Charles Dungey, 1935-2003 

Remembering the bassist, vocalist and mentor Charles Dungey, a backbone of the Nashville jazz scene

Remembering the bassist, vocalist and mentor Charles Dungey, a backbone of the Nashville jazz scene

The life of Charles Dungey carried much of Nashville’s jazz history with it and thus was interwoven with many other narratives, both personal and cultural. The personal stories, only a few of which can be recounted below, have poured out freely from several generations of jazz players since Dungey’s death of a cerebral hemorrhage last Friday, and their willingness to share their feelings seems to reciprocate for the bassist’s lifelong generosity to others. The cultural narrative, yet to be fully written, would remember all of North Nashville’s homegrown or locally educated musical talent and their advancement to larger realms. An even broader history might unearth the mysteries of why some of the most gifted and beloved players anywhere go on to national renown while others remain regional figures, however respected they are within their profession.

If you’re not among the few who can remember, imagine, if you will, the nightly club scene of the early and mid-’50s, pre-interstate North Nashville, where every restaurant on Jefferson Street vied to book the best jazz and blues acts. Club-hopping patrons would knock on doors to see whether it was worth their time to drop in. As fellow bassist John Birdsong relates, the Dungey family owned and operated one such site, Deborah’s—named after Charles’ younger sister—a bit farther north on Centennial Boulevard. Theirs was one of the most upscale restaurants in the neighborhood and hosted live music for many years afterward. Yet after spending a couple of years under the tutelage of W.O. Smith at Tennessee State University and rising to prominence on local stages, Charles Dungey headed east.

Viewed only through the narrow lens of jazz history on recordings, Dungey’s greatest claim to fame would be the handful of tracks he recorded in New York during the ’60s with soul-jazz stalwart Hank Crawford, an altoist who was recruited by Ray Charles before graduating from TSU and who later became musical director for Charles’ orchestra. As befits an era that gave birth to one of the last great crossover jazz genres and to enduring stars like Cannonball Adderley, Stanley Turrentine and Horace Silver, Crawford’s sessions for Atlantic have recently been reissued. Dungey can be heard on ballads and blues numbers like “Who Can I Turn To,” “Soul Shoutin’ ” and Percy Mayfield’s “Danger Zone.”

Without further probing, who can tell what options were open to Dungey before he returned to Nashville in the early ’70s? There had been tours with Sammy Davis Jr. and Pearl Bailey, dates with Eartha Kitt, Betty Carter, R&B singer Damita Jo and Modern Jazz Quartet vibraphonist Milt Jackson, along with a stint with the house band of The Mike Douglas Show.

Dungey’s first homecoming included recording sessions with J.J. Cale as well as a regular gig at the then new Downtown Hyatt. In the ’80s, Dungey embarked on his second career, serving as a jazz educator in North Carolina before returning to Nashville in the early ’90s to care for his ill mother, cooking for her every day. During this time, he established himself at TSU, leading the jazz and string ensembles, teaching a popular course on the history of African American music, and reclaiming his status as one of the most highly regarded bass players on the local and regional scenes.

Few bass players ever reach star status among jazz enthusiasts, much less the general public. The exceptional cases can be counted on one hand, most notably Charles Mingus, a colossal leader who took all that he learned from Duke Ellington into earthier and farther-reaching realms, and Jaco Pastorius, who reinvented electric bass playing and brought it aggressively into the foreground of Weather Report’s sound. The most revered bassists, though, subjugate their individuality to their group’s collective identity. Highly regarded but less renowned are bassists like Ron Carter, whose combination of talent and great fortune enabled him to play alongside Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. Likewise, Dave Holland has received critical adulation for his quiet leadership of jazz’s most adventurous quintet only after more than 30 years of backing and sustaining ensembles of all stripes, including Miles’ Bitches Brew-era aggregation.

Those who knew and worked with Charles Dungey acknowledge that he was among the best in the business at maintaining the bassist’s essential but unobtrusive role as the heartbeat of a jazz ensemble: “playing in the pocket,” building a supple groove, settling into a deep, resonant tone and serving as the bridge between the rhythm of the drums and the harmonics of the piano. This seemingly natural talent is harder to teach aspiring bass players than it may seem, claims Dr. Andy Goodrich, a jazz educator, historian, alto saxophonist and TSU alum. As for another of Dungey’s widely appreciated talents, Goodrich found his vocals on the venerable standard “Old Folks” especially affecting, nicknaming him “Big Muddy Crudup.”

Sadly, Dungey’s considerable gifts as a singer aren’t well represented on recordings, which almost never captured his voice, to say nothing of the way his renditions of the blues and ballads could emphatically close a set and “rope in” a crowd. Many believe he could have gone big-time on the power of his vocals alone. Teddy Bart, who hired him for the house septet on his Noon Show, which aired on WSM-TV during the ’70s, says that Dungey was “as good a vocalist as there was at that time,” noting his ability to “sell a song” even through the medium of live television.

This is to say nothing of Dungey’s mentoring and intangible supportive roles, his gentle guidance of musical personalities. Dale Armstrong, one of the many drummers with whom Dungey formed especially close relationships, vividly recalls his anxiety as the least experienced and only white musician in a quartet several years ago. While all the other players were testing Armstrong’s chops to see if he could keep up with them, Dungey tried to reassure him. Drummer Bob Mater remembers a nerve-wracking session from the ’70s, when fiddler Buddy Spicher was leading a then state-of-the-art direct-to-disc session. There was virtually no margin of error or room for alternate takes; the only calm in the whole ensemble came from Dungey.

Dr. Ralph Simpson, his department chair at TSU, points out that Dungey was also the first African American to have played with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra when it became integrated in the early ’70s (alas, unlike today). Yet the NSO would not have been the best vehicle for his talents, given that he was one of the many jazz musicians from his generation who learned mainly on the bandstand and not in classically modeled conservatories. Drummer Chris Brown says that Dungey “lived the music” he knew so well, not needing to sight-read; he could direct his bandmates mainly through intuitive gestures while he sang, rather than working out technical features of an arrangement in advance. As Bob Mater often told his peers, “The groove is largely Charles’, and we are just living in it.”

Those who want to keep their memories alive and those who wish they’d had a better chance to know and listen to Charles Dungey may at last be left with no more words and not enough recorded music, but the undated picture that accompanies this piece speaks eloquently to the man’s character. It conveys an Ellingtonian persona of class and composure as well as a touch of Mingus-like playfulness and a continually youthful spirit who drank a honey-and-vinegar restorative every day.

True to his spirit, Dungey died, at the age of 68, while rendering one of his innumerable gifts to the community, attending the Atlanta Classic in his role as announcer for the TSU Aristocrat of Bands. His fellow musicians still can’t believe he won’t be playing somewhere in town soon. Just a couple of weeks ago, he closed a set at F. Scott’s with “We’ll Be Together Again” and, on another occasion, asked Mater, “Why would anyone ever want to stop playing?”

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