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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.

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