Born: February 21, 1917 | Died: 1965 Primary Instrument: Arranger
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.
Dameron was honored by Esquire magazine in 1947 as The Best New Jazz Arranger. That same year, he formed his own small group that featured Fats Navarro, an amazing young trumpet player. They recorded some classic sides for Blue Note and Capitol. After Navarro died in 1950 at the age of 26, Dameron found another young trumpeter who would become a jazz legend. Dameron was preparing for a recording session and later recalled he had decided to hire a relative unknown, Clifford Brown. On June 11, 1953, they went into the recording studio in New York City. Clifford Brown’s trumpet soared brilliantly above the chanting nine-piece ensemble. By 1956, only three years after Dameron had introduced him on record, Clifford Brown had become one of the most respected trumpeters in jazz. Dameron continued to write and arrange, including his best known composition, If You Could See Me Now, recorded by Sarah Vaughan and Dameron’s old boyhood buddy Freddie Webster. After recording a couple of albums as “Mating Call,” with John Coltrane in ’58, he spent much of 1959-61 in jail, on narcotics charges. After he was released, Dameron wrote for Sonny Stitt, Blue Mitchell, Milt Jackson, and Benny Goodman.
Tadd Dameron’s last session recording was “The Magic Touch of Tadd Dameron,” (1962) a definitive set that sums up much of his career. The record showcases all originals as; On a Misty Night, Fontainebleau, If You Could See Me Now, and Our Delight.” Recorded with a large group of all-stars, Bill Evans on piano, tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin; trumpeters Charlie Shavers, Joe Wilder, and Clark Terry; trombonist Jimmy Cleveland; Julius Watkins on French horn; and drummer Philly Joe Jones. Barbara Winfield was the vocalist on two of the selections. This record is an appropriate farewell from be-bops finest arranger, whose time was cut much too short.
Tadd Dameron died in 1965.