The Sound of an Angel
For those of you who don’t know who Dennis Dotson is, just imagine the most heavenly sounding jazz trumpet player you’ve ever heard and that would be him. There are a lot of wonderful qualities about Dennis’ playing, but the one aspect I believe makes him stand out from all the rest is his ultra-pure, angelic sound.
To say that Dennis is a very lyrical jazz trumpet player might give the wrong impression. Being lyrical and having a beautiful sound doesn’t automatically mean that a trumpet player has no technique. Dennis has complete command over the instrument. I’ve heard him play at break neck tempos with not one bit of loss to the quality of his lines or his sound.
An Impressive Resume
Dennis Dotson is the most successful jazz trumpet player I know on a personal basis. The following is a copy of his bio that I snatched from another website:
Dennis Dotson has been a professional trumpeter for over forty years, having begun his career playing in Houston, Tx. while attending college at Sam Houston State College in Huntsville, Tx., where he studied trumpet with Kit Reid and Fisher Tull and composition with John Butler. He has played in the house bands in Las Vegas and free-lanced in New York City and Houston, where he now lives. He was trumpet soloist in the Woody Herman and Buddy Rich big bands and as a small group player has performed alongside Joe Lovano, Joe Henderson, Marvin Stamm and David Liebman, among others, He has performed in big bands with such as Carl Fontana, Bobby Shew, Tom Harrell, and Kenny Wheeler.
I include Dennis here in my Life Builders series because there have been many times when Dennis spoke the wisdom into my life when I needed it most. Much of that advice was professional, but some of it was also personal. Dennis’ specific life experiences contribute to a specific brand of wisdom and knowledge that I value greatly.
As I said, there are key moments in our friendship when Dennis spoke the precise wisdom into my life that I needed at that time. One of the things he taught me was about band loyalty. I remember the time I told Dennis about a band leader who owed me for several gigs and he asked me why I was still working with that band. I told him it was because that band leader hired me during a time when no one else would. Dennis’ response to my explanation was life shaping. He pointed out that when I got called for those jobs, even though no one else was calling me at the time, I played those gigs and gave that leader top value for his money. He said that I needed the gigs and the band leader needed a good trumpet player. We both got what we wanted so it was a done deal. His point was that there isn’t enough band loyalty to justify continuing to work for a band leader who hasn’t paid you for the past five or six gigs.
With that one tidbit of wisdom, Dennis enriched my life for many years to come. He helped me to more clearly define my own concept of what band loyalty really is. I am always thankful for the work the band leaders offer me. But loyalty is something separate from gratitude.
On a side note,
…the most loyal I’ve ever been to a band was in the early 1990’s when I was working mostly with Van Bramlett’s Salsamerica. Van was the most loyal band leader I ever worked for and made it easy for me to return that loyalty. A lot of band leaders only hire trumpet players when the client wants a bigger band. They think they are being loyal to you if they always call you when they need you. But they will drop the trumpet players like hot potatoes whenever the client says they can’t afford such a big band. Van Bramlett always booked the band as a unit, never piecemeal. On those rare occasions when the client wanted a smaller band for practical reasons (perhaps the room was too small), Van would charge the band’s full amount and pay us horn players even though we weren’t on the gig. That is true band loyalty! If I had a band leader like that today, I would give them all the same loyalty I gave Van in the 90’s.
Sitting here trying to pick just one musical nugget of wisdom that Dennis has shared is difficult. I don’t see Dennis nearly as often as I used to. We used to play a lot of big band gigs together with Ricky Diaz and Ed Gerlach. Now I see him on a rare Richard Brown gig now and again. But being on the same gig with Dennis where I can ask him questions and pick his brain, man, that’s far better than a college education.
I think the best musical wisdom I ever got from Dennis came in the form of finding my place as a player. That’s what Dennis did for me, musically speaking. He showed me how I fit in by demonstrating how he fits in. I’m not sure how to explain it better than that.
I remember one of our first conversations when Dennis mentioned to me that he had done that duo thing with Bobby Shew a few times. And then he said something that helped me see how all of us fit into the grand scheme of jazz trumpeters. He pointed out that him and Bobby Shew are different kinds of players with different sounds and different styles. Dennis probably doesn’t know this, but his description of the differences between him and Bobby Shew helped me grow my confidence performing with him and the other top players here in Houston. With this bit of wisdom, Dennis helped me see where I fit into the jazz scene here in Houston by showing me where he fits into the jazz scene on a more national level.
Just as Dennis explained about him and Bobby Shew, I now feel the same way about Dennis and myself. We are different kinds of players and we celebrate our differences! I am constantly striving to be a better player than I am and I will always hold Dennis up as one of my biggest musical influences. But Dennis made me feel like what I have to offer now is already valuable and validated.
I think where my reasoning was flawed in the past was in thinking that our competence as jazz trumpet players is linear. I thought the way a lot of people think coming from the school band system, that we are all stratified in rank and the guy on the top is the best of us all. Dennis helped me see that there is no linear scale. We are who we are and what makes us good better or best is what we do with who we are.
I think at this point in my career, I have transcribed more of Dennis’ solos than any other trumpet player. There are more than a few motifs that I have applied to my system of motivic development and in that way, Dennis’ playing has contributed to my own jazz vocabulary in a big way. That may surprise even Dennis because I don’t sound like I’m stealing his licks. Well, that’s right! My system of motivic development encourages the sharing of motivic, thematic material without copying licks outright. In other words, I’ve taken the vocabulary that I learned from Dennis and personalized it to make it my own.
I must also acknowledge Dennis’ influence in the way I hear the full story of an improvised solo, especially in the big band genre. All those years sitting in the section with Dennis and hearing him carve such beautiful masterpieces out of the changes the way he does, it is so seamless and so well blended into the tune that you can’t imagine the solo sounding any other way (until he plays it again on the next gig).
Dennis is also a big reason why I am still alive today. I used to have an internet newsletter that I tried to publish about once a week. Dennis was one of my subscribers. When I wrote about how funny it was that my blood pressure on one of those store machines was so high, Dennis immediately wrote back expressing his concern about my health. He told me to go to the doctor immediately.
I actually didn’t follow his advice right away. But I didn’t think it was so funny anymore. Dennis actually scared me and rightfully so. It was Dennis’ concern for my health that motivated me to continue checking my blood pressure and to eventually see a doctor and get on medication. This new motivation also lead me to loose almost 100 pounds which I have not gained back (like so many people said I would).
Dennis’ concern for my health and the wisdom he spoke into my life turned my health around and I actually feel and look younger today at 47 than I did when I was 35.
Thank You Dennis!
I know we don’t see each other much anymore, but I want you to know that I appreciate your contribution to my life. I am putting this post in the friends category of my Life Builders Series because I do consider you a dear friend, but your wisdom has taught me more than many of the teachers I’ve had. So thank you!