Obituary: Jerry Dodgion

    Prolifically recorded saxophonist and Jones-Lewis sideman who stood out among often strident lead altoists for his light, sotto voce approach

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    Jerry Dodgion with the Thad Jones / Mel Lewis Orchestra at Ronnie Scott's, 1969. Photo © Harry Monty

    Jerry Dodgion played the alto saxophone in junior high school, and later (inspired by Jerome Richardson) took up the flute. A distinguished composer and arranger, he quickly became one of the most prolific and distinguished sidemen in jazz.

    His professional career began when he joined the Gerald Wilson Orchestra in 1953, and came full circle when he appeared on two of Wilson’s latter-day superlative Mack Avenue albums: New York New Sound (2003) and In My Time (2005). In the late 1950s he played behind Frank Sinatra and became a member of Red Norvo’s quintet.

    Between those dates, he amassed over 500 recording credits with such luminaries as Count Basie, Lou Donaldson, Benny Goodman (with whom he toured the Soviet Union in 1962), Herbie Hancock, Duke Pearson, Jimmy Smith and Wes Montgomery, Yusef Lateef, Marian McPartland, Sonny Stitt and Stanley Turrentine. A founding member of the Thad Jones / Mel Lewis Orchestra, he appeared on 16 discs made by the band (1966-1977). These included such seminal albums as Live At The Village Vanguard, Central Park North, Consummation and Suite For Pops.

    ‘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 only recordings as leader were Modern Music From San Francisco (1955), Beauties Of 1918, co-led with Charlie Mariano (1957) and Jerry Dodgion & The Joy Of Sax (2004). The latter had an all-saxophone line up featuring Frank Wess, Brad Leali, Dan Block and Jay Brandford, with pianist Mike LeDonne, bassist Dennis Irwin and drummer Joe Farnsworth (2004). As well as compositions by Phil Woods and Duke Ellington it also includes such Dodgian originals as The Magic Lizard (shades of Gerry Mulligan) and Thaddeus, a tribute to Thad Jones.

    Although he was essentially a studio musician, from the early 1990s Dodgion was a member of the highly regarded Carnegie Hall Jazz Band founded by George Wein and led by trumpeter John Faddis. Dodgion appeared in its farewell concert during which he engaged in a graceful flute duet with Frank Wess. Loren Schoenberg, saxophonist and jazz scholar, said that where most lead alto players “play with a lot of force and volume, 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.”

    Never a jazz household name (unlike his drummer and vocalist wife of 20 years, Dottie Dodgion), Jerry was held in high esteem by his fellow musicians. Guitarist Anthony Wilson (son of Gerald), who had worked with him, remembered that he was “a master class in all the detail that goes into large ensemble work. 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.” Learning of his death, saxophonist Dave Pietro, who sat with Dodgion in the Toshiko Akiyoshi orchestra, wrote on Facebook: “It was a lesson in musicianship, grave humility, soulfulness, melody and patience.”

    In some respects Dodgion was an unsung hero to those who listened to any of the multifarious big band recordings on which he was a sideman. But the day after his death, the six-strong sax section of the Village Vanguard Orchestra played as its appropriate tribute Dodgion’s composition Thank You. He is survived by Debbie and Michelle (his children with Dottie Dodgion) and by Rudy and Nadine (his children with Ruby Valme, his subsequent partner of 18 years).

    Jerry Dawson Dodgion, b. Richmond, California, 29 August 1932; d. Queens, New York, 17 February 2023