Tadd Dameron as a composer and arranger was the man who in the 1940s and ‘50s was among the first to use the sometimes raw and undisciplined devices of the then- new style of jazz called bebop in well-developed arrangements for big bands and small groups. Perhaps more than any other musician, Dameron added form to the then-emerging style of bop.
Born in Cleveland in 1917, Dameron grew up with music all around him, his mother first taught him to play piano, "not to read, but by memory." But, it was Dameron’s older brother, Caesar, a saxophonist, who got his brother interested in jazz by listening to the records of the big bands of the 1930’s like Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, and the Casa Loma band that was playing unique arrangements at the time.
Cleveland jazz musician Andy Anderson said he first heard Dameron in the 1930s when Caesar brought his kid brother to a nightclub, and asked if the boy could sit in with the Snake White Band. Anderson said he was amazed when Tadd started playing piano. Anderson said, "He’s got ten fingers and all of them went down on the keys and all of them were on different notes. You didn’t expect to hear anything like that."
Before long, a Central High School friend, trumpeter Freddie Webster, persuaded Dameron to join his band playing in Cleveland. By 1938 at the age of 21, he began to write arrangements for a band that had been formed in Cleveland by James Jeter and Hayes Pillars. In 1940, Dameron went on the road with bands led by Zack Whyte and Blanche Calloway and went to New York with Vito Musso’s band. When Musso’s band folded, he went to Kansas City where he composed and arranged for Harlan Leonard’s Rockets. Among his compositions for the Leonard band were "400 Swing," "Rock and Ride" and "A La Bridges." At this point in his life, Dameron was writing almost pure swing. There was no evidence yet of the modern sounds he would later pioneer.
He began to experiment with a few new ideas while writing arrangements for the Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra. He was soaking up all the new bebop he was hearing and was beginning to use some of the new style in his big band arrangements. Dameron recalled, "I started writing in my own style when I got on Count Basie’s band." In 1942, Trummy Young, a trombonist Dameron had known on the Lunceford band, introduced Tadd to Dizzy Gillespie. Arranging for Gillespie’s big band, Dameron took the long phrases, powerful upbeat rhythms and chord changes of bop that Dizzy and Charlie Parker were pioneering, and used them in big band arrangements. Among his early compositions for Gillespie was "Good Bait."