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Don Drummond: The Genius and Tragedy of the World's Greatest Trombonist

Heather Augustyn By

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This is the definitive documentation of a seminal figure in the history of Jamaican music which is long overdue! —Delfeayo Marsalis
The following is an excerpt from the "The Known and Unknown" chapter of Don Drummond: The Genius and Tragedy of the World's Greatest Trombonist by Heather Augustyn (Foreword by Delfeayo Marsalis) (McFarland, 2013).

Late one evening in 1985, I was returning to the Brooklyn residence of my eldest brothers Branford and Wynton from a sojourn in Manhattan. As fate would have it, the Jamaican taxi driver recognized my slide trombone and proclaimed, "You know about Don Drummond and the Skatalites?" At that point it occurred to me that I had indeed seen in Branford's collection several albums by this particular group, but—not being interested in ska music at the time—had not checked them out. The driver continued to rave about Drummond being one of the greatest in history, which I basically accepted with a few grains of salt until he asserted, "J.J. Johnson went to Jamaica just to hear Drummond, his legend was so strong!" The matter had suddenly become serious business with the utterance of such a proclamation. Johnson was not only my primary jazz influence, he was also one of America's great jazz masters, known for his precision and profound command of the trombone at all tempos and volumes. Would J.J. have traveled to Kingston, Jamaica, solely to hear Don Drummond?

I immediately scoured the library and discovered three Skatalites albums. I listened and was overcome by the pathos and immediacy of Drummond's improvisations, his melodies expressing an adolescent innocence undergirded with the knowledge of an elder. Extroverted, eccentric and self-taught, Don Drummond's trombone style has an earthiness and songlike quality that makes it immediately identifiable. His melodies are so simple, so perfectly constructed and memorable that they are reminiscent of children's songs; each note is placed in exactly the right place at exactly the right time. He managed to consistently maintain certain qualities not steadfastly present in Johnson's style.

At some point in the mid—1990s, interest in Drummond led me to the Brooklyn storefront studio of Mr. Coxsone Dodd and eventually to a few trips to Kingston, Jamaica. I found that many of the older people were aware of Drummond and his music. His celebrity was such that stories were shared with equal aplomb about his extraordinary musicianship as well as his peculiarities. He not only worked the women into frenzies with his aggressive rhythms, but he also would cause many to weep at the sorrow he expressed on ballads. During the 1950s—'60s, Jamaica was a hotbed of musical talent, including the likes of Roland Alfonso, Johnny Moore, Lenny Hibbert and Tommy McCook. Don Drummond, it turns out, was able to channel emotions from gentility to absolute rage through his music with as much authority as anyone who ever played trombone.

Trips to Jamaica were learning experiences on many levels; however, the greatest single lesson for me concerned understanding and accepting the traditions of the Jamaican people. Although they were respectful toward me and happy to assist in my efforts to learn about this musical giant, they still let me know in subtle ways that they were Jamaican and I was not. When they wanted to have private conversations, the language became unrecognizable. If there was even a hint of impatience from me, actions slowed down to a snail's pace. These quirks gave me a sense of how strong nationalism and pride is in the Jamaican people. As a whole, the individuals I encountered had a way of thinking that was centered on honesty, integrity and good old common sense. While they would never admit to the reality as such, these unique qualities of a people, when codified properly, can form the backbone of their art.

Bob Marley gave a voice and hope to all Jamaicans during the '60s and '70s with his songs of political awareness and protest. The individual who influenced Marley the most with songs that celebrated Jamaica and its unique characteristics was Don Drummond. Marley spent a period of time performing with Drummond and, clearly, knew of his brilliance. Marley's voice covers the same basic range of Drummond's trombone and, as further proof, his "Crazy Baldheads" is pretty much Drummond's "Eastern Standard Time" in a minor key! Even without lyrics, the trombonist displayed his socio-political awareness with songs entitled "Man in the Street," "President Kennedy," "Lee Harvey Oswald" and "Reload." Marley was able to take Drummond's music to the ultimate level, internalizing its strongest characteristics and incorporating them in his own style to great advantage.

Whether by Drummond's own design or that of producer Coxsone Dodd, the Skatalites performed all of their songs with the famous guitar-led ska (boom-chick, boom-chick) beat. Certainly, a studied and adventurous musician like Drummond was capable of creating less formulaic compositions, and his desire to do so is evidenced in at least one example, "Far East." This song highlights an awareness of other cultures and musical contributions as it is a tribute to Eastern music in Jamaican terms. One captivating aspect of ska is the degree to which it is specifically localized (from the people) and universal (for all people) simultaneously. While Don Drummond's distinctive sound was strengthened by consistent performance with the same Jamaican musicians, if he had been afforded the opportunity to share experiences with musicians from different cultures (as is customary today), his music could have expanded to even greater heights.

Speculation aside, we celebrate all that Don Drummond accomplished as a great musician and representative for the Jamaican people. Thanks to his ingenuity, ska remains the only genre of music in which trombone plays the lead voice, with trumpet and saxophone playing the secondary harmonies. Don Drummond was a soft-spoken introvert whose life was defined by the trombone and the great music he created with it. Trombone provided his voice in a way that words could not. Don Drummond played music as though it was all he had; or perhaps as though he felt it was all he had. As listeners, we have benefited greatly from his immense talent and unique ability to touch human souls around the world.

This is the definitive documentation of a seminal figure in the history of Jamaican music which is long overdue!

Delfeayo Marsalis is one of the top trombonists, composers, and producers in jazz today. He is a member of the distinguished Marsalis family, along with father Ellis and brothers Branford, Wynton and Jason. Together they earned the nation's highest jazz honor, a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Award, in 2011.

Preface: The Known and Unknown By Heather Augustyn

There is no great genius without a mixture of madness. —Aristotle

It is well with me only when I have a chisel in my hand. —Michelangelo

P.J. Patterson sat at his wooden desk, remembering. Jamaica had been generous to him. Extravagant, even. Politician and lawyer, prime minister, manager to his nation's most talented performers—Patterson's opportunities and blessings stood in stark contrast to the mystifying self-destruction of his countryman Don Drummond. "Have you ever listened to his music?" he asked me in earnest. "I mean, have you ever really listened to it?"

Of course I had. "It's haunting, isn't it?" I replied.

Patterson had seen both sides of Don Drummond. Patterson had served as his manager during the last days of Drummond's reign with the Skatalites, and he had served as his defense attorney during Drummond's grim murder trial. He profoundly admired Drummond as a performer, an appreciation only deepened with time, but still there was emptiness behind his evocative words about the greatest musician his country had ever produced. Patterson never really knew Drummond. Then again, no one really could.

It had been decades since my introduction to Don Drummond's music. As a teenager, I first came to know ska music, like many others, through the English incarnation of artists. When I explored the roots of this enthusiastic music, I discovered the Jamaican genre and realized there was much more to ska than a bouncy tune. The music seized me, but the culture bound me. And no one better captured the underlying want, the pain tinged with hope, the ability to survive with raw skill, than the master trombonist Don Drummond. Now, with Don Drummond's music firmly imprinted in my repertoire, I know that my perception of his creativity is weighted by my awareness of more than just the sounds of his horn. I hear his melodies in a rich context—a deeper story of struggle, exploitation, virtuosity, reclusion, idiosyncrasy, complexity, and sheer brilliance. I've heard many of Drummond's songs hundreds, if not thousands, of times, and each time I notice something different, something new—a subtle slide from one note to the next, a trill, a repetition of the theme punctuated by a flourish. His music is so familiar that it feels like a shadow I live within. His story is so familiar that, at times, I almost catch glimpses of him in my own walks through life. Don Drummond, like his music, is haunting.

There are those who have known Don Drummond for years, either as children growing up together at Alpha Boys School, later in life under the spotlights of the stage, or in musical communion in the Wareika Hills. They all say the same thing: they never really knew who Don Drummond was. There is something eternally elusive about Cosmic Don. Those who came before me have typically done one of two things: they made Don Drummond into a myth, into a legend; or they tried to construct Don Drummond by deconstructing him. My challenge as an historian, as a biographer of this mad genius, is, in a sense, unachievable. How can I allow my reader to know Don Drummond if he was unknowable, even when he was alive? My approach was to put together as much of the story as I could, through the words of others, through investigation of the truth, through setting the scene of what the social climate and his environment was like, so that the reader can construct a true sense of the man.

To do this I walked the same paths as Drummond, went to the same fields, stepped onto the same stage and stared into the audience as he must have. But what could all of these quiet things tell me of Drummond? I touched his trombone. I peered beneath his home, through the gaping holes in the fallen cinderblock foundation where old 45s lay in the underbelly, left by long-gone tenants. I walked the barren earth around the room where he slept, now devoid of vegetation and mottled with debris and lost memories. I examined the home from all angles, circling it like a raven on carrion; moved through the doorways of his school, eyes wide, watching for his ghost; combed through genealogy records and articles and online searches and files of loose photos, probing for a scrap, for an answer, for a passageway to follow to its tragically abrupt end.

I thought I might find handwritten leaves of sheet music. None. A photo of his mother or an undiscovered relative. I came close, but none. I felt—and still do feel—my story is incomplete, with much missing data. I wanted so much more. But I sincerely feel this is the best picture that can be constructed of Don Drummond, based on the information we do have, the stories we do have, the music we do have. We can imagine him as he sat beneath the Monkey Tambourine Tree and the complexities of his thoughts. We can envision him as he stood on the wood floor of the Bournemouth Beach Club, the brilliance that produced improvised notes that brought listeners to tears. We can evoke the young boy, barefoot with glasses thick as Coke bottles and suffer his obsession so deep that it broke him. But he is not merely summoned in his music. He is still alive.

What developed as a result of my approach was not only revealing, it also became dreadfully emotional as the tragedy of the story unfolded. In many ways, Don Drummond will always be a myth. But, I realized quickly, after talking to those who are still very much affected by the aftermath of the madness of Don Drummond, that the story is no myth. It is not folklore. The aftermath of his madness is painful. It is reality, even four decades later. Time after time, people who recounted their tales to me, of their loved ones all those years ago, were driven to tears. Their words broke down. They were unable to continue. They were still surrounded by the disbelief, anger, emptiness. Others refused to talk because they wanted to leave the memory where it was, buried. The story became a strange juxtaposition of the unknowable and the too knowable. This story, like Don Drummond himself, is a contradiction of creation and destruction, feelings of awe and feelings of horror.

While researching the story I gained a newfound respect, appreciation, and love, not for Don Drummond, as I already had that, but for Anita Mahfood, better known as Margarita. Little has been written about her. There is only one song by Margarita, "Woman A Come," also known as "Ungu Malungu Man," and certainly this song does little to showcase her talent. In fact, it's a little odd. But, through talking to Margarita's family members, I discovered a woman so beautiful, so courageous, so strong-minded that she not only brought her self-taught talent for dancing the rhumba to the stage, headlining at the top Kingston clubs, she brought her fellow performers' music to the mainstream in a time when such an action seemed impossible. Her defiance of the odds in so many ways is both remarkable and an inspiration. It makes her tragic death even harder to bear when we understand what an astonishing woman Margarita was. Without Don Drummond's genius, and without Margarita's tenacity, it is easy to argue that Jamaican music would never have flourished to produce the Bob Marleys, Jimmy Cliffs and Peter Toshes.

The only way to truly get to know Don Drummond is through his music. This book, therefore, is a contextual story. It is a painting whose brush never quite touches the subject, yet fills in the space around it to reveal the subject's shape. The image, the form of Don D. is here in these pages, in his songs, in the music he inspired, in the lives he forever changed.

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