Jazzed in Cleveland
a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook
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Part 141 - A New Tadd Dameron Biography

Story filed January 3, 2013

A new biography of native Cleveland bebop era jazz pioneer Tadd Dameron has just been published by the University of Michigan Press. The book, Dameronia, the Life and Music of Tadd Dameron, was written by Boston area musician and educator Paul Combs who has spent much of the past 25 years researching the life of the Cleveland musician who died in 1965 at the age of 48.

According to Combs, Dameron, whose career was interrupted by drug convictions and three years in a federal prison hospital, played as significant a role in the emergence of modern jazz in the 1940s and ‘50s as his better known collaborators. "He’s as important as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Kenny Clarke, and Thelonious Monk," says Combs. "Tadd is as important as any of them. Up until the time in ‘57 when he got arrested the second time and is sent off to Lexington, up until that time, he is always on the leading edge of things that are happening in the music." Dameron’s best known composition is "If You Could See Me Now," but he also wrote, arranged and recorded hundreds of songs, many of which biographer Combs chronicles and analyzes extensively in the book.

Combs also digs deeper into the personal life of Dameron than any previous writer, but he admits the Cleveland jazz musician was mysterious and "secretive almost to the point of paranoia." Combs says Dameron was a very reticent fellow to talk about his own life, about what’s going on (in his life). "He didn’t seem to write many letters and he didn’t keep a journal or a diary."

Combs tried to uncover new information about Dameron’s personal life by interviewing some of his friends. He recalls, "When I talked with Jimmy Heath and Percy Heath, they said, ‘Wow! Tadd! We was buddies. We used to hang out at Doc West’s house and talk.’ And I said can you tell me about this and that? And I asked questions about his personal life and they said, ‘You know what, all we ever talked about was music. No I can’t answer those questions.’"

Combs also made several trips to Cleveland to research and to interview a number of Clevelanders about Dameron. "The man who knew him as a child," says the biographer, "they were playmates when they were children, was Myron Styles, who later was also the manager of the nightclub Gleason’s. And Buddy Crewe was the other gentleman. Buddy knew Caesar well and he knew the family. I also talked quite a bit with Willie Smith."

Combs learned that Dameron’s mother, the former Ruth Harris, was the daughter of the Rev. Silas Caesar Harris, the founder of St. Paul’s A.M.E. Zion Church which is still very active at East 55th and Quincy. Combs says Tadd apparently learned the fundamentals of jazz from his older brother, Caesar, and a member of Caesar’s band named Louis Bolden. After graduating from Cleveland’s old Central High School on East 55th Street in 1935, Tadd played piano in local clubs with Caesar and a former classmate, trumpeter Freddie Webster. In later years, after Tadd went to New York, Combs says he learned that Tadd and Caesar often were at odds. According to the author, "Tadd and Caesar had a difficult relationship, the specifics of it we don’t know. Perhaps the falling out started out around Tadd’s drug use."

Despite his great success arranging for most of the major bands of the period, composing many songs that later become jazz standards, and leading his own groups, Tadd developed a drug addiction and was arrested at least twice, in 1956 and 1957. He spent three years in a federal prison hospital in Kentucky. When he got out in 1961, he tried to resume his career, but had medical problems, and had signed-over the royalty rights to many of his best compositions to a crafty, two-fisted manager named Richard Carpenter. According to Combs, Carpenter "preyed on drug-addicted musicians and would buy up their publishing rights, probably for some money to buy drugs. There’s a list of people whose music was held by the Carpenter Publishing Company who we know were unfortunately drug-addicted jazz musicians." Carpenter was described in James Gavin’s book about Chet Baker, another drug addicted jazz musician, as "a grossly fat man from Chicago with cafe au lait skin, a huge bull neck, and a round, double-chinned face who had the air of a gangster."

In the new Dameron book, biographer Combs writes: "By the time Tadd managed to break his addiction and pay his debt to society, he was still saddled with his arrangement with Carpenter who continued to force Tadd into signing over royalties until he died."

Author Combs also says Dameron was particularly secretive about his wives and children.

Between 1939 and 1965, the biography lists five different women who may have been his wives, or at least long-term girlfriends, and perhaps as many as five children.

"The first," says Combs, "was Marguerite; we don’t know her last name. I asked Buddy Crewe and Myron Styles about this and they said, ‘Oh yeah, there was some girl but she wasn’t a Cleveland gal. Think she came from Buffalo.’ We know he was with a woman named Marguerite in Kansas City (in 1940) whom he referred to as his wife." When Dameron composed and arranged a song called "Dig It" for the Harland Leonard Orchestra in Kansas City, the co-composer of the tune was listed as "Margarite Dameron." Combs says the mysterious "Margarite" may have been the mother of two of Tadd’s children.

Margo Dameron

Then, from 1946 to 1950, after Dameron had won wide fame arranging for Dizzy Gilespie, Combs says, "There was a woman that I know only as "Margo." We have a photograph of her in the book. And my information from both Ray Brown and James Moody was that that relationship had started already by 1946 when Tadd was rehearsing Dizzy’s second big band. She traveled with him to Europe in ‘49. But Margo, as I say in the book, seems to have disappeared into thin air, you know, she just disappeared."

Beginning in 1957, there was a woman named Maely Dufty, described as a heavy-set, Hungarian Jewish girl whose former husband had co-authored Billie Holiday’s autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues. Combs says Tadd and Maely were business partners, lived together in New York and socialized as a couple. According to Combs, she told friends that Tadd was the father of her son, who was named Bevan. Dameron later composed two songs, "Bevan Beeps" and "Bevan’s Birthday," but denied he was the child’s father. Years later, Bevan Dufty became an openly gay San Francisco politician and listed his parents as William and Maely Dufty.

From time to time, Dameron fled New York and came home to Cleveland, perhaps to avoid getting busted for drugs. But, in an interview with Dameron’s close friend, Cleveland saxophonist and arranger Willie Smith, Combs was told Dameron was also depressed over his relationship with the frequently-married Maely, who Willie said was "running him through the mill." And, according to Smith, Dameron had yet another partner in Cleveland, who filed formal child support complaints. Combs says, "I know from Willie Smith that later on there was a woman living in Cleveland, possibly the mother of children of his, with whom he had an ongoing relationship, a difficult relationship. But again, even Willie, a close friend, didn’t have details."

Mia Dameron at ASCAP ceremony in 2008, with ASCAP Jazz Wall panelist John Clayton.

Then, in 1963, a year after Dameron recorded his final album, The Magic Touch, and his health was deteriorating, he was a patient in New York’s Roosevelt Hospital when he met and formally married a nurse from England. "Mabel Sopper, known as Mia. That’s the only confirmed marriage. And it was never contested by anybody else." Tadd and Mia were formally married in January of 1964 and lived as husband and wife until March of 1965 when he died of cancer.

From his marriages, some probably common law, biographer Combs found evidence of perhaps as many as five children. What happened to them? Combs relayed one story of a writer who knocked on the door of a woman he believed to be Dameron’s daughter. When the writer said he wanted to talk to her about her father, she slammed the door in his face.

There was another story involving Cleveland trumpeter Bill Hardman who played with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. Combs says, "Hardman was in a club playing a gig and he looks across the bar and he sees a man who looks very familiar. He goes over to him and says, ‘You just look so much like somebody I know.’ And the gentleman says, ‘Perhaps it’s my father, Tadd Dameron.’"

While biographer Combs digs deeply into Dameron’s personal life, he devotes a major portion of the book to Dameron’s music, carefully analyzing and explaining it, and comparing and contrasting various arrangements of his many compositions.

Dameronia is the second biography of the Cleveland jazz musician. In 1998 British writer Ian MacDonald published Tadd, the Life and Legacy of Tadley Ewing Dameron.

Copyright 2013 Joe Mosbrook

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