Dickenson, Vic 1906–1984
Vic Dickenson 1906–1984
Trombonist Vic Dickenson was a fixture during the golden era of jazz. He played with a long list of jazz stars, including Benny Carter, Henry “Red” Allen, and Bobby Hackett, and was a star of Count Basie’s legendary band. Most known for his humorous style, Dickenson also could evoke remarkable tenderness from a ballad. “It’s how I feel,” he is quoted as saying in a 1984 New York Times article. “If I feel humorous, I guess I play humorous. Otherwise, I play like something hurts me.”
Victor Dickenson was born on August 6, 1906, in Xenia, Ohio. His father, Ronald Clarke Dickenson, owned a plastering business. Though he studied organ as a child and played trombone in high school, Vic Dickenson originally aspired to following in his father’s footsteps and becoming a plasterer himself. His father was teaching him on the job one day when, while carrying a load of plaster up a ladder, the rung broke out from under him. Dickenson hit the ground, hurting his back so severely that he never was really able to lift anything of heft again. Unable to do any kind of manual labor, Dickenson resorted to trying to make his living as a trombonist. He later said he virtually had no other choice. “I know I wouldn’t have been a good doctor, and I wouldn’t have been a good cook,” he is quoted as saying in a 1984 obituary in the New Yorker. “I know I wouldn’t have been a good janitor, and I don’t have the patience to be a good teacher.” Jazz turned out to be a sound job choice for Dickenson; he played his first gig at age 15, and by the time he was 21 years old he was playing with the leading bands in Columbus and Cleveland, Ohio, Madison, Wisconsin, and Kansas City, Missouri. In 1932, four years after meeting Otealia Foyer, Dickenson married her. The couple had no children.
Like most working jazz musicians of the era, Dickenson played with many different bands in many different cities during his career. He worked with Speed Webb in 1927, Zack Whyte in 1932, Blanche Calloway (legendary band leader Cab Calloway’s successful sister) from 1933 to 1936, Claude Hopkins from 1936 to 1939, and Benny Carter in 1939 and again in 1941. Count Basie hired Dickenson in 1940, when his band was at the height of its success. He then worked with Frankie Newton in 1941 and again from 1942 to 1943, and with Eddie Heywood from 1943 to 1946. He worked as a freelance trombonist on the West Coast in 1947 and 1948. In 1949 he relocated to
Born Victor Dickenson on August 6, 1906 in Xenia, OH; died on November 16, 1984 in New York, NY; son of Ronald Clarke Dickenson (a plasterer); married Otealia Foyer, 1932.
Career: Trombonist. Worked with groups in Ohio, Wisconsin, and Missouri, 1920s-early 1930s; played with Speed Webb, 1927; Zack Whyte, 1932; Blanche Calloway, 1933-36; Claude Hopkins, 1936-39; Benny Carter, 1939, 1941; Count Basie, 1940; Frankie Newton, 1941, 1942-43; Eddie Heywood, 1943-46; worked freelance on the West Coast, 1947-48; lived and worked in Boston, leading his own band and as “house trombonist” at the Savoy, 1949-mid-1950s; relocated to New York City, played with Henry “Red” Allen, 1958; leader, with Red Richards, of the Saints and Sinners, toured with George Wein’s All Stars, and worked regularly at Eddie Condon’s club, 1960s; played with Wild Bill Davison, 1961-62; toured Europe with George Wein, 1961, 1963, 1968; toured Australia and Asia with Condon, 1964; toured Europe as a soloist, 1965; leader, with Bobby Hackett, of a quintet, 1968-70; toured Europe with Hackett, 1965, 1968-70; performed frequently with the World’s Greatest Jazz Band, 1970s; played freelance, 1970s-1980s.
Awards: Silver Award, Esquire, 1946-47.
Boston, leading his own band and working as “house trombonist” at the Savoy until the mid-1950s. He then settled in New York City, playing with Henry “Red” Allen, in 1958. He led, with Red Richards, the successful group the Saints and Sinners, toured with George Wein’s All Stars, and worked regularly at Eddie Condon’s club in the 1960s. He played with Wild Bill Davison from 1961 to 1962. Dickenson’s tours abroad include Europe with George Wein several times in the 1960s, and again as a soloist. He also toured Europe with Bobby Hackett and the quintet they led together from 1968 to 1970. He toured Australia and Asia with Eddie Condon in 1964. During the 1970s he performed frequently with the World’s Greatest Jazz Band, and mostly played freelance through the 1970s and 1980s.
Like every other jazz musician during the 1920s, Dickenson listened to Louis Armstrong. His playing was vaguely reminiscent of trombonist Dickie Wells, of whom he was a fan, but his sound was uniquely his own. “Dickenson doesn’t sound like a trombonist,” Whitney Balliett wrote in the New Yorker in 1981. “His tone is gentle and downy, and his playing is a direct extension of the way he talks and sings.” Dickenson concurred. “I play in an unorthodox way,” he explained to Balliett. While most trombonists place the mouthpiece over the skin above their upper lip, Dickenson kept it on his lip. “That’s the way I learned, and because of it my chops sometimes wear out, and I can’t play the high notes Dickie Wells and Trummy Young do.” Stylistically, “I think about improvising as if I’m singing,” he continued. “It’s what I’d do if I were humming. When you improvise, you see your feelings in your mind, and you form certain feelings for numbers that you play over and over. You keep the melody in your mind, too.”
Dickenson once estimated that he knew 10,000 songs. He kept some of his repertoire typed on index cards that he carried with him to jobs as a reminder of what to play. His own compositions, which never produced a hit, include “Constantly,” “I’ll Try,” “Mistletoe,” and “What Have You Done With the Key to Your Heart?” The recordings he made with his own septet on the Vanguard label in 1963 “rank among the finest examples of mainstream jazz,” according to New Grove Dictionary of Jazz.
Humor was Dickenson’s trademark, both on and off the stage. “Dickenson’s style is wasteless and lyrical and funny,” Whitney Balliett wrote in the New Yorker in 1981. “High jinks are always around the corner in his playing. He growls a lot, particularly in ensembles, and the growls add a lazy, bibulous texture to the counterpoint. Even when he plays the melody of a good song straight, he seems to be laughing up his sleeve.” He also was known for his good nature. A club manager once read him the riot act when he was late for a set, and Dickenson responded by opening the set with the song “I Apologize.”
One thing Dickenson later recalled about his touring days was the closeness that developed between the band members. “It was like brothers,” he told Whitney Balliett in a 1981 interview with the New Yorker. “We were on the road all the time, and in those days you stayed in people’s houses, because the hotels wouldn’t let you in.” Dickenson remembered fondly that he and saxophonist Lester “Pres” Young often tried to find quarters together, and Dickenson picked up some of Young’s own trademark slang. “If he agreed with you, it was ‘You rang the bell—ding ding.’ I still say ‘Ding ding’ before I take a drink.” Dickenson recounted his “happiest days” as those spent playing with Bobby Hackett, he told Balliett. The two first played together in the 1950s, and continued working together through the 1970s. They led a quintet together from 1968 to 1970. They toured Europe together first in 1965, then again with their quintet.
At age 75, Dickenson flirted with the idea of retirement, or semi-retirement at least, but as a result of his own admittedly poor business skills, had not earned enough over the course of his career to be able to stop working. “If I had it to do over, I’d have a good manager,” he told Whitney Balliett in 1981 in the New Yorker. “My health is crumbling a little, and I don’t like to travel much anymore. I wish I could play when I feel like it and not play when I don’t feel like it.” He and his wife, Otealia, lived in the Bronx. “As the years went by, he never seemed to look any older, and his playing never diminished,” Balliett wrote in 1984 in Dickenson’s New Yorker obituary. “Keeping his cool was essential to him—it was a matter of pride—and perhaps that insulated him.” Dickenson died from cancer on November 16, 1984, at New York Hospital. He was survived by his wife.
Vic Dickenson Septet, Vol. 1, Vanguard, 1953.
Vic Dickenson Showcase, Vol. 1, Vanguard, 1953.
Vic Dickenson Septet, Vol. 1, Vanguard, 1954.
Vic Dickenson Septet, Vol. 2, Vanguard, 1954.
Vic Dickenson Septet, Vol. 3, Vanguard, 1954.
Vic Dickenson Septet, Vol. 4, Vanguard, 1954.
Vic Dickenson Showcase, Vol. 2, Vanguard, 1954.
Vic’s Boston Story, Storyville, 1956.
Mainstream, Koch Jazz, 1958.
In Holland, Riff, 1974.
Gentleman of the Trombone, Storyville, 1975.
Plays Bessie Smith: “Trombone Cholly,” Gazell, 1976.
Vic Dickenson Quintet, Storyville, 1976.
Just Friends, Sackville, 1981.
Live At Music Room, Valley Vue, 1996.
Swing That Music, Black & Blue, 2002.
Carr, Ian, ed., Jazz: The Essential Companion, Prentice Hall Press, 1988.
Feather, Leonard, ed., Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz, Oxford University Press, 1999.
Feather, Leonard, ed., The Encyclopedia of Jazz, Da Capo Press, 1984.
Kernfeld, Barry, ed., New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, Macmillan Press Ltd., 1988.
New York Times, November 18, 1984, p. N25; April 21, 1985, p. H27.
New Yorker, September 7, 1981, p. 39; December 17, 1984, p. 146.
All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (December 23, 2002).
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