The Life and Legacy of Tadley Ewing Dameron
By Ian MacDonald
Jahbero, 133 pp.
$30 (US, available from Cadence, Redwood, New York), £19.50 (UK)
Reviewed by Don Rose
Tadd Dameron, born in 1917, seamlessly bridged the crucial musical years from swing to bebop. He wrote and arranged for late-1930s bands such as Lucky Millender, Andy Kirk and Vido Musso before he was 20, jammed with his fellow musical "outlaw" Charlie Parker in Kansas City in 1939 and went on to become an indispensable—though undersung—part of the modern music scene of the '40s through the early '60s.
His compositions "Hot House" and "Good Bait" were heralds of the bebop era. The latter was first introduced by a Dizzy Gillespie small band at one of the first bop-age recording sessions, though the Basie band played it occasionally as many as three years earlier. The former, an unusual ABCA riff on "What is This Thing Called Love," was part of the first Gillespie-Parker small band session that essentially launched the era.
He first recorded another of his masterpieces, "Lady Bird," in 1948 with a remarkable group that included Fats Navarro on trumpet and Wardell Gray and Allen Eager on tenors. It became an instant classic—Miles Davis wrote the counter-melody "Half Nelson" for a recording session that included Parker on tenor—and we're still hearing the lovely tune today, though it actually dates from 1939!
The Cleveland-born composer-arranger-pianist led the band that backed Sarah Vaughan's landmark recording sessions of 1946 and wrote one of the great hits from that session, "If You Could See Me Now." (He adapted a Gillespie coda to create the line.) Two years later the Gillespie big band introduced Dameron's "A Study in Soulphony," the first extended composition of the bop era—but sadly no studio performance was ever released. Most of that year, however, Dameron led what was essentially the house band at the legendary Royal Roost in New York, frequently with Navarro, sometimes with Davis.
He recorded with Navarro for Savoy and Blue Note— almost every side a classic—mentoring the brilliant horn man along the way. (Dameron, like Thelonius Monk, was an excellent teacher, even to the extent of helping horn players improve their tone. Another mentee was Clifford Brown.) Eight years later, Dameron recorded his most impressive extended work, "Fontainebleau," which remains one of the epic jazz compositions. The same year, 1956, he accompanied an emerging tenorman named John Coltrane on an album of Dameron originals.
Like so many of his compadres, Dameron was also hooked on heroin and, two years after the Coltrane date, served three years in the federal narcotics prison at Lexington, Ky. He emerged to find a rapidly and radically changing musical scene in 1961. But he went right back to work playing, composing and recording until his death from cancer in 1965, leaving behind a repertoire of close to 200 songs, including many ballads that have been set to words—even an amazingly popular commercial jingle "Get Wildroot Cream Oil Charlie." (Some of his other well known tunes, done for Gillespie's big band as well as his own groups, include "Cool Breeze," "Gnid," "Our Delight," "The Tadd Walk" and "On a Misty Night.")
This is just the quickest sketch of the life and achievements of this extraordinary musician—one who should be ranked right up there, just behind Ellington, Monk and Mingus as a composer—but who still remains an undersung hero even though several tribute bands exist and testimonial albums have been issued.
Author MacDonald set about accumulating the facts of Dameron's life, mainly through clippings, discographical material and interviews with dozens of the admiring musicians who knew and worked with Dameron. This self-published biography (the publishing house name is another Dameron tune) is a great tribute to its subject and reveals a trove of forgotten or ignored facts. It also includes several discographical appendices, which are interesting and useful, albeit a bit confusingly organized and lacking in detail.
This work is far from fine biography and almost devoid of musical analysis—rather, it's a fan's appreciation, richly and extensively quoting scores of players who knew or worked with its subject. As such it can't compare with works such as Lewis Porter's exemplary bio of Coltrane and works of that caliber, but it's serious in its effort to tell a story that well deserves telling. Dameron fans and relative newcomers alike will be enriched.
[Ed. For more information about this book, email Jahbero@aol.com or write Jahbero Press, 38 Wadbrough Road, Sheffield S11 8RG, England. Read Ian McDonald's In Search of Tad(d) Dameron.]