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“People always say nice things about people when they die,” says bassist Andy Rock. But jazz saxophonist Clyde Dickerson, who died of a stroke on Feb. 6, “really was a great man. He was easy to work with, and he had a special sound on that tenor.”
For the previous six months, Dickerson had had a weekly gig with pianist Jimmy Burrell at the Capitol Hill jazz joint Ellington’s on Eighth. “The last couple of Sundays, he had been complaining that he didn’t feel well,” said Ellington’s co-owner Annette Martin as Dickerson’s friends and fellow musicians gathered at the club to share stories and memories the weekend after his death. “But nothing stopped him; even when he was hurting, he was always ready to go.” Rock agreed: “All Clyde ever wanted to do was play his horn.”
Known to most as “Watergate Clyde,” the jazzman liked telling people who asked that he was “so old I knew Moby Dick when he was a minnow.” He was only 80, in fact—his death came just a few days shy of his 81st birthday.
Dickerson was born in Bristol, Tenn., moved to Washington as a young adult, and by the ’60s had become a fixture on the chitlin’ circuit—the loosely organized national string of venues catering to black audiences during the segregation era. He regaled all who knew him with stories about sharing those stages with such jazz greats as Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan. His efforts extended to songwriting, notably a tune called “The Last Days of Kinzua,” about the Seneca nation’s battle to stave off the construction of a dam that inundated a third of its lands in the ’60s. In later years, he continued to work with prominent musicians such as Stan Getz and Roy and Joe Eldridge, and formed his own group, Three Saxes for Lester, a jazz trio paying tribute to Young’s music.
And for more than 20 years, Dickerson held down a day job as a doorman at the Watergate Hotel, a post that put him in the path of countless political figures and entertainers. He wasn’t shy, either, about getting to know them: His worn old black address book, held together with tape, contains phone numbers for everyone from cellist and former National Symphony Orchestra chief Mstislav Rostropovich—who used to invite him up to his apartment to talk about music and eat lunch—to actor Robert Redford.
“One time while Clyde was at the Watergate, he was standing outside writing music on a slip of paper,” says Burrell, who met Dickerson in the late ’60s. “Someone tapped him on the shoulder, and when he turned around, it was Michael Jackson. He just knew so many people across the spectrum—politicians, celebrities, taxi drivers, waitresses. Everywhere we went, Clyde knew someone, and he always had a joke for them.”
Even when health problems forced Dickerson to have one of his legs amputated, he kept his high spirits, delivering classic one-liners and answering his phone with an upbeat “You’ve got the right one, baby!” Prior to his death, he talked of writing a book mixing stories about his celebrity run-ins with what he knew about the Watergate scandal—though he generally shied away from recounting the infamous break-in, preferring to focus on his music.
“He was so relaxed when he was playing the sax,” recalls guitarist Lee Cathey, who met Dickerson while browsing at a local record store. “He had a lovely singing voice, too—hearing him was just the coolest thing that you could imagine. Playing with Clyde was, like, experiencing the real thing.” —Sarah Godfrey