Music is a unifying force for Petaluma musician Bartley

Dorian Bartley embraces jazz, string-band music|

Jazz and string-band music both have roots in late 19th-century and early 20th-century America, but they are two very distinct styles of music. One came from the African-American neighborhoods of New Orleans, while the other originated in rural white communities.

But both styles are parallel threads in the life of Petaluma musician Dorian Bartley, who is preserving them as a member of two groups in which she sings and plays bass, the Dorian Mode and Foxes in the Henhouse.

The daughter of an African-American father and a Dutch-Danish mother, Bartley grew up in Kalamazoo, Mich. in an academic family that valued musical expression.

“I listened to extraordinary recorded and live music that spanned jazz, folk, blues, world, Motown and psychedelic rock,” she said. “There were always people around me playing music.”

One day at a picnic, someone handed Bartley an upright bass, and it was the beginning of her lifelong association with the instrument.

“I was 12 or 13 at that time,” she said. “I had already been playing other instruments, so I had a framework for music.”

Soon she and her brother, a banjo player, formed a bluegrass band, although she continued to study classical and choral music in high school and college.

After she and her husband, Chris Irvin, moved to Petaluma nearly 30 years ago, Bartley started a 15-year stint teaching music in Petaluma public schools while their two children were growing up.

After her children left home, she began to focus on playing music with ensembles. In 1992, she formed the Artifacts with Stephen and Karen Tamborski, a trio that entertained North Bay audiences with their blend of swing, jazz and R&B for nearly 20 years before disbanding.

Bartley was saddened by the demise of the Artifacts, but soon afterward, she and Pamela Joyce founded Foxes in the Henhouse and she formed the Dorian Mode.

The Foxes are “an all-female string band that explores honky-tonk and American string band music through female voices,” Bartley said.

The quartet’s repertoire includes country, blues, jazz, gospel, bluegrass and swing, and the band recently released its debut CD, “Fox on the Run.”

But she missed the early jazz that she had been exploring with the Artifacts. An opportunity presented itself four years ago when Faith Ross, then the president of the Petaluma Museum, asked Bartley if she could find musicians to play at a Black History Month concert.

As she looked for local musicians to play for the event, Bartley realized that she would fit the bill, because she knew the music of people like Bessie Smith and Count Basie.

“It was an awakening moment,” she said. “I thought, ‘I can do this.’”

She contacted pianist Bob Johns and saxophonist David Scott, and the Dorian Mode was born. Percussionist Tony Blake subsequently joined the group and their first concert was in February 2013.

“Early jazz was the music of the black working class, born out of the struggle for freedom and expression. As a biracial person, this touches me deeply,” said Bartley, whose parents endured punitive consequences for their mixed-race relationship. She participated in court-ordered school busing program in Kalamazoo in the early 1970s. “I became very aware of the polarizing nature of race and politics.”

Her personal history has led her to approach music as a unifying and integrating force.

“The Dorian Mode is really my dream come true,” said Bartley, who for most of her musical life played a supportive role to help others bring their artistic vision to life. “This was an opportunity, at this phase of my life, to put my name on something and claim it.”

The Dorian Mode is a musical term for a minor type scale used in jazz and blues improvisation.

“It has a very identifiable, soulful and melancholy quality,” Bartley said. “I think of the Dorian Mode in the colloquial term. It’s an expression of what I care about, the way I roll.”

Bartley said she “never set out to be a musician.”

“But it drew me in,” she added. “It’s a crazy business and not much of a career choice. My teaching income was more reliable.”

But as a Petaluma resident for nearly 30 years and one of the town’s most respected musicians, she has no regrets.

“I feel so fortunate to be part of this rich community,” she said. “And the opportunities for performing have been outstanding.”

It’s a long way from Bartley’s childhood in Kalamazoo, where she would often be asked, “Are you black or are you white?”

“My life has been a process of healing a bifurcated identity,” she said. “My music helps me feel whole. My identity is complete and I am not half of anything.”

(Chris Samson is the former editor of the Argus-Courier. Contact him at

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