Upon listening to one of Tadd Dameron’s signature compositions, On a Misty Night, from the album Mating Call, with John Coltrane on tenor sax, John Simmons on bass and Philly Joe Jones on drums, one is immediately struck by the fluid beauty and seemingly uncomplicated elegance of the piece. In this composition, Tadd fills his musical canvas with light pastel sounds and then energizes the offering with larger splatters of full colorful resonance from Coltrane’s sax coupled with Tadd’s melodic bass riff on the piano. Indeed, both Coltrane and Tadd shine on their respective instruments while Simmons and Jones provide the perfect timing and accompaniment. And what seems to be an uncomplicated composition and arrangement of a beautiful jazz number, is really quite literally a complex blend of melodic rhythms and chord changes. Although Coltrane is sometimes given leadership credit for On a Misty Night, make no mistake this is all Tadd and he is directing the action.
The essential question that some have no doubt posed by this time is, “who is/was Tadd Dameron and what were his contributions to the body of jazz innovation and creative genius of the genre?” Simply put, Dameron was a pianist, composer and arranger extraordinaire; who became a definitive figure in the evolution of modern jazz’s bebop era. In fact, Tadd influenced and inspired so many artists of that time and beyond, that his name is right up there with other one name jazz icons ala Bird, Miles, Trane, Ella, Billie and etc. Moreover, anybody who was anybody in the jazz world of the 1950s wanted something they had done with Tadd in their discography.
Tadd Dameron was somewhat of an unpretentious master at his craft, preferring to let the artists he worked with take the lime light. Yet, everyone knew Tadd’s sound and loved what they called the Dameron effect. As a young and aspiring jazz saxophonist in the 1950s, Benny Gholson said that “Tadd was completely illuminating… and [taught other musicians] to arrive at a fullness of sound…” with few instruments. Tadd’s sound can also be described has hauntingly beautiful and full of dissonant chords and complex rhythmic patterns. When one hears more of his signature pieces such as Fontainebleau, Lady Bird, or If You Could See Me Now (a jazz classic for Sarah Vaughn) you feel the sheer magnetism of Tadd’s style. You understand that he did something completely different with bop – he orchestrated it and made it work for large and small combos.
When Tadd made his transition from this earthly plane at the relatively young age of 48 in 1965, the jazz world lost a “true giant of jazz” who had composed nearly 200 compositions, many of which became jazz standards. But the question still remains; who was Tadley Ewing Dameron really? Indeed, what factors and influences helped shape his musical development into a creative innovator who helped define an era? And why, after so many years after his passing do the keepers of his legacy make reference to the spirit of “Dameronia” when they play his compositions?
Tadley Ewing (Peake) Dameron was born in Cleveland, Ohio on February 21, 1917. His parents as well as his extended family were musicians who encouraged their young offspring to explore and develop their expertise and style in music. Young Tadd began to extend his style in creativity as a chef in training at his family’s restaurant “Dameron’s Hut” on Cleveland’s East Side in the 1930s.
Surprisingly, Tadd’s older brother Caesar seemed destined for musical stardom because he was an accomplished sax player who had experienced and contributed to Cleveland’s emerging jazz scene. Caesar; however, chose instead to become a leader in Cleveland’s Black business community. He in fact, established a club dedicated to promoting the art of jazz called “The Twelve Counts” in Cleveland’s very prosperous but segregated Fairfax neighborhood.
Tadd attended Cleveland’s Central High School where Black creativity seemed to flourish and thrive. In fact, Harlem Renaissance poet laureate Langston Hughes and other ragtime and jazz innovators such as Noble Sissle, Freddie Webster, and bluesman Clarence “Bull Moose” Jackson attended high school. Another Cleveland standout jazz musician, Benny Bailey, attended high school at East Tech in the same Central Avenue neighborhood. Sources who have spoken about Tadd’s expertise in music say he was way ahead of his peers when it came to music theory, arranging and composition. Apparently; however, he didn’t feel challenged enough at the time to succeed as a scholar.
Tadd’s first exploration into playing for the public came in 1935 when Tadd was only 17 years old. He quite impressed a local sax player and Central High alum, Andy Anderson, who said, “We knew Caesar had a brother that played piano.” “He came in one night, sat in, and played Stardust.” “He was really using all his fingers, playing 6th and 7ths.” “We knew he had been studying.” “You don’t expect to hear that from kids like that.” Many who remember the zenith of Cleveland’s jazz scene recall Tadd’s playing regularly at the well known, Cedar Gardens jazz club and in the Majestic Hotel’s Rose Room, in the Black Fairfax neighborhood.
By 1938, a still very young Tadd had begun playing with Blanche Calloway’s band and had, by that time, composed a standard; I let a Song go out of my Heart. Tadd had become a well respected jazz artist by 1939 and was regularly sought after as a session musician in and around Cleveland; having played with jazz drummer, Scatman Crothers and trumpeter, Gerald Wilson, at that time.
Although young Tadd had been deeply influenced by his brother and other respected jazz innovators, and had cut his musical chops in Cleveland’s evolving jazz scene, he nonetheless decided to follow his own creative direction in music. Perhaps believing he had woodsheded all he could within that particular environment; by the early 1940s Tadd took a not so straight route to New York City, the major epicenter in the evolution of jazz.
Indeed, by the early 1940s New York’s musical landscape was quickly transforming itself from a tradition of big band swing, into a new style of jazz called bebop and Tadd and his contemporaries were being drawn into that creative impulse. Bebop entailed artists creating new energetic chord changes, rhythms and melodies over popular tunes and standards of the day. Thus, in order to appreciate and comprehend the bebop style, there has to exist within the listener, a multidimensional, sometimes innate understanding of the nuanced processes taking place within a particular piece of music.
Bebop was more than a jazz style; indeed, it was a hip cultural expression that had its own way of talking, walking, dressing and representing its own flavor. Even the jazz clubs that promoted the music—Minton’s, Monroe’s Uptown House and The Royal Roost, were all a part of the evolution of bebop. But most of all the artists had their own way of mastering their craft, revving up the tempo and giving it to the world of jazz as a completely new conversation. Make no mistake, the music was still swinging, it just swung with a different personality.
Within this stimulating environment, Tadd found himself starting to occupy the center of that musical universe. Bebop was like cooking up a red, hot and spicy pot of steaming gumbo and then realizing you still needed a special seasoning to make your creation pop. Tadd provided that special seasoning in his expert arranging composing and piano playing. Suddenly, everyone from Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Fats Navarro and Billy Eckstine, to John Coltrane, Miles Davis and many others, wanted some Tadd in their mix. Moreover, according to Dameron biographer, Ian MacDonald, Davis was a great admirer of Tadd because he had been mentored by Tadd as a young up-and-coming trumpeter.
In a 1948 interview that Tadd gave to Record Changer magazine, Tadd discussed the flavoring that his approach to modern jazz provided. He said, “We can improvise on both structure and melody and we aren’t hampered by a strict dependence on the beat the way old jazz is…It’s as if you have two roads, both going in the same direction, but one of them was straight and with no scenery around it and the other twisted and turned and had a lot of beautiful trees on all sides.” Tadd believed that this gave more richness and body to the sound the artists were trying to achieve. Undeniably, the artists of that era were reaching for this new approach as a way to stamp their signature on an ever evolving art form. That’s what made Tadd so special—his ability to make artists reach those heights. And this is what makes Tadd’s legacy so enduring. He is yet a giant of jazz and an icon, even into the 21st century.
Contributing writer’s information:
Ms. Ayodele-Haki (Sherlynn Allen-Harris) teaches history in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District as well as Cuyahoga Community College. She uses jazz studies as a teaching tool. She asserts that jazz has the capability to enhance any history curriculum and produces a more critical thought process with the minds of students.
Based on a rare biography of Tadd Dameron, Tadd: The Life and Legacy of Tadley Ewing Dameron by Ian MacDonald.
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