Dameronia: The Life and Music of Tadd Dameronby Paul Combs, Benny Golson
Dameronia is the first authoritative biography of Tadd Dameron, an important and widely influential figure in jazz history as one of the most significant composers and arrangers of jazz, swing, bebop, and big band. He arranged for names like Count Basie, Artie Shaw, Jimmie Lunceford, and Dizzy Gillespie and played with Bull Moose Jackson and Benny Golson./i>
Dameronia is the first authoritative biography of Tadd Dameron, an important and widely influential figure in jazz history as one of the most significant composers and arrangers of jazz, swing, bebop, and big band. He arranged for names like Count Basie, Artie Shaw, Jimmie Lunceford, and Dizzy Gillespie and played with Bull Moose Jackson and Benny Golson. This book sets out to clarify Dameron's place in the development of jazz in the post–World War II era. It also attempts to shed light on the tragedy of his retreat from the center of jazz activity in the 1950s. By tracing Dameron's career, one finds that until 1958, when he was incarcerated for drug related offenses, he was at the forefront of developments in jazz, sometimes anticipating trends that would not develop fully for several years. Dameron was also an important influence on several high-profile musicians, including Miles Davis, Benny Golson, and Frank Foster. Dameron was a very private man, and while in some aspects of his life he will probably remain an enigma, this book manages to give an intimate portrait of his life at a couple of key stages: the height of his career in 1949 and the brief but productive period between his release from prison and his death.
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The Life and Music of Tadd Dameron
By Paul Combs
The University of Michigan PressCopyright © 2012 University of Michigan
All rights reserved.
Though seldom credited as such, Cleveland, Ohio, is an important city in jazz history. Although it not on the scale of Chicago or New York, the list of significant players who came from and developed their skills there is diverse and impressive: Joe Alexander, Albert Ayler, Benny Bailey, Bill D'Arango, John Fedchock, Bobby Few, Jim Hall, Buster Harding, Bill Hardman, Eugene "Fats" Heard, Benjamin "Bull Moose" Jackson, Joe Lovano, "Little" Jimmy Scott, Noble Sissle, Willie "Face" Smith, and Freddie Webster, among others. Cleveland was also where the Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra started out in 1929, and it was an important city in the development of the careers of Gene Harris, Artie Shaw, Johnny "Hammond" Smith, and Art Tatum. Of course it was also the birthplace, incubator, and sanctuary of Tadley Ewing Dameron.
From the 1930s through the mid-1950s, Cleveland was an important stop for national touring acts, such as Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, and Ella Fitzgerald, and it had a thriving nightlife scene of its own. For jazz, an important part of that scene was the predominantly African American neighborhood on the east side, spanning an area roughly bounded by East Twentieth Street on the west, Euclid Avenue on the north, East 105th Street on the east, and Quincy or Woodland Avenue on the south. Through the middle of this runs Cedar Avenue, a small but once bustling thoroughfare.
Hardly anything is left of the Cedar Avenue of Tadley Dameron's adult years, let alone his boyhood, just the Phyllis Wheatley House, a few churches, and a couple of stores and bars. By the time of Dameron's retreats here in the 1950s, this then-busy commercial street was home to an impressive number of live-entertainment venues. Clubs such as the Corner Tavern, the Royal Tavern, and the Rendezvous — which was owned by Tadd's brother, Caesar — featured local jazz. There were others, such as the Cedar Gardens and the Ebony, that presented floor shows with dancers and other entertainers. Jack's was one of several rhythm-and-blues bars and the only one left standing today. Some smaller places, such as the Club Celebrity, had just a pianist or organist. One could find much the same on Carnegie, Euclid, and Woodland avenues, as well as East Fifty-fifth and East 105th Streets. There were (to name just a few) the Club Congo, the Harlem Café, the Sky Bar, Café Society, the Chatterbox, Tia Juana's, and Gleason's. Today, though the clubs are almost all gone, the quiet residential areas are, superficially at least, little different from the way they were in the 1920s and '30s, the years of Dameron's childhood and adolescence. As one explores the neighborhood west of Fifty-fifth Street, one finds mostly one- and two-family frame houses. Near the railroad and on the lower numbered streets there are also a few factories. This is the neighborhood that produced Tadd Dameron and from which he was never really separated until his death in 1965.
Tadd Dameron was born in Cleveland just weeks before the United States entered World War I, an event that would soon lead to the unprecedented growth of Cleveland's black population. Throughout the nineteenth century, a variety of European immigrants had come to Cleveland and established their neighborhoods: first Germans, then Irish, Italian, Polish, and other Eastern Europeans. Each in turn made new lives for themselves in this growing commercial and industrial center of the Midwest. Then came World War I, when immigration was cut off and large numbers of men were conscripted. Cleveland had become a major manufacturing center, with steel mills, foundries, machine shops, and the early automotive and aircraft industries. All this industry needed workers, so it turned to the large numbers of black men who were not being enlisted with the same zeal as whites. The Great Migration had begun.
However, unlike the recent arrivals, the family of Tadd's mother had been in Cleveland since the late 1890s. Ruth Olga Harris was born in 1892 or 1893 in Kosciusko, Mississippi, the daughter of Reverend Silas Caesar Harris and Sophie Tadley Harris. By the time she was six, the family had moved to Cleveland, where, in 1899, her father founded St. Paul's A.M.E. Zion Church. The congregation is still active at its original location, East Fifty-fifth Street and Quincy Avenue. Ruth had a brother, Silas Jr., who was born shortly before or after her, and two sisters, Opal and Tennie, who were most likely younger.
On June 20, 1913, twenty-year-old Ruth Harris married Isaiah Peake, a porter only a year or so older than she. Given the absence of a civil marriage license on file at the city hall, it seems most likely they were married in her father's church. Not much else is known about Ruth's first husband. Tadd's brother, Caesar, named for his maternal grandfather, was born March 4, 1914. By August of 1914, Isaiah Peake and his young family lived at 3852 Central Avenue. By 1916, the Peakes were living at the same address as Reverend Harris. By the time Tadley was born, on February 21, 1917, the family had moved to 4508 Central Avenue. Tadley was, of course, his maternal grandmother's family's name.
We know little about the Peakes' family life in those early years, but according to the petition for divorce that Ruth would file in 1924, by 1919 Ruth and Isaiah's marriage had failed. Further, the petition states that Isaiah, "ever since their marriage has failed, refused and wilfully neglected to provide plaintiff and their said children with food, clothing, shelter and the common necessaries of life, so that plaintiff has been compelled to live and care for herself and their said children, by her own labors and exertions, and upon the charity of friends and relatives." Isaiah's side of the story has not been preserved.
The years following the breakup of the Peake family appear to have been difficult ones for Ruth. She worked at different jobs and moved frequently, according to the city directory, which shows different addresses and occupations for her in the years 1922, 1923, and 1924. There may also have been tensions between Ruth and her father. After the separation, Isaiah Peake lived in a house owned by Reverend Harris, where he continued to reside for several years. One has to wonder why Reverend Harris would have rented a home to his errant son-in-law while his daughter and grandsons had to move from place to place. Another indication that there may have been a rift between Ruth and her father is the fact that her second marriage, to Adolphus Dameron, was not solemnized by Reverend Harris, but by Justice of the Peace W. J. Zoul, in the neighboring town of Shaker Heights.
This must have been a difficult time for Tadd and Caesar as well, for Caesar was five when his parents gave up on their marriage and Tadd only two. In addition to the frequent moves, the failure of their parents' marriage would have meant that there was conflict not only between their mother and father, who sometimes lived on the same street, but quite likely among other members of the family. Further, conditions in their neighborhood at the time were generally difficult. The Great Migration had caused catastrophic pressure on the housing market, resulting in overcrowding and exceptionally high rents. In his autobiography, The Big Sea, the poet Langston Hughes describes the difficult circumstances in which many East Side black families found themselves. From 1916 to 1920 Hughes attended Central High School, which Tadd would also attend some fifteen years later. Hughes wrote of this time:
We always lived, during my high school years, either in an attic or a basement, and paid quite a lot for such inconvenient quarters. White people on the east side of the city were moving out of their frame houses and renting them to Negroes at double and triple the rents they could receive from others. An eight-room house with one bath would be cut up into apartments and five or six families crowded into it, each two-room kitchenette apartment renting for what the whole house had rented before.
Adolphus Dameron, Tadd's stepfather, was born to Cicero and Fannie Aker Dameron in Jefferson, Georgia, in 1877 or 1878. He was living in Cleveland by 1921, and in 1923 he bought a house at 2312 Carnegie. This is where he was living when he married Ruth on July 30, 1924. From the records, Adolphus Dameron appears to have been a reasonably successful man. His occupation is identified in various places as laborer, driver, and merchant, presumably of waste paper, since that is what follows his name in the 1926 edition of the city directory. Although he changed residences every two or three years, he is usually listed as the householder of the address listed, the exception being during the Depression years from 1929 to 1931, when he is listed only as "resident."
Sometime after the wedding, Adolphus Dameron adopted his stepsons by the simple common-law expedient of having them use the name "Dameron" instead of "Peake," an acceptable practice at the time. Had he formally adopted the boys, their original birth certificates would have been sealed and new ones with the last name "Dameron" issued. This simple adoption lends credence to Ruth's accusation that Isaiah Peake was not terribly interested in his children, for as their birth father he would have been able to protest the adoption if he had wanted to. In any event, one has to wonder what all this was like for Tadd and Caesar, since Isaiah continued to live in the same neighborhood, at times in close proximity, until at least 1932.
Many years later, Tadd told the British author and photographer Val Wilmer that around the time of his mother's remarriage, when he was seven years old, he and his brother had the opportunity to play with Bessie Smith. Since some of the other things he said to Wilmer at the time have been shown to be questionable or even untrue, one does not know what to make of this. However, other things he said in his interview with Wilmer are true, and it is quite likely that Adolphus Dameron was a man of some substance in his community. As such, he may well have entertained the great singer in his home. A case for the level of Adolphus Dameron's place in black Cleveland society could be made by examining the divorce papers filed by Ruth Harris Peake. In her suit for divorce from Isaiah Peake, Ruth was represented by the lawyer, politician, and early civil rights activist Chester Gillespie, who had already begun his distinguished political career. Given Ruth's likely poverty at the time, it is worth considering that Adolphus Dameron arranged for Gillespie to represent her.
Just as it is reasonable to assume that the years from 1919 to 1924 were difficult ones for Tadd, his mother, and his brother, one can infer that Ruth's second marriage brought stability to the boys' lives. Tadd never discussed these matters in public, but he did talk about music in his childhood. In a 1952 interview, he said he became interested in music at "four years old." He went on to say, "Everybody in my family played music, my mother played piano, my father played piano and sang, my brother plays alto, my cousins and my aunts, they all play. My uncle plays guitar and bass. ... My mother [taught] me piano, not to read but by heart, by memory." Indeed, Dameron's uncle Silas and aunt Carrie were known to be musical; the same was true of his aunts Tennie and Opal. His cousin Eddie Harris was a trumpet player who worked in the Cleveland area.
Tadd's claim to have become interested in music at the age of four is most likely accurate, and later in his life Tadd claimed, "I've played [piano] since I was five." It is clear from his later development that he possessed an unusually high degree of musical aptitude, and it is not uncommon for such individuals to show a strong interest in music at an early age. Nonetheless, we have to wonder if Ruth could have afforded to have a piano moved every year or so. There may have been others among family or neighbors who had pianos she could play and use to introduce her younger son to the instrument, when time permitted. Tadd also said that his mother played piano for the silent movies. Perhaps the theaters provided the necessary access to a piano. After Ruth's marriage to Adolphus there almost certainly would have been a piano in the house, so we can be fairly certain that Tadd's instruction, however informal, would have started no later than age seven or eight.
Some time in 1924 or 1925 the Damerons moved to 2115 East Seventy-seventh Street and then in 1926 to 2186 East Eighty-ninth. At the time Silas Harris, Tadd's guitar-playing uncle, also lived at the latter address. Then, in 1928, the family moved to 2273 East Ninety-fifth. This address connects with a story told by a former playmate of Tadd's, Myron Styles, who lived across the street. "I took [piano] lessons at the Cleveland Institute of Music," recalled Styles. "I don't know where Tadd took lessons. There were a lot of teachers around the neighborhood, however." Some days, when Tadd was more interested in playing baseball than piano, he would ignore his mother's calls to come practice, and she would come out of the house to bring him in. Styles remembered that "Mrs. Dameron used to come up Ninety-sixth Street with that double-sided strop and stop Tadd from playin' baseball."
The radio was an important source of music for Tadd Dameron in his childhood. "I was always listening to the radio [and] records," Dameron noted, "way back in Louis Armstrong's day, when he was real great [the mid- to late 1920s]." This was also the time of Duke Ellington's early masterpieces, such as "East St. Louis Toodle-oo" and "Black and Tan Fantasy," which were recorded in 1927. As we will see when we examine Dameron's earliest recorded work, Ellington had a profound influence on the young composer. Dameron also enjoyed listening to Fletcher Henderson and the Casa Loma Band, whose arrangements he admired. The year 1927 was also when sound was first synchronized with film and the famous Al Jolson movie The Jazz Singer was released.
Within the next couple of years, the "talkies" became more sophisticated. Tadd was around eleven years old in 1928, and he may well have been able to explore his neighborhood a bit on his own. "I used to go and see the musicals — when the talkies came in. And my mother used to have to come and get me out of the theater ... I used to stay there all day," he recalled. There were three movie theaters in the 105th and Euclid "second downtown" vicinity, the closest of them only about eight or nine blocks from his home in 1928. After the family moved to Eighty-third Street in 1929, he would have been around the corner from the Quincy Theater and just nine blocks from the Cedar Theater. The motion picture musicals also introduced Dameron to the later songs of George Gershwin, a composer he cited as an influence more than once. Gershwin's first work for film dates from 1930, though Dameron may well have been aware of his earlier work. "When I heard George Gershwin, then I said, 'This is really it.' Gershwin was beautiful. Gershwin and Duke Ellington — always Duke Ellington."
By the end of 1932, around the time Tadd would have entered Central High School, the Damerons owned their home again, this time at 2159 East Seventy-third Street. Tadd's uncle Silas and aunt Carrie lived on the next block, and his aunts Opal and Tennie were also in the vicinity, listed as Mrs. William Johnson and Mrs. John Steele, respectively. Also living in the immediate neighborhood, on Seventy-second Street, was the young trumpeter Freddie Webster, and Tadd and Freddie's friendship certainly dates from this time, if not earlier. As Dameron said later, "We were raised together." They also attended Central High School together and probably graduated in the same class.
Tadd and Freddie probably shared in a Central High custom as well. Many of their contemporaries recalled that musically inclined Central High students regularly cut school on Fridays to go hear the bands playing at the Palace Theater, spending the mornings or even the entire day. While no one has specifically mentioned Dameron or Webster in this regard, one would expect them to have done this as well. The Ellington band first played the Palace for a week starting on July 4, 1931, returning to the theater for another week on June 11, 1932, and again for the week of March 22, 1935. Lunceford, Fletcher Henderson, McKinney's Cotton Pickers with Don Redman, and other great bands of the time played there as well.
Excerpted from Dameronia by Paul Combs. Copyright © 2012 University of Michigan. Excerpted by permission of The University of Michigan Press.
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Paul Combs is a professional musician, composer, and educator.
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