For more than 20 years, a familiar sight at new music and experimental performances all over Southern California was a squat older woman who moved laboriously on a cane or a walker.
She would have been loath to claim it, but the late Dottie Grossman was the unofficial den mother of the loose community of eccentric talents that comprise Los Angeles' musical avant-garde. It was a role she assumed almost surreptitiously, yet her presence drew unconditional respect, friendship and love. Her passing in late May sent waves of sadness through contemporary music circles across the nation.
“If you saw her at your gig,” woodwind player Vinny Golia offers, “you felt good. She held court and you paid your respects; it was all part of the ritual. When she said, ‘You sound good tonight,' it was affirming because she knew the music so well.”
Grossman will be recalled and celebrated Sunday, July 29, at the Glendale Moose Lodge. Among the performers taking part in the tribute will be Golia, vocalist Bonnie Barnett, flutist Ellen Burr, trombonist Michael Vlatkovich, guitarist Tom McNalley and percussionist Alex Cline.
A Philadelphia native, Grossman always wrote, though she worked in counseling and clerical jobs. Her husband Richard was a jazz pianist who first came west while playing electric cello in a rock band. In 1978, they settled in L.A., and Richard remade himself into a tabula rasa improvising pianist. All of his compositional and album titles came from her poems. They tantalized with portent and mystery: “Even Your Ears,” “Green of the East,” and “Moon, Tap-Dancing Outside.” Dottie was supportive and ever-present, though she kept in the background.
He died in 1992 and she blossomed as a writer, publishing in poetry journals and her own chapbooks.
“After Richard died,” Vlatkovich observes, “she was able to more fully realize who she was. But she had to retain the music to do it.”
Dottie became a presence at performances, like the New Music Monday series that guitarist Nels Cline presented at the Alligator Lounge in West L.A. “She was very discerning,” says Nels' twin brother Alex, “and a mutual adoption happened; the music community became her family.”
As her poetry disseminated among the musicians, she began to read at their concerts. Portland trumpeter Rob Blakeslee invited her north and she quickly developed a small but devoted following. She wrote short, observational pieces that often had a gentle humor or a wistful air. For the former, she frequently invoked the king of the one-liner, comic Henny Youngman. For an East Coast Jew who came of age with Lenny Bruce's rise, the Borscht Belt relic as recurring motif was beyond ironic.
Poet and Albuquerque broadcaster Mark Weber says: “Dottie trained her mind's eye to recognize a poem when it floated by. She picked out those little, odd, endearing moments — tender, pithy, droll and humorous — and boiled them down to 20 words. She had total command of the short poem.”
In an Albuquerque radio studio, Grossman first exchanged ideas with Vlatkovich — she read and he improvised short musical rejoinders. The reaction was so positive that they formed their Call and Response duo. The trombonist was already a mature, compelling soloist, but the format altered his musical DNA.
“It caused me to think about improvisation in a completely different way,” he claims. “I had to think about what love, or a bicycle going down a hill, sounds like. I never had to be so literal, but now it's a place I can go to if I need to.”
Vlatkovich adds, “Her work was so rich. You got a lot of bang for your buck with Dottie.”
Dottie Grossman Memorial
Where: Glendale Moose Lodge, 357 Arden Ave., Glendale
When: Sunday, July 29, 7:30 p.m.