Jazzed in Cleveland

Part Thirty
a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook
a special WMV Web News Cleveland series
Story filed October 8, 1997

Tadd Dameron may have been Cleveland’s most important contribution to the art of jazz. The 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. He said, "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." He said during a recently discovered 1952 interview that his mother first taught him to play piano, "not to read, but by memory."

But, it was Dameron’s older brother, Caesar, a saxophonist and later an official of the musician’s union in Cleveland, who got his little brother interested in jazz by listening to the records of the big bands of the 1930s. Tadd said, "I was listening to Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, and the Casa Loma band that was playing unique arrangements at the time."

Veteran Cleveland jazz musician Andy Anderson said he first heard Dameron in the 1930s when Caesar brought his kid brother to the Columbus Nightclub at East 46th and Carnegie 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. Dameron later took some credit for Webster’s astounding trumpet style. He said, "I taught Freddie how to breathe." Dizzy Gillespie later said Webster "probably had the best sound of the trumpet since the trumpet was invented."

At one point in his life, Dameron wanted to become a doctor. But, 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. During the radio interview with Harry Frost, Dameron said, "I started writing in 1938. My first big band arrangement was for Jeter-Pillars. It was ‘I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart.’ And everything was wrong with it, but good ideas."

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, Dameron 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 said he began to experiment with a few new ideas when he wrote some 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. "That happened after I came from Kansas City where I first met Charlie Parker. I was at a jam session at Minton’s and I started to play some unusual chords and Dizzy said, ‘Well, that’s it, man!’"

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."

By 1947, Dameron was honored by Esquire magazine as "The Best New Jazz Arranger." That same year, he formed his own small group that featured Fats Navarro, an amazing young trumpet player many considered better than Dizzy Gillespie or Miles Davis. Dameron said, "That cat played with me for three years. One time, I fired him and hired Miles Davis. But I got Fats back."

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, "A fellow named ‘Brownie’ from Wilmington, Delaware. He’s another Fats Navarro, a little smoother than Fats was and has a lot of drive."

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. Ira Gitler, who was supervising the recording session, said, "I nearly fell off my seat in the control room. The power, range, and brilliance, together with the warmth and invention was something I hadn’t heard since Fats Navarro."

By 1956, only three years after Dameron had introduced him on record, Brown had become one of the most respected trumpeters in jazz. He played at the Loop Lounge on Prospect Avenue in downtown Cleveland. Contrary to some published reports, that was not his last performance. On Monday night, June 25, 1956, he played an informal gig at a Philadelphia store called Music City. After the gig, Brown, pianist Richie Powell (the brother of Bud Powell) and Richie’s wife Nancy were killed in a traffic accident on the Pennsylvania Turnpike as they were heading for Cleveland.

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. During the interview with Frost, Dameron said he was always concerned with sound and tried to emulated the forms of classical masters Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. "I try to make it slow," he said. "I try to make everything go just like reading a book, slow and coherent."

But, the life of Cleveland jazz artist Tadd Dameron was also cut short -- by a drug conviction in 1958 and his death in 1965 at the age of 46. Critic Max Harrison said, "Dameron should have become one of the most prominent post-war composers and arrangers."

CLICK HERE for the last installment of "Jazzed in Cleveland"

Copyright 1997 Joe Mosbrook

You can hear radio versions of Cleveland Jazz History on WCPN/90.3 Monday nights at 9:30 and Friday afternoons at 12:30. Mosbrook's 1993 Cleveland Jazz History book, based on research for earlier broadcasts, is available from some Cleveland area bookstores, libraries, and the Northeast Ohio Jazz Society (216-397-9900).