Jazz Institute of Chicago

In Search of Tad(d) Dameron

Tadd Dameron (Photo copyright © Val Wilmer)

In Search of Tad(d) Dameron
by Ian MacDonald

The following material is based on the author's research into Dameron's life and music, which culminated in the recent publication of "Tadd—the life and legacy of Tadley Ewing Dameron." A review of his book will appear here shortly.

In October, a compilation CD titled "The Lost Sessions" will hit the stores which will include previously unreleased material from the Blue Note vaults. Featured will be various bands led by Charlie Rouse, Ike Quebec, Duke Pearson and...Tadd Dameron.

The Dameron session dates from December 1961, a few months after his release from the Lexington Federal Narcotics Hospital and four years before his death. It will provide the only available record of his piano playing since the 1956 "Mating Call" session with John Coltrane. The band features Donald Byrd, Curtis Fuller, Julius Watkins, Sam Rivers, Cecil Payne, Tadd, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones.

Produced by Michael Cuscuna, it includes material originally listed as "rejected." A couple of years back, when I was researching my biography of Dameron, I asked Cuscuna about this unreleased session. He said that, "The ensembles were a mess. There had been trouble with the copyist." He added that he hoped "to revisit the tapes at some stage to see if they could be released—for historic importance."

Happily, that has now happened, although Cuscuna stresses that the issue will include a caveat about the flaws. This is not likely to bother true Dameron followers, who will be keen to know if Dameron's piano playing changed during his three year stay in Lexington, where he not only led the "house band' but also practised piano most days. [See George Ziskind's essay about the post-Lexington Tadd Dameron.]

Until now, only a few people have heard the post Lexington piano of Dameron. A few lucky souls heard a tape of his solos made privately for Chris Albertson, in December 1961, which went missing after being loaned to Lil Harding. Another private tape that year, made at Ray Bryant's apartment, was stolen.

In 1947, a numerologist had advised Tadd, "To be lucky, you need to add an extra letter to your name." Thus Tad become Tadd. He must have wondered about the wisdom of that change. His run of bad fortune continued in early 1962 when master tapes from a studio session featuring Dameron directing a band led by Milt Jackson and Kenny Dorham were destroyed in a fire.

The "Lost Sessions" from Blue Note will include Dameron tunes Aloof Spoof, The Elder Speaks, Bevan Beeps and Lament For The Living. The first two have not been recorded, but Beeps and Lament were recorded by Chet Baker.

Many Dameron stories have entered into jazz folklore—an Oberlin pre-med doctor story; a Sir Thomas Beecham connection; I Love Lucy theme rumors; Dimitri Tiomkin and the Love Theme from the film Giant; a Mexican ballet; and more. As I researched my book, I naturally sought the truth.

Interviews with people who knew Tadd going back to the 1930s (including someone who saw Tadd make his public debut playing Stardust with the Snake White band in 1936), research at the Oberlin alumni archives, talks with Beecham's road manager, and with Tadd's widow Mia, brought us most of the answers. You'll have to read the book. For now—the Mexican ballet story is untrue.

I wanted to build up as complete a picture as possible of Dameron's compositions and recorded output. I started with a core of about 100 known Dameron tunes and was greatly aided by Dameron buffs such as Andrew Homzy, Brooks Kerr, Bob Sunenblick and Don Sickler in finding more. The tune and song list is now at 190, with the probability of more to come. Along the way I found "Sermon On The Mount," a nine part religious suite written by Tadd, Irving Reid and Ira Kosloff (co-writer of Elvis Presley's early hit "I Want You I Need You I Love You").

Some of the songs were collaborations with Carl Sigman, Irving Reid, Bernie Hanighen, Maely Daniele, Shirley Jones, Jack Reynolds, Charles White, Albert Carlo, Darwin Jones, Ira Kosloff, and Ann Greer. Boxes of manuscripts, some without chord symbols, are still to be sorted and catalogued. Many of these are likely to be Dameron compositions.

Putting together a Dameron discography proved a lot easier, which ran to almost 300 recordings as player, arranger or conductor. Many have been issued under Tadd's leadership, but others sessions were under the names of Harlan Leonard, Jimmy Lunceford, Sabby Lewis, Billy Eckstine, Georgie Auld, Buddy Rich, Sarah Vaughan, Dickie Wells, Earle Warren, Dizzy Gillespie, Don Redman, Illinois Jacquet, Louie Bellson, Pearl Bailey, Babs Gonzales, Fats Navarro, Dexter Gordon Coleman Hawkins, Anita O'Day, Kay Penton, Lionel Hampton, Count Basie, Charlie Parker, Woody Herman, Artie Shaw, Miles Davis, Tony Proteau, Ted Heath, Bull Moose Jackson, Billy Paul, Clifford Brown, John Coltrane, Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Dorsey, Carmen McRae, Blue Mitchell, Milt Jackson, Sonny Stitt and Chet Baker.

Scores in Tadd's hand were unearthed for Duke Ellington, Boyd Raeburn and Stan Kenton, none of which was ever recorded. Tadd collaborated early on with Billy Strayhorn—they regularly compared notes and ideas at the home of Billy Taylor—but apparently they did not write anything down. Scores written for Gil Evans exist but are missing. Detailed searches by Bob Sunenblick and Gil's son, Miles, have failed so far to unearth them.

I listened to many Dameron tribute albums. Not just the well known material by the Philly Joe Jones Dameronia repertory band, but also albums by Slide Hampton, Jimmy Heath, Muriel Winston, Barry Harris, the Japanese big band The Blue Coats, Per Husby, Andy LaVerne, Warren Rand, Dave Cliff and Geoff Simkins. This led me to the beautiful voices of Dameron admirers Vanessa Rubin and Jeri Brown.

I found professionally-recorded versions of Dameron tunes for which I possessed sheet music or lead sheets, but had never heard. These included I'm Never Happy Anymore (three different versions), Lovely One In The Window, Love Took The 7.10 Tonight, Never Been In Love, Take A Chance On Spring, That's The Way It Goes and Weekend.

I owned two versions of Dizzy Gillespie's band playing A Study In Soulphony In Three Hearts but also unearthed a piano solo based on one portion of the longer orchestral piece. Pianist Clifton Smalls told me that Tadd had given him a copy of that piece. He said that Tadd was writing a whole stage act for singer Brook Benton, much in the style of his stage act writing for the 1953 Atlantic City Harlem Revue.

Research into the 1953 Atlantic City period unearthed an agonizing "might have been." I located a tape of Tadd's band which included Clifford Brown which was made privately by cab driver, and occasional baritone saxist, Kellice Swaggerty. He sometimes sat in with the band and taped not just the jazz proceedings, but the whole revue—comics, dancers, singers et al.

Unfortunately Swaggerty's tape machine sounds as if it was placed too near to a bandstand air-conditioning unit. The sound is so distorted that it is unlikely that this could ever be packaged for a wider audience—not even for historical purposes

The search for more tunes and missing tapes goes on. In the meantime Dameron fans have those 1961-vintage "Lost Sessions" to look forward to.

Ian MacDonald, a journalist and editor for 35 years, is the secretary of the Sheffield (U.K.) Jazz Society and author of Tadd—the life and legacy of Tadley Ewing Dameron. It includes a forward by Benny Golson and is published by Jahbero Press (ISBN 0 9533778 0 6) and distributed by Cadence (North America), Norbert Ruecker (Germany) and Cadillac Jazz Distribution (UK). For more information, email Jahbero@aol.com or write Jahbero Press, 38 Wadbrough Road, Sheffield S11 8RG, England. Copies of photos of Dameron may be obtained directly from Val Wilmer at 10 Snyder Road, London N16 7UG. Send a SASE for details.

Copyright ©2003. All rights reserved.

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