Dorrie Glenn Woodson


Notes from a Biographer

Dorrie Glenn Woodson, 1956. Photograph by Harold Feinstein.

I was encouraged to reach out to pianist Dorrie Glenn Woodson by her first husband, the photographer Harold Feinstein, and she and I met in person in New York before last Thanksgiving. Dorrie, seventy-six years old, had naturally gray hair that was long and free flowing, parted down the middle, and it framed her glasses in the style of Gloria Steinem. Among jazz musicians, no appearance is unconventional (except a rigid one), so I didn’t think about hers until we talked on the phone a few weeks later: When she described her parents, I couldn’t visualize them in her. She was born Dorothy Meese in 1934 on a small farm in rural Pennsylvania near the Mason-Dixon line; her father farmed fruits and vegetables and peddled them in nearby towns, and her deeply religious mother practiced the dawn-to-dusk farm traditions with dedication and care. The Dorrie I met was a long way from the farm.

Young Dorothy displayed a touch and dexterity on piano beyond her years; she won talent shows and admiration. The radio brought Ella Fitzgerald, Nat Cole, Duke Ellington, and other African American musicians into her home, in a nearly all-white region. She was transfixed. Her dreams of being a professional jazz pianist distilled and grew more potent. In 1952, after a talent show in Salisbury, Pennsylvania, eighteen-year-old Dorothy met an African American bassist and singer in the Herb Jeffries vein. He was from Frostburg, Maryland, and twenty years her senior. They began a long-term relationship, in secret due to the scandal of interracial romances at the time. She gained confidence in her ability to make impressions musically and generate opportunities for herself. Things seemed hopeful. But she’d grown up with no sex education—nobody uttered a word about it—and birth control was still illegal and often unreliable. It was double jeopardy.

I became pregnant in Hagerstown, Maryland, and I was taken in by a Catholic agency that placed me in a private family home. Then they placed me in a home for unwed mothers. I was totally drugged out during childbirth. This was February 1955. I nursed my baby girl for six weeks, but gave her up for adoption because I had my eye on New York City. Actually, I’d had my eye on New York since I was thirteen years old. I knew I couldn’t manage both music and motherhood. If there’d been decent birth control during this time I wouldn’t have had this decision to make. It would be difficult for a man to understand how hard this was. I decided to go for my music. Around this time I met a saxophonist and I liked his last name, so I adopted it. I also changed my first name to Dorrie. I became Dorrie Glenn.

By April of 1955 Dorrie was living in Baltimore, working a day job and playing piano at the YWCA at night. Vibraphonist Teddy Charles passed through town with a band booked at the club Dorrie went to every Sunday night. She met Teddy there, and he encouraged her to move to New York and find the loft at 821 Sixth Avenue, where an after-hours jazz scene was developing. Dorrie arrived at Port Authority bus terminal a month later, dropped her bags at the local YWCA, and found her way to the flower-district loft building. She met Harold Feinstein, who lived on the fourth floor, and soon the two were married.

From 1955 to 1957 in that loft were two of the most carefree years of my life. My music was in good shape; my music was cared for. I was gigging in the Village, and I went on a well-paying tour around New England with the Sheraton Hotel chain. Then in late 1956, I became pregnant with our daughter, and we moved out of the loft. I gave birth to her in 1957. I enjoyed mothering, and I gradually returned to work at local clubs. Harold was working on his photography and in 1959 he got a job teaching at the University of Pennsylvania, so we moved to Philadelphia. We decided to split up although I was pregnant with our second child. I moved into my own apartment. Our son was born in 1960, and I had both children living with me. That’s when the real nightmare began. My gigs were at night, you know, beginning at 9 PM or 10 PM. So I’d get home at 2 AM or 3 AM, and then the babies would be up at dawn. I started having hallucinations from lack of sleep. Harold and I decided to move closer to each other so parental responsibilities could be shared more easily.

There was unshakable tension between motherhood and developing what I wanted to do most in my life—something that started at a very early age for me—and that was playing music. There must be many women out there whose dreams were squelched or seriously deferred by motherhood. There must be many women out there who spent much of their lives enduring and recovering from unwanted pregnancies. But you rarely hear those stories. Or I don’t hear them, do you? It’s considered unmotherly or immoral for women to be honest and tell those stories. It has nothing to do with loving your kids or not. I loved mine and I feel like I was a good mother. I’m still close with them today. But it’s just a trade-off men don’t have to make. Women can’t have it both ways; men can.

In the early 1960s I began to have some new relationships, and I had two accidental pregnancies that ended in illegal abortions, which were done by a doctor who was an excellent doctor and wanted to help women. I mean, truly, that was his mission. He was a saint. But there was one night I was working at a club after one of the abortions. I thought I was fine and I was back at work. It was a dark club like they all were. I was playing piano and for whatever reason I started bleeding. Before I knew what was going on there was blood all over the back of my dress. I didn’t know whether to acknowledge what was happening or just get out of there. I didn’t know what to do. There was blood all over the piano seat. I ended up in the hospital where they threatened not to treat me unless I revealed the name of the doctor who had done the abortion. It was terrifying. I never told them his name. Eventually, they treated me. In 1963, I was introduced to the pill and that put an end to my life of ignorance and conflict.

There are so many stories about what it was like for a female jazz musician back then. It’s not just that men didn’t want to play with women. The problems were more complex than that. I used to play piano at all kinds of joints, a whole spectrum of joints. At some of these joints it was part of my job to go to the bar in between sets so men would come up to me and buy drinks for me. I was supposed to play good piano and then go to the bar and sell drinks. Can you believe that? I was never much of a drinker, so I’d have six glasses of full drinks lined up behind the piano at the end of a night.

My basic premise is that birth control is a feminist issue. It seems obvious to say that, but I never see it talked about in terms of the real human complexity that women felt back then. The United States has developed the automobile, the railroad, space travel, heart surgery, and so on. In contrast, birth control was held back by cultural forces. Looking back on my jazz career, I don’t really see myself as wishing I’d been out in front of huge crowds like Diana Krall is today. My frustrations had nothing to do with fame. My frustrations were due to the constant interruptions of my musical growth caused by unwanted pregnancies and their aftermath.

Dorrie later met and married Bill Woodson, a bass player, and took his name. For thirty years she has lived in San Antonio and was active on the jazz scene there until 2007, when she contracted Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. I asked her if she’d ever considered writing about her life. She responded with a comment that reminded me of something Nabokov once wrote about losing a memory after employing it in one of his books:

I’ve been encouraged by several people to write a book, but I don’t want to. Sometimes when something happens and it is so outstanding and you tell people about it, your memory of the original story dims. It becomes a memory of a memory. I don’t want that to happen to me.

See also: “Sonny Clark” and “W. Eugene Smith.”

Sam Stephenson is the author of The Jazz Loft Project. He is currently at work on a biography of W. Eugene Smith for Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Check back soon for more of Stephenson’s dispatches.