Tadd Dameron Birthday Celebration at Smoke

Nick Catalano By

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Tadd Dameron was born on Feb. 21 in 1917, and for the past few years, Smoke has celebrated his birthday over President's weekend. This year the tribute featured tenor saxophonists George Coleman and Eric Alexander on alternating nights, with a rhythm section of drummer Joe Farnsworth, bassist John Webber and pianist Richard Wyands.

Tadley Ewing Peake Dameron hailed from Cleveland and began his arranging work with swing bands, writing for Harlan Leonard, Jimmie Lunceford, Coleman Hawkins, Count Basie and Artie Shaw. Very little of this swing writing has survived in present-day retrospectives—a glaring omission, given his later popularity. In the early '40s, he became enamored with bebop and began gigging in New York leading groups as a pianist. At various times such bebop stalwarts as Fats Navarro, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray performed in his groups. His bebop writing was much in-demand and appeared in arrangements for the pioneering Billy Eckstine and Dizzy Gillespie bop orchestras. His signature song "If You Could See Me Now" was written for Sarah Vaughan later in the decade and in 1948 his orchestral piece "Soulphony" was world-premiered at Carnegie Hall by Gilespie's band.

Dameron's writing has endeared itself to many performers in the post-bop era and the celebration at Smoke drew guests such as drummer Jimmy Cobb, all eager to join the party. On the other hand perfunctory analysis of his work has led to some critical misconceptions—that he failed to sufficiently incorporate bop rhythms and other stylistic devices. Revisionist critical commentary of Dameron's contribution is much needed and that is bound to come because of tributes like the one at Smoke.

On the night I attended I had to catch the last of three sets and, by that time, most of the Dameron standards had already been performed. Actually, only one of his compositions, "Ladybird," was left, but Webber dazzled the late nighters on this tune with some interesting intervallic leaps. Dameron's melodies often transcend octaves, making them difficult for singers—which may be the reason vocal recordings of his songs are relatively rare. But knowledgeable instrumentalists find the heads fodder for exploratory improvisations.

Dameron's groups in the early '50s often featured trumpeter Clifford Brown, who continually performed and recorded Dameron tunes like "The Scene is Clean" throughout his career. After years of drug abuse, which included a two-year prison sentence, Dameron passed away in 1961 at age 48 but his music has never been forgotten thanks to many tributes such as the annual birthday celebration at Smoke.


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