Women in Jazz: Commanding the drums

The drums have been my favorite instrument ever since I became a fan of jazz. The drums are the pulse of the band and play such an important role in the overall musical structure of a song. They are not meant to just keep time, but to serve as a the guiding force in the band. Jazz legends like Art Blakey, Max Roach, Kenny Clarke, and Elvin Jones pushed jazz drumming to new heights, and their pioneering methods are still being emulated by drummers to this day.

There are also a number of female jazz drummers who have made a significant impact on the art of percussion. I’d like to end the BHM Series on Women in Jazz and celebrate the beginning of Women’s History Month by highlighting a few female percussionists who were and are continuing to elevate the music.

Dorothy Dodgion

Born in 1929 in Brea California, Dorothy Dodgion started out as a vocalist during the 1950s and toured with groups like Charlie Mingus in the Bay area, but after filling in for drummers during a few gigs, she got bit with the percussion bug. Her father was a drummer and her mother was a dancer, so she grew up around jazz music.

Being a female drummer certainly did not come easy for Dodgion, especially playing an instrument that was thought of as masculine, even moreso than other instruments such as the sax and trumpet. With the encouragement of her husband, alto saxophonist Jerry Dodgion, she began taking gigs in San Francisco and in 1961, moved to New York to tackle their jazz scene. Throughout her career, she worked with a number of prominent musicians such as Benny Goodman, Zoot Zims, Marian McPartlan, and Ruby Braff. In the 1980s, she joined trombonist Melba Liston’s all female band, Melba Liston and Company. (Dahl)

Cindy Blackman Santana

Cindy Blackman Santana crosses paths between jazz, funk and rock music and is equally electrifying in all genres. She was influenced by a number of musicians including Art Blakey, who was her mentor when she moved to New York in the 80s. She began recording in the 1980s with her band, the Cindy Blackman Quartet, with whom she has released a number of straight ahead and jazz-fusion albums.

Blackman’s colorful and virtuoso drumming skills have been heard on a number of performances with jazz legends such as Jackie McLean, Pharoah Sanders, Cassandra Wilson, and Ron Carter. On the rock end, she is most known for her long association with rock star Lenny Kravitz, whom she worked with from 1993-2007. She is currently working and touring with rock guitarist Carlos Santana, whom she married in 2010. Blackman released her most current album, Another Lifetime, in 2010, which is a musical tribute to her mentor drummer Tony Williams and features some of Williams’ most endearing tunes.

Terri Lyne Carington

One cannot mention jazz drumming and not bring up Terri Lyne Carington. She was a musical prodigy and at 10 years old, was playing with jazz legends like Dizzy Gillespie, Clark Terry, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. She received a full scholarship to the Berklee College of of Music when she just 11.

She began playing with jazz legends like James Moody, Stan Getz, and others upon her move to New York in the 80s and began touring with Herbie Hancock in the 90s. She received a Grammy nomination for her 1989 debut album, Real Life Story, which featured Carlos Santana and Wayne Shorter.

In 2011, she released the Grammy award-winning album, The Mosaic Project, which paired some of the best female vocalists and instrumentalists together to celebrate women in music from vast social and racial circles. Carrington has become one of the most sought after drummers in jazz, and continues to influence aspiring musicians. In 2007, she began teaching at her alma mater Berklee College of Music. Her new album, Money Jungle, released February 5, is a a tribute to Duke Ellington’s famous trio album which featured Charlie Mingus and Max Roach.

Gayelynn McKinney

Gayelynn McKinney was destined to be a musician as it runs through her blood. Her father Harold McKinney was a well known pianist from Detroit, her mother was a great jazz vocalist, and her uncle Ray McKinney was a well known bassist. The list of talent in her family goes on and on, and McKinney has continued her family’s musical legacy by becoming one of the most gifted drummers in jazz. I’ve had the great honor of interviewing McKinney for The Jazz Line, as well as see her perform numerous times, which is always a treat.

She is a founding member of Straight Ahead, an all female band that has been together for over 20 years and gained international success. She has also performed at the Montreaux- Switzerland Jazz Festival, New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, Boston Globe Festival, the Kennedy Center, Jamaica Jazz and Heritage Festival-Montego Bay and the 1996 Olympics.

She remains very active on the Detroit music scene, and leads her own band The McKinney Zone. She released her debut album, It’s About Time in 2006, an ecletic mix of R&B, funk, jazz and rock. She is now in the process of recording an album that will be filled with her father’s unreleased music. The upcoming album, McKinfolk: The New Beginning will include a plethora of acclaimed Detroit-based musicians and will be a tribute to her father, whose musical legacy she is upholding to the fullest.

“There isnt any gender to music! I’ve always said that. Its a terrible misconception. Why, you can go back to Africa, where the women used to play those big kettldrums! You have to keep your mind open to every possibility to be able to live, not just exist.” —– Dorothy Dodgion

Dahl, Linda. Stormy Weather: The Music and Lives of a Century of Jazzwomen

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