Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Dawson, Alan (George)

Alan Dawson’s skills as both a drummer and a teacher were legendary amongst his peers. When he died in 1996, his most famous student, Tony Williams, paid tribute to his mentor with this sincere message:

"Every drummer, local and worldwide, knew of his legendary speed, precision and control. Mr. Dawson didn't only teach me to play the drums, he taught me how to conduct myself as a musician and as a man. Thank you, Alan Dawson."

While Williams is considered by many to be the modern master of speed, precision and control, he saw Dawson’s playing as the high watermark of technical achievement, and he wasn’t alone in this opinion. Any listener who explores Dawson’s playing with Booker Ervin, Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins, Hank Jones, and Dave Brubeck will discover Dawson possessed unparalleled musicality amidst a blinding display of rudiment-based four-limb independence.

Dawson also served as a teacher and mentor to hundreds of young men and women. He taught drumming at the Berklee College of Music for seventeen years, and formulated series of practices which have become commonplace in every drum school in the world, whether the student or teacher is aware they are utilizing Dawson’s revolutionary teaching methods.

George Alan Dawson was born on July 14, 1929 in Marietta, Pennsylvania and was raised in the Roxbury section of Boston, Massachusetts, an inviting multicultural neighborhood that was also the childhood home of fellow drummer Roy Haynes. Dawson’s musical curiosity emerged quickly and evolved rapidly, and in his teens he began four years of drumset study with percussionist Charles Alden.

Stationed at Fort Dix throughout the Korean War, Dawson played with an Army dance band throughout his military service and frequently sat in with Sabby Lewis’s octet in the early 1950s. Upon his discharge, Dawson recorded with alto saxophonist Gigi Gryce, trumpeter Clifford Brown, composer/arranger Quincy Jones, and accepted an offer to gig as a touring member of Lionel Hampton’s band in 1953. “La Rose Noire,” from a Gigi Gryce date in September of 1953, and “Sometimes I’m Happy,” from a Quincy Jones session two months later, are two fine examples of the young Dawson in action.

Whereas the typical route for gifted young drummers was to move to New York and begin a freelancing career, Dawson decided to move back to Boston upon returning home from Europe with Hampton and, although he remained active as a player, he almost instantly embarked on his career in music education.

Clifford Jarvis, who would go on to record with Freddie Hubbard and Sun Ra, became Dawson’s first student in 1954, after Jarvis’s father requested that the reputable and personable Dawson teach his son the basics. A dedicated student himself with a vast knowledge of all the rudiments and a special talent for articulating how a drummer can develop his or her musicality, Dawson’s knack for teaching was noticed immediately, and he was invited to join the faculty at the Berklee School of Music in 1957, at the age of twenty-eight.

Dawson maintained a healthy performance schedule in addition to his teaching obligations. In 1957, he became the house drummer at Wally’s Paradise in Boston, and in 1963, moved on to regular playing at Lennies On the Turnpike in Peabody, Massachusetts, where he backed both local and national acts.

In addition to these regular local gigs, Dawson recorded some of his most revered material in the early 1960s with Texas tenor Booker Ervin, whom he backed as part of the famed post-bop rhythm section of Jaki Byard on piano, Richard Davis on bass, and Dawson on drums. In 1963 and 1964 alone, the group released five records: Freedom Book, Song Book, Space Book, Blues Book, and Groovin’ High. Setting the Pace, Trance, and Heavy! followed in 1965 and 1966.

“Number Two,” from Space Book, and “A Lunar Tune,” from Freedom Book, fully display Dawson’s ease in tastefully executing his complex four-limb independence patterns amidst a steady stream of boundary-pushing retorts from Byard and Davis.

Throughout the middle to late 1960s, Dawson participated in many additional sessions, most notably with pianist Byard on Live! and On the Spot from 1965, Freedom Together! from 1966, andThe Jaki Byard Experience from 1968, where the rhythm section of Byard, Davis and Dawson were joined by Rahsaan Roland Kirk on reeds.

More highlights from this period include high-profile work with artists including pianist Bill Evans on Live in Europe 1965, Dexter Gordon on Art of the Ballad, Blue Dex, and Panther! Illinois Jacquet (Bottoms Up, How High the Moon), and Sonny Rollins, evidenced by Dawson’s stunning solo on “Oleo” from the Sonny Rollins Jazz Icons DVD.

From 1967 to 1975, Alan Dawson played with Dave Brubeck, appearing on record with the famed pianist on Blues Roots, Last Set at Newport, and All the Things We Are. The most notable Dawson/Brubeck recordings ensued, however, when baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan joined them on recordings such as Compadres in 1967, Dave Brubeck Trio with Gerry Mulligan and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in 1970, and Live at the Berlin Philharmonie the same year.

Despite this active performance schedule, Dawson maintained an active teaching schedule, and single-handedly set the standard for advanced drum instruction. His impeccable technique and thorough knowledge of all of the drum rudiments led to his creation of the “Rudiment Ritual,” an exercise in which a drummer had to, without stopping, play through every combination of drum rudiment (American, Swiss, and some of Dawson’s own creations) while maintaining a Latin ostinato pattern with both feet. If this wasn’t taxing enough, he encouraged his students to complete the ritual with brushes instead of sticks – therefore diminishing the amount of rebound available from the drum itself and forcing the student to compensate by lifting the brushes off the drum almost entirely with their own hand technique.

Dawson also implemented the now-standard practice of perfecting four-limb independence by taking rhythmic patterns from two classic drum books, Ted Reed’s Syncopation for the Modern Drummer and George Stone’s Stick Control, and playing those patterns with one limb while all other limbs are playing various swing, triplet, straight eighth note, or sixteenth note patterns.

Finally, Dawson spent as much time on musicality, instinct, and expression on the drumset as he did with technical mastery. He believed drummers are musicians first and drummers second – and therefore are responsible for knowing the chord changes, melodies, and forms to as many tunes as possible. He often made his students sing standards while soloing over them, indelibly linking melody and rhythm on the jazz drumset.

Some of Dawson’s most famous students included Terri Lynn Carrington, Steve Smith, Kenwood Dennard, Vinnie Colaiuta, Harvey Mason, Joe LaBarbera, Jake Hanna, and most famously, a very young Tony Williams, who met Dawson when he was nine years old.

In 1975, Dawson suffered a ruptured disc in his back, halting his performance schedule and forcing him to reduce his number of students. He left Berklee after eighteen years and offered private lessons out of his home in Lexington, Massachusetts. A rather voluminous waiting list was always in effect.

As Dawson’s injury improved, he began supplementing his private teaching schedule with some performing and recording. In the late 1970s and the 1980s, Dawson recorded with Hank Jones, Sir Roland Hanna, and Freddie Hubbard, among others.

As the 1990s emerged, deteriorating health once again forced Dawson into only occasional performing, though there were some fine Dawson performances with Ruby Braff, Ken Peplowski, and Milt Hinton early in the decade. He also recorded his one and only session as a leader in 1992, Waltzin’ with Flo, a quintet date dedicated to his wife that features Dawson on both drumset and vibraphone. Shelved for many years, the session was released posthumously in 2002.

Alan Dawson continued to play and teach right up until 1996, when he lost his battle with leukemia at the age of 66. The jazz, drumming, and Boston music communities all paid tribute to him, and there were two memorial concerts held for him at Berklee in 1996 and 2000. Additionally, an excellent book entitled The Complete Drummer’s Vocabulary as Taught by Alan Dawson was written by Dawson protégé and current Berklee Professor John Ramsay, which includes all of the mainstays of Dawson’s teaching method.

It’s almost too easy to brush past Alan Dawson’s drumming to discuss his brilliant teaching career. This is a major misstep, however, as his impeccable time and interactive skills, melodic soloing, and dizzying four-limb independence as evidenced on recordings with Booker Ervin, Jaki Byard, Bill Evans, Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon, and Dave Brubeck reveal one of the most exhilarating, fully-realized drumming styles in all of jazz.

Select Discography:

As a leader:

Waltzin’ with Flo

With Booker Ervin:

Freedom Book

Song Book

Space Book

Blues Book

Groovin’ High

Setting the Pace

Trance

Heavy!

With Jaki Byard:

Live!

On the Spot

Freedom Together

The Jaki Byard Experience

With Dexter Gordon:

The Art of the Ballad

Blue Dex

The Panther!

With Dave Brubeck:

Blues Roots

Last Set at Newport

All the Things We Are

Compadres

Dave Brubeck Trio with Gerry Mulligan and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra

Live at the Berlin Philharmonie

Additional Recordings:

Gigi Gryce and his Orchestra (Gigi Gryce, 1953)

Oh, Rock! Live (Lionel Hampton, 1953)

Guitar Player (Tal Farlow, 1955)

Live In Europe 1965 (Bill Evans, 1965)

Fearless Frank Foster (Frank Foster, 1965)

Go Power! (Illinois Jacquet, 1966)

Tune-Up (Sonny Stitt, 1972)

Bluesette (Hank Jones, 1978)

Salute to Pops Volumes 1 & 2 (Satchmo Legacy Band / Freddie Hubbard, 1987)

Illuminations (Ken Peplowski, 1990)

Contributor: Eric Novod