Music based on love: jazz drummer Dick Dickinson 

Editors note, Dec. 2, 2008: Local jazz drummer and DJ Dick Dickinson, 80, featured in the Nov. 19 NUVO profile “Music Based on Love,” died Monday morning.

“His presence is already missed, but I know you all have a special memory of Dick that will keep him alive in your hearts and memories,” Chatterbox owner David Andrichik said in an e-mail announcing the news.

A memorial celebration for Dickinson will be held Wednesday, Dec. 10 at the Chatterbox. Dickinson held a Wednesday night gig as bandleader for 20 years before he passed off responsibilities to a hand-picked successor, bassist Jesse Wittman. Wittman’s trio will play from 8 p.m. until midnight, with musicians invited to sit in, and, at 9 p.m., friends will share memories and stories from the stage.

For more than two decades of Wednesday nights at the Chatterbox Jazz Club, drummer Dick Dickinson has given young jazz players a chance to learn the craft under a sure and swinging hand. And a solid beat wasn’t all he had to offer to each tyro. He also built the stage they anxiously crept upon. Dickinson built the bandstand soon after he started drumming at the Chatterbox in 1986, using industrial-grade maroon carpeting he hijacked from a Pizza Hut. Though worn now, the carpeting denotes the charm of the Chatterbox, seen in the graffiti on the walls, bar and bathrooms, the odd knick-knacks found throughout or the photos of past and present musicians and customers.

On April 23, 2008, Dickinson, 80, stepped down from the stage, retiring from his weekly gig and passing the reins to his handpicked successor, bassist Jesse Wittman, who is 55 years younger than Dickinson. The retirement was forced more by body than spirit. Dickinson has battled throat cancer and a stomach surgery in the past few years. A punctured trachea robbed him of his voice, before a prosthesis brought it back “clear as a bell.” His ailments also began to rob him of the strength in his fingers, causing “my technique to go to hell.”

“I don’t have any regrets about not playing considering how I feel,” Dickinson said. “I was failing even before I quit, but I wasn’t aware of it.”

Just before he quit playing regularly, there were times when, as the music began to swing, a look of joy would come over Dickinson’s face, a big smile in the place of a difficult decade of surgeries and throat cancer. At the retirement party, his old college roommate and bassist Max Hartstein said that swing was “good time and anything that doesn’t swing is anti-time. If you’re not swinging, you’re slowly dying.” For Dickinson, who comes to life behind a set, jazz is a bulwark against illness, or at least a force to mitigate setbacks, both physical and mental.

It’s the music Dickinson knew was his calling as a student at Florida State University in 1950. A friend had a record of Charlie Parker playing “Scrapple from the Apple” and Dickinson was hooked.

“I told myself, ‘That’s it,’” Dickinson said. “I’d never heard anything like that in my life.”

He counts off every musician playing on that record: Charlie Parker on alto sax, Miles Davis on trumpet, Max Roach on drums, Tommy Potter on bass, Duke Jordan on piano. Dickinson can do the same for almost any gig and the musicians he played with in his life, although the gigs occasionally get buried in his memory.

“Indiana Avenue is where I got my real comeuppance in learning about music,” he said of the opportunities presented to him throughout the 1950s. “I learned that jazz was really created by black musicians and that the blues was a major component of jazz. The importance of the blues cannot be stressed enough.

“When I was first coming up, I received a lot of support from black clubs and black musicians. I still feel that anybody who has not played with black musicians doesn’t know what’s going on.”

Originally, Dickinson pursued a pre-med degree in college. But to the chagrin of his father, a family doctor in Petersburg, he graduated from Indiana University with a music degree. When jazz took a less prominent role in his life in the late ’50s and he attempted a “normal” life as a civil servant, the abandoning of his passion triggered, in part, what he calls a “nervous breakdown” that led to hospitalization. But jazz and his musician friends helped him through this period of fear, depression and thoughts of suicide. A piano player turned attorney filed the habeas corpus papers that gained his release.

“Music has sustained me through my life,” Dickinson said. “Every day that I get up in the morning, there is a song in my mind. It happens throughout the day, too, and I’m happy for that.”

During his retirement party at the Chatterbox, the music he loves reigned supreme. Familiar and friendly faces filled a packed house that spilled out into the patio; laughter and high-spirited conversation rolled far past the midnight hour. One could almost hear the echoes of Indiana Avenue and a time and place where jazz was at its zenith for Dickinson.

Moving toward a musical life

Born in Atlanta, Ga., on Jan. 2, 1928, Dickinson’s family soon moved to Petersburg, Ind. In his early years, Dickinson was captivated by music, listening for hours to the radio.

He has distinct memories of Kate Smith, once described by Time magazine as “The First Lady of Radio,” singing her theme song “When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain” on her show. He collected records from “way back.”

His passion as a collector of music would later serve him well as a disc jockey for WIAN and WFYI in Indianapolis. During his retirement party, former WIAN manager Art Van Allen noted Dickinson helped “amass one of the largest jazz record libraries in Indianapolis, if not the state.”

“I was inundated with music back in those days,” Dickinson said of his youth. “Music based on love. We listened to all of it. Of course, I was into swing, big band, but anything live on the radio.”

He spent his childhood in Petersburg, a small, Southern Indiana town, before going to high school at a military academy in Columbia, Tenn. Venturing beyond recorded music in high school, he began seeing bands live, and was particularly drawn to black groups. In 1946, while in his high school military academy, he caught Billy Eckstine’s band in Louisville, calling them a “swinging band, a great band.” Dickinson loved jazz but listened to whatever he could, catching many shows in Evansville, where he could watch the matinee and stay around for the evening shows. Around 1939, he saw Count Basie’s band in Evansville and approached “Mr. Basie” with youthful awe for an autograph, to which Basie replied, “Do you have a pen? I can’t sign something for you without a pen.” The encounter also provided an icebreaker for Dickinson when he later had the opportunity to interview Basie for his radio show.

Dickinson calls his mother, Ethel Voorhis, the “most important musical influence in my life” for taking him to many of those shows and exposing him to “every cultural event she could.”

Dickinson entered the Army after high school in 1946 and served in Osaka during the occupation of Japan, before being discharged in 1948. He began taking classes at Indiana University in Bloomington soon after with a concentration in pre-med. Dickinson could not remember exactly how he decided to focus his studies on music, but his college transcripts show that he had lost interest in medicine soon after his first year in school.

“[My father, a family doctor,] was disappointed; I know he was disappointed,” Dickinson said. “But he went with it.”

In 1950, Dickinson transferred to Florida State University, where he heard three players that would change his life: Charlie Parker and the Adderley Brothers. The Adderleys, Nat on cornet and Cannonball on alto saxophone, born in Tampa, Fla., were still hanging around the state before heading to New York in the ’50s. Dickinson distinctly remembers Nat Adderley walking down the street in Tallahassee whistling a Maynard Ferguson tune as a “kind of signal to say, ‘Here I am.’”

Dickinson returned to Indiana University, where he forged musical relationships that would last him a lifetime. Dickinson and his roommate, bassist Hartstein, played fraternity and sorority parties with other student players like David Baker, who would go on to play with many of the biggest names in jazz and gain renown as the director of the Indiana University jazz department.

“We’d always have jam sessions afterward,” Dickinson said. “A name band could be playing for IU students and the piano player would join in [during the sessions]; that’s just how it was back then.”

Dickinson said that after they played, he and his friends would return to the dorms, “get high, listen to Charlie Parker and other music until 4 in the morning.”

Indiana Avenue, burlesque theaters and constant music

Dickinson eventually moved to Indianapolis, a few credits shy of an undergraduate degree. But he didn’t spend all his time playing in historic jazz clubs on Indiana Avenue; he was working day jobs that were “awful as far as I was concerned” and nights playing for dances at hotels and as part of a burlesque theater band.

“There were dances you could play and just so much music going on,” Dickinson said. “It was just a great time.”

“When we were all in town there was a really big jazz movement, and everybody was working on Indiana Avenue,” bassist Max Hartstein noted. “There was music going on almost 24 hours a day on the Avenue. If you had a horn and you could play, you were playing [no matter your race]. There were a lot of things wrong, but it was a golden age for the jazz scene in Indianapolis. There were some really good players and Indianapolis had a reputation of being a big jazz town with its own particular flavor.”

A friend, drummer Benny Barth, helped Dickinson secure his first regular gig at the Mayfair Tavern on 10th Street on the city’s near Eastside. Barth had played there but “had bigger things on his plate,” Dickinson said.

He credited Barth for much of his early development as a drummer.

“I learned ever so much from him,” Dickinson said. “He was a great drummer. He nurtured me and then let me fly away.”

Dickinson then moved on to a six-night-a-week gig at the Westpoint Hotel on Ohio Street playing for “Bob Beasley and his Westpoint Cadets.” He still has a newspaper ad for the group “playing for your dancing pleasure” from 8 p.m. to midnight. Later, he would work in a burlesque show at the Fox Theater on Illinois Street downtown.

“[The burlesque groups] would bring their ladies and comics, and we’d play seven days a week with a matinee on Saturday,” he said. “It was a long and grueling time.”

Still, when his burlesque show would finish around midnight was when the real music would start for Dickinson. He headed to Indiana Avenue and listened to local and national talent who played towards dawn.

“The music was where it was happening,” Dickinson said, remembering a smiling Wes Montgomery turning to him on the bandstand and saying, “Good swing.”

The ‘Zenith’ left behind

But by the end of the decade, clubs along Indiana Avenue began to close and Indianapolis jazz headed into a long and steady decline. Dickinson’s own fortunes mirrored those of his beloved music.

Many of his old friends moved away: Barth to Seattle to join the Montgomery brothers and college roommate Hartstein on a whirlwind tour of the country. “All the people I knew were disappearing,” Dickinson said.

Without his friends and with fewer opportunities to play locally, music became less a part of Dickinson’s life. He moved to New York to take a civil service job and then accepted another better paying civil service job in San Bernadino, Calif.

“I accepted it, like a damned fool,” Dickinson said. “I was looking for stability I guess.”

Theses changes negatively impacted his mental health, and Dickinson suffered a “blow up, or nervous breakdown, or whatever you want to call it” in 1959. “It all happened because I was doing something I really didn’t want to be doing,” Dickinson said. “You had to be a normal human being and I wasn’t built for that.”

He spent three months at a state hospital in California, undergoing a regimen of then-common shock treatments. “You went wham, bam, gone,” Dickinson said. “It went yellow and black, like a target exploding, and then you went out.”

After the time in California, he was transferred to Central State Hospital in Indianapolis. During the next five years, he spent about half his time confined to the hospital itself and the other half on release living at halfway houses.

Dickinson still played miscellaneous club dates during this time. Jazz pianist Claude Sifferlen believes that he first met him in the early ’60s when they played a club located around 30th Street and Northwestern, although Dickinson thought they played an earlier gig together in Greenfield in the late ’50s.

“I took him home from the gig to Central State,” Sifferlen said, agreeing that “maybe it was a little bit odd, but he was very up front about it.

“He’s climbed a lot of mountains since I’ve known him,” he added in reference to Dickinson’s later battles with cancer.

Dickinson called his time at Central State “a mind-boggling nightmare of an experience. They had us so beaten down mentally that we didn’t think that we could do anything else.” He said he only saw one instance of physical abuse where an old man was kicked. Generally, he said staff there treated patients as if they were less than human. Dickinson remembered one staff member who would say, “‘Head ’em out,’ like we were cattle,” when leaving the wards.

Confused by the experience, Dickinson read psychiatry books in an attempt to understand what was happening to him. The writings of Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung and his theories on synchronicity or meaningful temporal coincidences proved especially helpful to him. “I was scared to death of what was happening to me. [I read Jung] to cure myself; that’s what people do when they are frightened,” Dickinson said. “Anything that will get you through a rough time, you have to look to it.”

Dickinson noted he “toyed with the idea of suicide when at Central State” but “fortunately I got through it.”

In 1964, Dickinson gained his release from the hospital. Dan Cummings, a musician friend who had become an attorney, filed a writ of habeas corpus petition for him.

“I really treasure this very much,” Dickinson said of an order from the Marion Circuit Court dated Sept. 2, 1964. The document noted, “The Court further orders, adjudges and decrees that said person shall be regarded at law as sane from this date forward.”

“That one I really had to laugh about,” Dickinson said. “How many people can put a legal document on their wall that says they are sane?”

Moving forward from the fog

The legal document may have confirmed sanity, but Dickinson still wasn’t sure if he could make it in the real world.

Dickinson returned to school and completed the few credits necessary to finish his undergraduate degree and began working toward a master’s degree in anthropology. While at Bloomington, Dickinson became aware of an opening as a disc jockey for WFIU. The radio gig was a precursor to his future career as a disc jockey for WIAN and WFYI in the ’80s in Indianapolis.

Dickinson played occasional gigs after leaving Central State and while in grad school, but found more regular work when he returned to Indianapolis in the early ’70s. But jazz couldn’t pay all the bills, and drummer Benny Barth, in a letter he wrote for the Chatterbox retirement party, recalls when Dickinson was reluctantly considering taking a day job for the city. During the interview, Dickinson was asked if there was anything in life that he would like to do and hadn’t done.

“Dick thought for a minute — then said, ‘I really want to go on the road with a big band,’” Barth wrote. “Dick said the gentleman looked at him with an expression of wonderment and disbelief and said, ‘What is a big band?’”

Dickinson started playing the wedding and party circuit, had a steady gig at a Noblesville steakhouse with the Bill Adair Orchestra and, in 1976, spent several months traveling the East Coast with a band playing South Sea island music at Army bases. He was the elder of the group show that included a guy from Tahiti doing a fire dance. He still worked several of his “hated” day jobs, but one may have saved his life by helping him discover that he had early stage lung cancer. Dickinson was working as a delivery driver for a medical laboratory, giving him access to X-ray and other medical tests that he probably wouldn’t have sought otherwise. “I wasn’t feeling badly,” Dickinson said of a meaningful coincidence that Carl Jung could appreciate. In the late ’60s, he survived lung and bladder cancer and kicked a three-pack-a-day cigarette habit.

By the mid-’80s, opportunities and accolades began to roll in. Dickinson returned to radio with WIAN in 1985. He received a key to the city along with his good friend Barth from former Indianapolis Mayor Bill Hudnut for his contributions to jazz in the city.

Dickinson called the gig with WIAN “the greatest thing that ever came to me.” The radio work allowed him to share the music he loved with others and also interview many of his jazz idols such as Dizzie Gillespie, Lionel Hampton, Tito Puente, J.J. Johnson, the Adderley brothers, Roberta Flack and Buddy Rich. Pianist Claude Sifferlen noted that Dickinson’s “very knowledgeable” about the history of jazz and “for a jazz player, there’s nothing better than to have a radio show.” He added that almost “everyone” interested in jazz in the area listened to Dickinson’s radio shows. Although Dickinson had no media training, Barth noted, “He kept getting better and better because he was doing something he really loved.”

However, his experience at WFYI still leaves a bitter taste in his mouth. When WFYI took over WIAN’s license in late 1986, the new station began to slowly shift the station’s focus from jazz to classical. “They made jazz the goat,” Dickinson said. He challenged the changes with the support of some jazz enthusiasts and organizations, but the tension eventually led to his firing in 1990 over factors Dickinson still contends were fraudulent. He won an unemployment claim that found his firing to be without cause.

Wednesdays at the Box

Dickinson started his weekly engagement at the Chatterbox in 1986 and hasn’t looked back. “It’s been wonderful to have a place where you could play what you wanted,” Dickinson said. “Seldom did [owner David Andrichik] ever tell me what to play in 22 years. He left it totally up to the musicians. It was comforting to have a steady gig.”

Sifferlen, who has had an equally long run at the Chatterbox with partner Frank Glover, said, “Some really good players” have joined Dickinson through the years on the bandstand, noting a picture on the wall in the club where Dickinson is joined by Jimmie Coe and “Pookie” Johnson, one of Dickinson’s dearest friends who died in 2005. He added that Dickinson has been a great influence on young musicians by bringing them in and giving them a place to play.

“He loved to get that freshness in the band,” Sifferlen said. “He’s always liked the traditional jazz tunes and it’s difficult to find that today for younger players because they are just coming up in another era.”

Sifferlen called such nurturing by older musicians like Dickinson a “continuation of the art form.”

“The business has changed a lot,” he said. “There used to be a lot of work — six days a week, with a weekend gig. But even for the kids coming out of Bloomington with a degree in jazz, where are they going to go?”

Among those younger musicians who Dickinson gave a place to play is Wittman, who inherited Dickinson’s Wednesday night Chatterbox gig. During the retirement party, Wittman was affectionate towards the older drummer, lingering late in the evening and chatting with Dickinson.

“Dick has always been willing to give young players a chance to grow,” Wittman said. “We all learn from our elders. It’s pretty amazing and daunting all the famous musicians Dick has played with in his career.”

Wittman said jazz and music in general provides “a lot of opportunities for cross-generational growth.

“I don’t know many of my friends that have close relationships with people in their 80s, but when I talk to musicians, they have friendships with a lot of different age groups.”

The friendship with Wittman is just one example of his influence on a younger generation of jazz musicians. He helps them as others helped him.

“I really thank all the musicians that hired me,” Dickinson said. “They brought me along and helped me find my way.”

Dickinson treasures the times spent and his longtime relationships bound by music. He speaks to Barth regularly. “We’re just old friends,” he said.

His friendships forged by music are neither contained by geography nor life or death. He talks on the phone with a friend about attending the memorial service for drummer Jack Gilfoy, who died May 3, 2008. He recounts a phone call with pianist Jane Jarvis, now living in New York. She played a request for him — “Memories of You.”

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