make an album that was really my own, one where I picked the men. Every time I've made a record, someone else has picked for me. I'd like seven or eight pieces, and if I chose them, I would get real co-operation. I have some beautiful numbers of my own, too, that I want to record, but I want my own date—and royalties. I never have had any royalties on any records. When I was in Japan and Australia, people were always asking where they could get my records.

Sometimes I wonder whether companies wait until musicians die before they reissue records, so that they won't have to pay royalties. "One of my numbers was recorded in 1956—What Have You Done with the Key to My Heart?—but it was issued in Europe only. It was a good album, made with Budd Johnson (one of the greatest), Andre Persiany, and Taft Jordan. Some of my numbers like that could use a good singer. You know who I would like to record with— the Mills Brothers! As I said, I always have liked melodies."

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