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Paul Combs: Dameronia: The Life and Times of Tadd Dameron


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Dameronia: The Life and Times of Tadd Dameron
Paul Combs
264 Pages
ISBN: # 978-0-472-03563-2
The University of Michigan Press

"There is enough ugliness in this world; I'm interested in beauty."—Tadd Dameron

"Nature's first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf,
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day
Nothing gold can stay. " —Robert Frost

Composer, arranger, and pianist Tadd Dameron (1917-1965) was a creative force in jazz whose "dawn went down to day" due to his personal anonymity, heroin and alcohol addiction and finally through cancer. Dameron played a crucial role as a composer/arranger for big bands and became a central figure in the transition from swing to bebop and hard bop. A dreamer, but with a keen ear and impeccable skill, he always sought the "gold" of beautiful voicings and structures. He was respected, admired, and hired by the greats: Harlan Leonard, Jimmie Lunceford, Billy Eckstine, Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw, Ted Heath, Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Fats Navarro, Charlie Rouse, Benny Golson, John Coltrane, Chet Baker (the list goes on and on). He composed jazz standards such as "If You Could See Me Now," "Our Delight," "Hot House" "The Squirrel, "Good Bait," "Lady Bird," and "Soul Trane," and longer compositions for ensembles of every kind, of which "Fontainebleau" and others have been compared with works of Gershwin and Ellington. A modest and self-effacing man who was capable of disappearing into the streets of his birthplace, Cleveland, even after he had become a New York and international icon, Dameron's legacy was kept alive by his fellow musicians such as Benny Golson, Philly Joe Jones, Milt Jackson, Don Sickler, and Barry Harris, but the renown he deserved by virtue of his contributions has eluded him to this day. Fame knocked at Dameron's door more than once, and then went away. "Eden sank to grief."

Recently, after 25 years of devoted work gathering information and pondering his subject's nature, and encouraged in his efforts by Dameron's friends, especially Dizzy Gillespie and Benny Golson, musician and educator Paul Combs has published Dameron's definitive biography. (An earlier biography by Ian McDonald:Tadd, the Life and Legacy of Tadley Ewing Dameron (Jahbero Press, 1998) was a good start, but less comprehensive, especially with regard to musical analysis.). Paul Reyes' review of Comb's excellent book in Jazz Times provides a rich summation, which need not be repeated here.

Suffice it to say that, because Dameron was a very private figure, Combs had to "comb" multitudes of documents, recordings, and conversations to develop a full picture of the man and his music. Over time, many of Dameron's compositions, arrangements, and details of his life were lost. Therefore, the author's meticulous efforts give the impression of putting together the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, but in the end a portrait of the man and his music emerges clearly.

Combs takes pains to fill the gaps with careful inferences, never overstepping his bounds as biographer. He provides numerous and detailed analyses of Dameron's music, in itself a major contribution to jazz. Musicians and scholars will learn much from these studies, which provide insights into what Dameron accomplished musically, much of which was far-reaching and ahead of his time. (Any serious composer/arranger should investigate these analyses, which, thanks to Combs' acumen, illuminate the subtleties of their craft.)

Jazz aficionados and the general public may have to struggle with some of the advanced musical material contained in the book, but it is well worth doing so, for the author has not only fleshed out the details of Dameron's musical aesthetic. He has also reconstructed the true dimensions of the life and work of an African American musician over the course of epochal changes in our society: the Great Depression, World War II, the "American Dream" fifties, and the revolutionary sixties. The story is about a man who expressed beauty and spirit during times when blacks were shamed by segregation and prejudice. Dameron should be included in the company of Marian Anderson, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Dexter Gordon, Clifford Brown, Miles Davis, and many other African Americans in that respect. A modest, even self-effacing, man, Dameron swallowed his pride many times, whether with financial struggles, racist cabaret card regulations, manipulations by agents, record dates that never materialized, and incarcerations. A particularly poignant episode in this respect occurred, when as a model prisoner/patient in the drug tank in Lexington, Kentucky, he was allowed to go off grounds to serve as a domestic for a well-to-do family. To their credit, the household let him use their piano to do his composing and arranging. However, to anyone who appreciates the jazz greats, that is like letting Prince William clean your house, and then perhaps use your horse to practice polo. Combs diligently sought out and reports details that at times are either heartbreaking or edifying depending upon how you look at it.

Rather than repeating the biographical story line that Combs provides so well, it would be more useful to focus on three important issues that are emphasized in the book: Dameron's "mysterious" personality, his skill as a composer/arranger, and his role in the transition from swing to bebop and hard bop.

The "Mystery Man" Unmasked

Combs depicts Dameron's persona as "mysterious," on the basis that he rarely disclosed personal matters to his friends and fellow musicians. Combs digs deeper into the personal life of Dameron than any previous writer. He finds many gaps and unknown factors in the story. As a result, he claims that Dameron was a "mysterious" figure and "secretive almost to the point of paranoia." Moreover, according to Combs, "He [Dameron] didn't seem to write many letters and he didn't keep a journal or a diary." However, in this reviewer's opinion, calling Dameron "mysterious" doesn't bear up under scrutiny. "Mysterious" implies a cultivated attempt to convey a mythic self- image, aloof, inscrutable. Dameron did lie on a few occasions, such as telling an interviewer that he went to medical school (which he did not), and fictitiously describing a bird that he saw in Africa as the basis for a song he composed. But who doesn't lie occasionally, and jazz musicians in general are known to confabulate information, often with mischievous intent. According to Combs' own reckoning, people usually remembered Dameron as an affable person, ready to mentor and teach, devoted to his work, accessible to comrades and even strangers. There is little evidence that he concealed aspects of his life to create a persona, as was the case with, say, Duke Ellington, who privately was far from the upright gentleman he presented to the world, or that he went out of his way to perpetuate grand images of himself, as did Miles Davis with his attire and sports cars. Combs provides few if any instances where Dameron tried to create an inscrutable image or conceal facts about himself. He surely was not a mystery man.

What Combs describes as "mysterious" can perhaps better be described as "introverted" or "self-effacing." It appears that from an early age, as Dameron became aware of his musical gifts, he felt a need to avoid special attention. This seemed especially true in relation to his brother, Caesar, also a musician. For much of his career, Dameron, even while being the innovator, worked mainly for others. He did the composing, arranging, rehearsing, accompanying, mentoring, and sometimes conducting for more famous band leaders who employed him. He never put together his own touring band. Only later did he form his own groups, which quickly disbanded after projects were completed. If our destinies are determined by ourselves, not our stars, fame eluded Dameron because he arranged it that way. He avoided the limelight because it did not match his deeper striving, which was to create beauty in music and because he was a giver rather than a self-seeker. It could be added that his heroin addiction caused him to withdraw socially as well. There's no mystery about this.

A Ground-Breaking Composer and Arranger

Combs fully documents and elaborates Dameron's gifts as a composer and arranger. (Many know of Dameron's brilliance in these respects, but his art form wasn't systematically described until Combs.) Dameron invented nuances of writing jazz, transforming basic ideas. He adjusted chord progressions to increase their interest and expressive capabilities. He conceived melodic lines that avoided clichés. He structured the relationship between sections and soloists in original ways that enhanced the trajectory of the piece and flattered the instrumentalists. In addition to Combs' book, one way to really get the scope of what Dameron accomplished is simply to listen to his recordings with a fresh perspective and attention, as if hearing them for the first time. His sonorities are simultaneously parsimonious and lush. The clarity of the presentation is almost startling. The voicing and harmonies are compact and uncluttered. In a brief correspondence with Combs, this reviewer reflected that the book ought to have a "sound track." To that end, Combs' preface does supply a list of key recordings, some of which could accompany the reading.

A Pioneer in Bebop and Modern Jazz

The question of who "invented" bebop is frequently asked, and it is unanswerable. Jazz is a communal effort, and it's never been clear who invented the musical vocabulary of the bebop idiom, which eventually congealed in the work of Parker and Gilespie. Dameron played a significant role. He was using bebop types of harmonies in the early 1940s, and he worked and had conversations with Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and others in the mid- to late-'40s, when bebop was formally conceived. Around that time, he and Miles Davis formed a group that went to Paris, and many of the proponents of modern jazz were using him as a pianist and arranger.

It is incontrovertible that Dameron laid much of the groundwork for bebop, cool jazz, and hard bop. Combs carefully documents Dameron's innovations and the frequency with which others like Fats Navarro, Clifford Brown, John Coltrane, and many others used his tunes, arrangements, and piano accompaniment on their recordings and live gigs. Dameron had an instinct for taking a group of four to eight or nine players and giving them just what they needed to shine. This was a crucial skill when the big bands dissolved and the smaller groups needed the sophistication and subtlety he could offer. Any mainstream group today owes much of its operating function to Dameron.

Another key role which Dameron played in the evolution of the modern idioms was to provide a balancing center for the new developments, which were rife with experiments and musical cul-de- sacs. He was often the one who would bring the music back to the basics of melody, harmony, sonority, and self-expression. Dexter Gordon referred to him as the "romantic" of the beboppers. That didn't mean so much that he was sentimental as that he embodied an idea of beauty that acted as a rudder in the stormy seas of the creative process. For example, he went against the prevailing tendency to get a group of musicians into a studio and do a recording without any rehearsal. He meticulously rehearsed bands, and musicians marveled about the ways in which his guidance enhanced the outcome. He went "modern" without sacrificing the virtues of the swing era, such as rhythmic accuracy, melodic emphasis, and a balance between ensemble work and solos. He carefully worked out his harmonies, voicings, and structures to create a coherent composition from beginning to end. He set the stage for the Birth of the Cool sessions and subsequent work of Gil Evans, who became his good friend. The big band work of Gerry Mulligan, Bob Brookmeyer, and, most recently, Maria Schneider owe much to Dameron's example.

Combs' biography leaves no doubt that Dameron was not just a prodigious talent who appeared on the scene for a while, was revered, and vanished into thin air. Rather, he was a true jazz master who belongs in the pantheon of those who shaped the music. In one sense, the musical gold he created was the "hardest hue to hold," but in another respect, his legacy lives on in many aspects of jazz today and, very likely, in the future. In Combs, Dameron has found a biographer who has portrayed him in his human dimensions and shortcomings but has also lifted him out of time and given him his proper due as a musician for the ages.

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