Alex Dugdale: Dig the Gig

Originally published in Earshot Jazz January 2014

“Hi, Mr. D!” the students say as their music teacher, 23 year-old Alex Dugdale, strides in and sets down his instrument cases. Dugdale’s intense dark eyes behind black temple glasses survey the scene. A crooked smile warms up his round face topped with close cropped nap.

The young girls wearing blue school uniform sweatshirts over blue and white plaid dresses begin setting up music stands.

“Who remembers the homework?” Dugdale asks. “I do,” a student says.

The hodge-podge ensemble of two flutes, two clarinets, one saxophone, three trombones and one electric bass are working on exercise #19 and 21 from the book Essential Elements 2000.

“Mine is the hardest to set up,” the bass player says as she carries the amplifier from the storage room and plugs in the bright red electric bass.

“We’re going to start,” Dugdale says. “Wait!” shout some students. “Start on page 6, #18,” Dugdale says. “Get a chair and stand. Let’s go, let’s go, LET’S GO! I’m about to demonstrate.”

Dugdale slowly plays “Go Tell Aunt Rhody” on flute. He snaps the tempo and a rough rendition spills out from the students. Dugdale pulls a trombone out of its case and demonstrates each of the notes. The three trombone students echo sounding like vuvuzelas at a World Cup soccer match. A clarinet student arrives late and begins putting together her instrument.

Patiently, Dugdale moves from student to student, teaching the fingering for a song for the upcoming Christmas concert – “Jingle Bells.”

The saxophone student sits patiently wearing a white bunny hat, white fleece jacket and white pants. Her performance of “Jingle Bells” is flawless but she slows down when the notes change on “Jin-gle all the way.” The other students applaud. “When we read music, look at the note you are playing, then look ahead,” Dugdale instructs.

During the bass player’s rehearsal, the flutes begin talking. “Practice fingering instead of visiting with friends,” Dugdale says.

At the end of class Dugdale says, “Not bad guys. You’re getting better.” He stresses the importance of memorizing the placement of fingers for each note. “For homework, practice ‘Jingle Bells’ and exercises #27 and 28. Ok guys, thank you. I will see you next week.”

Following a busy school music teacher’s schedule is tough. It’s 11:50 on a Thursday so this must be St. John Catholic School. Dugdale’s day started at 7:00 at a school in Edmonds with stops at four more schools between there and Seattle. On another day he travels to five different schools. Feeling dizzy yet?

Dugdale’s dance card is full. Even with this teaching load, he still manages to shuffle across Elliot Bay to teach tap dancing at the Bainbridge Island Dance Center.

The epiphany of dancing and music as Dugdale’s calling came early. He wrote about the experience in an award winning essay for the Lincoln Center Essentially Ellington High School Band Competition.

“In the summer of 2001, I was eleven years old and had been tap dancing for about four or five years. My dancing took me to New York that July for the NYC Tap Festival. When I stepped outside after an intense late afternoon workshop, I hardly noticed a difference between the heat generated by 30 dancers in the tap studio and the intense burning of the sun on the street. I was waiting at the 42nd St. subway station. Even the subterranean platform felt like standing in an oven. Then, I heard a sound. Not the sound of the subway, but a train of a different sort. I heard a man playing Duke Ellington's ‘Take the A Train’ on the steel drums. People stood around and didn't seem to take much notice of him, nor did they seem to hear the train steadily approaching. I heard it though, the quiet yet unmistakable sound of a train rolling in at medium swing. I put on my tap shoes, and took the ‘A’ train with the steel drum player and we started jamming to it. The people in the station started to hear our conversation and watched and listened as we spoke through the music. As we conducted this train, the crowd got with the beat, and followed us on board.”

Dugdale concluded the essay with this reflection, “I saw jazz in a new light. It was not just music, but a language spoken by all those who listen and play. Up until that moment, I knew only the rhythmic dialect of that language, but I came away from jamming in the subway with a thirst to be fluent in all of its aspects. I wanted to move with it, play it, see it, read it, and hear jazz in its entirety. Two months later I had doubled my CD collection, started taking saxophone lessons and had signed up to be in my middle school's junior jazz band.”

Dugdale’s interest fell on fertile soil. His succession of music teachers are some of the most experienced in Seattle. Dan Rowe taught Dugdale at Decatur Elementary, then Moc Escobedo at Eckstein Middle School and finally Scott Brown at Roosevelt High School.

After graduating high school, Dugdale “wanted to get good at playing saxophone.” He enrolled at Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, studied classical saxophone with Chien-Kwan Lin and jazz saxophone with José Encarnación and Charles Pillow. He studied jazz with pianist Harold Danko, drummer Rich Thompson and bassist Jeff Campbell (brother of Seattle multi-instrumentalist Greg Campbell). Trumpeter Clay Jenkins was Dugdale’s academic advisor.

Four years of intense study shaped Dugdale’s sound. His saxophone echoes the melodic approach of Lester Young, Dexter Gordon and Hank Mobley. The rhythms aren’t complicated but they’re swinging. The note choices may not be very adventurous, but they’re confident and solid. The tone is big and burly but not strident. The meters and song forms are simple and standard. The groove is strong and the musical vocabulary comes from the 1950’s hard bop style of improvising.

Dugdale’s rising star was spotted by Seattle’s seasoned professional musicians. The Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra (SRJO) began featuring his tap dancing on “David Danced Before the Lord” to climax their annual Duke Ellington Sacred Music Concert. He also performs the piece in Vancouver, BC with singer Dee Daniels. Seattle audiences get to see Dugdale perform with SRJO at Town Hall this month (see listings below).

Dugdale often gets compliments for his superior timing when performing on saxophone. He says it comes from dancing. But Dugdale’s middle school teacher points to the floor beneath the dancer’s feet – the community where he grew up. Escobedo says, “Alex is a perfect example of great jazz education in Seattle by Seattle Public Schools.”

Check out Dugdale’s upcoming performances:
Dec 4 - Smith Staelens big band at Tulas
Dec 9 - Hal Sherman big band at Tulas
Dec 20 – Dugdale South Whidbey (DSW) Jazz Collective Christmas show at Lucid
Dec 21 - Tap dance intensive workshop at Anthony Peters Tap Studio
Dec 28 - Ellington Sacred Music with SRJO at Town Hall
Dec 31 – Dugdale Quintet at Two Twelve on Central
Jan 3 – Dugdale Quintet at Lucid
Jan 4 – Dugdale Quintet and Tap Jam with Jessie Sawyers at Egans

"Alex has always been a positive influential force.  He is still a pleasure to work with.  As a middle school student he always took steps to improve.  Alex is a perfect example of what is in the water in Seattle Jazz.  He brings a work ethic and undeniable charisma to jazz performance and education.

"It was immediately apparent that Alex was a performer and music educator.  My students love Alex for who he is and for his ability to communicate the basics of jazz.

"My favorite performance while Alex was at Eckstein was the Peacocks on bass

-Moc Escobedo

"I first met Alex when we were in New York together as finalists in Essentially Ellington.  I was impressed that he won the Ellington Essay contest in addition to being a fine clarinetist and tap dancer at Roosevelt back then.  I recall he went out of his way to meet me and shake my hand.

"Alex has been assisting me with the direction of our Jazz Ensemble II two days a week at 6:15 AM and is doing a great job!  Kids love him and he's very reliable.  Keep an eye on Alex as he'll be one of our area's great teachers and musicians for generations to come."

-Jake Bergevin

"I had Alex in the Disney All American College Band. I think it was in 2010. As I recall, Alex was an accomplished alto saxophonist and quite a tap dancer. We used to feature him almost daily on "Cute." He was a tremendous showman."

-Ron McCurdy

"We are so pleased to have Alex working with us. He is a multi talented musician who is also a fine teacher and an inspiration to his students."

-Sean Richarz

Visit to read more about Alex.

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