Charles and I had been in close contact, as he and I were working on his discography (http://www.jazzdiscography.com/Artists/Thompson/index.html). Often, Dottie and I would chat a bit before Charles picked up the phone, and that is how our friendship began. Not long after, their relationship broke up (Charles had moved to Japan and married over there) but Dottie and I had, by that time, become good friends. We talked on the phone at least once a week and I would visit with her when I was in Southern California while on business trips. On those occasions she preferred to stay in, so we’d order in Chinese and sit around and talk for the evening.
Dottie’s relationship with Barney began shortly after the outbreak of World War II and so she first became part of the Ellington family and, later, with the Armstrong family when Barney joined Louis in 1947. I remember watching the Ken Burns JAZZ series and seeing a clip of Louis and Lucille entertaining in their home in Queens and there was Barney and Dottie sitting in the living room having a great time. She tossed off those experiences like they were just every day occurrences, like brushing your teeth, but to me it was hallowed ground. To my everlasting regret, I didn’t evoke more jazz anecdotes from her because she could have filled a book. More often, our conversations would just as likely be about news, weather and politics as it would be about jazz.
She knew everyone associated with jazz, it seemed. There wasn’t a single name that I could throw her way that she didn’t have some experience to share. Once, I mentioned that I had just picked up a CD featuring Albert Nicholas and she went on to say that he and Barney used to room together when they lived in Chicago and Barney was playing with Joe Oliver. However the friendship and the living arrangement broke up when they both started dating the same girl. “Is there anyone you don’t know?” I’d ask her, and she would just laugh.
Dottie’s manner was casual and friendly and there was a certain rough charm about her that, perhaps, came from her Wyoming origins. Whatever her exterior, she had a heart of gold and a love of all things jazz. I recall her telling me that when she first met Barney, she really didn’t connect him with Ellington – she was a Goodman fan. But all that changed and later when she would attend gatherings of the Ellington Society, she was treated like royalty.
In August 2000, my wife and I were driving home from a few days in Carmel and she was checking our phone messages. There was a call from Floyd Levin telling me that Dottie had suffered a fatal heart attack. She was 82, but in my mind we were contemporaries, and I knew that I would probably never get to know anyone like her again. They say that after God made certain people, He threw the mold away. It couldn’t have been more true in the case of Dottie Bigard.
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