Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Dameron, Tadd (Tadley Ewing Peake)

Called the "romanticist" of bebop by Dexter Gordon, pianist Tadd Dameron was known for the substance and depth of his songs. He was one of the first to use bebop harmonies in his arrangements for both large and small ensembles, and his keen ear added form and structure to bebop's compositional palette.

Tadd Dameron was born Tadley Ewing Peake on February 21, 1917 in Cleveland, Ohio to Isaiah and Ruth Peake. Both of his parents were musicians and played the piano. Isaiah was also a singer, and other musical members of the family often joined the family in playing music.

Tadley, named after a grandfather, was regularly known as “Tad” to family and friends until 1947. Tad became “Tadd” after a numerologist advised him, “To be lucky, you really need to put another letter in your name.”

Ruth and Isaiah split up while their sons were in their teens, and Ruth married a man named Adolphus Dameron, a local chef who owned his own restaurant. Because of this, Tadd and his older brother Caesar adopted their stepfather’s surname.

Both Tadd and Caesar showed a great interest in music from an early age. Caesar, who became a saxophonist and composer, got his brother interested in jazz by playing the records of the big bands of the 1930s such as Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, and the Casa Loma Orchestra, which featured some of the most sophisticated arrangements from the first golden age of jazz. Caesar also set up impromptu jam sessions at their house featuring local musicians, who gave further advice and encouragement to the boys.

Tadd quickly learned to read music, and studied as many musical theory books he could get his hands on. He quickly developed sophisticated musical ideas, and became bored with his music lessons at Cleveland’s Central High School.

While Tadd was still a teenager, Caesar sneaked him into the Columbus nightclub and asked the members of the Snake White band if his brother could sit in with them for a song. Although members of the band had known he had been studying piano, Dameron played things that the older professionals were not accustomed to hearing. According to saxophonist Andy Anderson, “He's got ten fingers and all of them went down on different notes! He'd been studying!”

Dameron had his first experience at arranging at the age of twenty-one, arranging for a big band formed in Cleveland by James Jeter and Hayes Pillars. The song was entitled "'I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart' and according to Dameron, “Everything was wrong with it. Good ideas, but no voicings or anything like that.”

In 1940, Dameron traveled to New York with Vito Musso’s band. When Musso’s band disbanded, Dameron ventured to Kansas City where he was a composer and arranger for Harlan Leonard’s Rockets. Dameron wrote several tunes for Leon, including "400 Swing," "A La Bridges," and “Rock And Ride.” Dameron went on to work as an arranger and composer for Jimmie Lunceford, Count Basie and Babs Gonzales, for whom he arranged the original version of "Oop-Pop-A-Da" in 1947.

In 1942, trombonist Trummy Young introduced Dameron to Dizzy Gillespie, which began a fruitful working relationship, when enabled Dameron to bring his composing and arranging skills into the bebop arena. Dameron went on to compose Soulphony for Gillespie's big band, which premiered at Carnegie Hall in 1948. Among the bebop classics that resulted from Gillespie and Dameron's collaboration are Hot House, Good Bait and Our Delight.

In 1946, singer Sarah Vaughan recorded one of Dameron’s trademark songs, “If You Could See Me Now.” The recording became a favorite of among jazz enthusiasts and critics, and was inducted into the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences' Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998.

Jazz fans began to notice Dameron's work, and in 1947 he was honored by Esquire magazine as “Best New Jazz Arranger.” Dameron soon formed a sextet for an extended gig at the Royal Roost nightclub on Broadway. The band became a favorite of many of the era's top musicians, who could often be found in the audience. Those who played in the band included a pair of up and coming trumpeters, Fats Navarro and, Miles Davis, who then brought Dameron to Europe to appear with him at the Paris Jazz Festival in 1949.

That same year, he formed his own small group that included Navarro, with whom he recorded "Nostalgia" and other sides for Blue Note and Capitol, including “Lady Bird,” “The Chase,” and “Dameronia.”

On “Dameronia” Dameron illustrates absolute sophistication in accompaniment by changing his style to fit the soloist. For the trumpet solo, Dameron plays with a firm attack in the middle register of the piano, while during the bass solo he plays with a light touch on the upper register of the piano. Because of this method, Dameron truly brings the sound of the soloist to the forefront.

After Navarro died at age 26 in 1950, Dameron recruited another young trumpet player for his group, Clifford Brown. On June 11, 1953, they went into the recording studio in New York City. Though a relative unknown at the time, Clifford Brown’s trumpet sounds brilliant and cuts through the nine-piece ensemble. Three years after this recording session, Clifford Brown had earned acclaim as one of the most innovative soloists in jazz.

In 1956, Dameron recorded the album Mating Call. Recorded in November 1956, the record is best known for featuring tenor saxophonist John Coltrane, thirty years old at the time. On “Romas,” Dameron’s introduction slowly builds anticipation towards the start of the melody to ensure an exciting effect when the rest of the instrumentation joins him. On his solo, Dameron revisits some of the techniques he used in the introduction, but embellishes them to add more color to the contour of his solo.

Unfortunately, Dameron’s career was overwhelmed by his addiction to drugs. Dameron was arrested for possession of narcotics on January 17, 1958 and he was sentenced on February 19 to the Federal Prison at Lexington, Kentucky. After he was released in 1961, Dameron contributed arrangements for bandleader Benny Goodman's tour of the Soviet Union as well as compositions for Milt Jackson, Blue Mitchell and Sonny Stitt.

Dameron’s last recording session was The Magic Touch of Tadd Dameron. Dameron recorded this album with several noted musicians including pianist Bill Evans, tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin, trumpeters Charlie Shavers, Joe Wilder, and Clark Terry; and drummer Philly Joe Jones.

The record features, “On a Misty Night,” “Fontainebleau,” and “If You Could See Me Now.” On “Fountainebleau,” Dameron best utilizes his arranging skills by creating an introspective and complex arrangement. “Fontainebleau” contains bebop motifs at particular sections; Dameron brilliantly gives the horns and woodwinds an orchestral feel that truly brings out the storytelling element of the arrangement.

Sadly, Dameron’s health remained poor following his release from prison. Dameron endured cancer and suffered from several heart attacks in his later years. On March 8, 1965, Dameron succumbed to cancer in New York City at the age of forty-eight. Dameron was survived by his wife Mia and he did not have children.

Though his life was cut short, Dameron’s influence endures through his compositions and arrangements, which remain part of the standard jazz repertoire to this day.

Select Discography

As Tadd Dameron

The Dameron Band (1948)

Anthropology (1949)

A Study in Dameronia (1953)

Fontainebleau (1956)

Mating Call (1956)

The Magic Touch of Tadd Dameron (1962)

Contributor: Eric Wendell