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Friday, November 10, 2006 - Page updated at 10:46 AM

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Jazz drummer-singer "Woody" Woodhouse told stories with velvet bass voice

Seattle Times jazz critic

In the summer of 1998, while Donald "Woody" Woodhouse and his wife, Rossalind, were on a business trip to Lisbon, they dropped in at the famous Hot Club of Portugal, where Mr. Woodhouse was invited to sit in.

Though the crowd had no idea who he was, after one song — delivered in his trademark velvety, warm bass — Mr. Woodhouse had the place in the palm of his hand.

A longtime favorite on the Seattle jazz scene who sang and played drums, Mr. Woodhouse died Sunday of pneumonia. He had suffered from heart and kidney disease and was on kidney dialysis. He was 69.

"I haven't ever seen Woody in a situation when he wasn't a total crowd pleaser," said Seattle pianist Overton Berry, who often worked with Mr. Woodhouse and was honored with him and others last year at Earshot's Legends of Seattle Jazz concert. "But there was an honesty about Woody, too. You don't run into that a lot."

Though often mistakenly associated with Seattle's post-war Jackson Street jazz scene, Mr. Woodhouse was born in 1937, raised in Detroit and did not arrive in Seattle until the mid-1960s.

At Detroit's Miller High School, Mr. Woodhouse showed musical talent early. Two teachers encouraged him there: George Shirley — a future University of Michigan music professor who later sang with the Metropolitan Opera — and Margaret Dudley. Mr. Woodhouse later said Dudley "changed my life," by encouraging him to stay off the streets of Detroit's "black bottom" ghetto.

After studying at the Detroit Conservatory of Music, Mr. Woodhouse joined the Army, where he trained as a medic. Discharged in 1962 at Fort Lewis, he started singing the first night he was in the Northwest, and rather than return to Detroit, Mr. Woodhouse decided to stay. He and Rossalind — childhood sweethearts — were married 48 years.

"The night I met him he was on the bandstand playing congas and bongos," recalled Rossalind Woodhouse, well-known as past-president of the Seattle Urban League. "Our song was 'Ritmo Caliente,' by Cal Tjader."

Though highly respected by fellow musicians and popular locally, Mr. Woodhouse did not pursue a full-time career as an entertainer. He worked first as an unlicensed practical nurse at Providence Hospital. In 1967, he was trained as a technician for artificial kidney machines at University Hospital, a specialty he maintained — ironically, considering his illness — until his retirement from Children's Orthopedic Hospital in 1999.

Mr. Woodhouse found his first steady gig in Seattle in 1965, at the Roosevelt Hotel. In that era, he also performed with the theater group, Black Arts West, and worked at Pete's Poop Deck, the Checkmate Tavern, the Captain's Table and the Windjammer.

Mr. Woodhouse always said his biggest influence was the female jazz singer, Carmen McRae. His soulful ballad delivery also showed traces of Ernie Andrews and Lou Rawls. One of his specialty numbers was the seldom-sung ballad, "Almost In Your Arms," the love theme from the 1958 film, "Houseboat." Another of his popular numbers was the comic blues "Call the Plumber," which he recorded on his 1995 album, "Cookin' with Wood... Works."

Mr. Woodhouse wowed audiences with his vocal imitations of the flute and trombone, improvising excellent solos on the bandstand.

"He could really tell a story," said drummer Patty Padden, who worked with Mr. Woodhouse at Bumbershoot, Festival Sundiata and the Patti Summers Lounge. "I'm really going to miss him. He had this little stool he would sit on and he would paint pictures with the tunes. Playing with him were some of my happiest times."

"Everything he did, he did well," Berry added.

Mr. Woodhouse was a member of the Brotherhood Chorus and Sanctuary Choir at Mount Zion Baptist Church in Seattle. He was inducted into the Seattle Jazz Hall of Fame in 2005. The previous year, the Royal Esquire Club presented a tribute to Mr. Woodhouse involving more than 70 musicians and established a music education scholarship fund in his name.

Mr. Woodhouse is survived by his son, Army Lt. Col. Justin Woodhouse, and two grandchildren, Taylore and Brooke Woodhouse, all of Texas. Mr. Woodhouse's daughter, Joycelyn, died in 2002.

A memorial service is scheduled for 11 a.m. Nov. 18 at Mount Zion, 1634 19th Ave., Seattle.

Paul de Barros: 206-464-3247 or pdebarros@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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