Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Dickenson, Vic (Victor)

Vic Dickenson's whimsical and conversational trombone style, coupled with a keen sense of musical humor, made him one of his generation's most sought-after sidemen. He was an impressive musical storyteller who used a wide array of effects and blues-inspired riffs to great critical acclaim. His unmistakably personal style can be heard in collaborations with many jazz greats, including Lester Young, Count Basie, Sidney Bechet and Coleman Hawkins.

In addition to his strength as a soloist, Dickenson carried the tradition of the trombone as a musical "backup singer" in a blues context, backing singers such as Alberta Hunter and trumpeter Oran "Hot Lips" Page. His sound is distinctive in that he often employs a "buzz" effect by restricting air into the mouthpiece, similar to the "half-valve" sound achieved by trumpet players. He often repeats short blues motifs with slight variations to great effect.

Victor Dickenson was born on August 6, 1906 in Xenia, Ohio. He began playing the trombone when his older brother quit, and taught himself to play the instrument by playing along with his family's small record collection. After playing in a number of local bands around central Ohio, he got his first big break with Speed Webb in 1929. Other members of the band at the time included a young Roy Eldridge on trumpet and Teddy Wilson on piano.

By this time, Dickenson was developing a reputation as a strong section player for big bands, and moved to Kansas City, where his first work came with Thaymon Hayes. He began touring in 1933 with Blanche Calloway, which lasted until 1936. He then joined Claude Hopkins until 1939, where he became friends with trumpeter Jabbo Smith. Saxophonist Benny Carter recruited him to play with his band until 1940.

At that point, Count Basie invited Dickenson to join his band, which had made a name for itself as one of the top big bands of the era. "Somebody Stole My Gal" is one example of Dickenson playing in the Basie trombone section, this time backing featured soloist Jack Washington. Basie featured him as a soloist on such tunes as "I Never Knew," "Let Me See" and "Louisiana." Still, Dickenson's tenure with Basie was brief. He developed a close friendship with Lester Young, and left the band with him in 1941, returning to tour with Carter.

Like many adept improvisers of his generation, Dickenson began to feel confined by the big band format, and began working more with small groups beginning in 1941. He developed a longstanding association with the volatile and virtuosic soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet, first recording with him in 1941. Their first recording, featuring "Blues In The Air" and "The Mooche," both show that Dickenson was well-suited for the smaller setting. He also worked frequently with Frank Newton and Hot Lips Page.

In 1943, Dickenson joined Eddie Heywood's band for a number of tours, but also continued to work with small groups. Two memorable recordings from this time include "Embraceable You" behind singer Billie Holiday and "Blue Horizon" with saxophonist Sidney Bechet. Dickenson's association with Bechet continued all the way through the saxophonist's last concert in 1958. He also performed and recorded with Benny Morton's Trombone Four alongside fellow trombonists Morton, Claude Jones and Bill Harris in 1944.

Dickenson then relocated to Los Angeles, California, where he continued to record with many other groups. Some recorded highlights of his playing during this time include "D.B. Blues" with Lester Young and "Bottom Blues" with Albert Ammons. His brief solo on "I'm Through With Love," recorded with tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, exemplies his personal, emotive ballad style. He also cut a number of sides with Edmond Hall, James P. Johnson and Sidney De Paris under various group names. Dickenson is given many moments to shine on these recordings on such tunes as "Royal Garden Blues," "Victory Stride" and "After You've Gone."

He moved to Boston, Massachussetts in 1949, where he began leading his own small group at Boston's Savoy. He also recorded frequently with Bechet during his first years back East, including a tour to Europe with him and Sam Price. He continued to perform in Boston for several years before finally returning to New York.

Dickenson first began playing with Bobby Hackett, an association which he later described as the highlight of his career, in 1951. Various other performing opportunities limited their time together, however, and the two parted ways in 1952. Dickenson continued his extensive freelancing career with other high-profile musicians including Edmond Hall, Bechet, Red Allen, Pee Wee Russell, Jo Jones and Wild Bill Davidson. He reunited briefly with Hackett in 1956, and again in 1968.

In 1957, Dickenson participated in the famous CBS broadcast The Sound Of Jazz, having been recruited by Nat Hentoff for the broadcast that featured many of the era's finest musicians. Dickenson played with all three groups: "Wild Man Blues"with Red Allen's All Stars, "Fine and Mellow" with Billie Holiday and "I Left My Baby" with the Count Basie All Stars.

After touring Asia with Eddie Condon in 1964, Dickenson led his own group in Europe a year later. He also performed regularly and toured Europe and Canada with the Saints and Sinners. After returning in 1968 to co-lead a quintet with Bobby Hackett, he was offered a position with the World's Greatest Jazz Band, with whom he toured and performed frequently during the 1970s. He managed to continue his touring and recording career all the way into his 70s.

Dickenson managed his long career on the road by maintaining a dry sense of humor and becoming an excellent cook. He kept cooking utensils stashed with his friends in various cities, and always insisted on staying in hotels where he could make his own breakfast. He was also very coy with reporters, especially when it came to talking about his unique trombone techniques. He once insisted that he developed his wrist strength from opening whiskey bottles, insisting that the looser lids of soft drinks would be the downfall of modern trombonists.

Dickenson's consistent, decades-long jazz career finally came to an end in 1984, when he was diagnosed with cancer. He passed away in a New York hospital on November 16, 1984 with his wife at his bedside.

Select Discography:

As a leader:

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)

Contributor: Alex W. Rodriguez