Born Tadley Ewing Peake on February 21, 1917, in Cleveland, OH; died on March 8, 1965, in New York, NY.

Bebop, the harmonically and rhythmically adventurous music that became the foundation for modern jazz, was originally forged by innovative solo players---saxophonist Charlie Parker, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, and others. Over the years, however, bebop evolved from a cutting-edge experiment to a fully accepted part of the jazz musical vocabulary. Big bands played bebop in auditoriums, festivals, and music conservatories. The person who successfully transferred bebop to a big-band context was Tadd Dameron, who also played piano, wrote a group of enduring jazz standards, and helped launch the careers of several important soloists. Not a household name like the best-known jazz players of the 1940s and 1950s, Dameron was nevertheless revered by other jazz musicians.

Dameron was born Tadley Ewing Peake on February 21, 1917, in Cleveland, Ohio. "Everybody in my family played music," he was quoted as saying in the Jazzed in Cleveland survey written by historian Joe Mosbrook. "My mother played piano. My father played piano and sang. My brother plays alto [sax]. My cousins and my aunts, they all play. My uncle plays guitar and bass." The jazz enthusiast in the family was his brother Caesar, who brought home records by Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington, key figures from the first golden age of the jazz arranger's art.

When Dameron was a teenager, his brother sneaked him into the Columbus Nightclub on Cleveland's east side, and asked the members of the Snake White band if his brother Tadd could sit in with them for a song. "He's got ten fingers and all of them went down on the keys and all of them were on different notes," musician Andy Anderson recalled to Mosbrook. "You didn't expect to hear anything like that." Dameron's friend at Central High School, trumpeter Freddie Webster, asked him to join a band. Dameron considered a career in medicine, but he became more and more interested in jazz. By the time he was 21, he was writing arrangements for Cleveland's Jeter-Pillars big band. Dameron also composed original tunes, and several pieces that became jazz standards, including "Good Bait" and "Lady Bird," were written very early in his career, in the late 1930s.

Branching out from Cleveland and honing piano chops to go with his arranging skills, Dameron spent time in Chicago and then in New York with bandleader Vito Musso. One key step in his apprenticeship was an early 1940s stretch in Kansas City, the home of the so-called "territory" bands that added a sharp, upbeat intensity to the swing sounds of the time. After writing arrangements for Harlan Leonard's Rockets, main competitors to the band of Kansas City pianist Count Basie, Dameron emulated saxophone innovator Charlie Parker and headed for the jazz mecca of New York City. In 1942, during one of the legendary sessions at the Minton's club where bebop was born, Dameron tried out an unusual chord progression on the piano, and Dizzy Gillespie, listening in, said, "Well, that's it, man!" (according to a Dameron interview quoted by Mosbrook). Dameron began to find work with Gillespie and other players on the cutting edge of jazz.

During World War II, Dameron held a job at a weapons plant, one of the few interruptions in a life otherwise devoted mostly to music. After the war, with the new bebop style pioneered by Parker and Gillespie on the rise, Dameron began to hit his stride. Such Dameron compositions as "Hot House" were played and dissected by Parker and his followers. He worked as an arranger and composer with several of the top bands of the day, including those headed by Jimmie Lunceford, tenor saxman Coleman Hawkins, and vocalist Sarah Vaughan. As Gillespie emerged as bebop's prime bandleader, it was Dameron who transferred the angular sounds of bebop solos to settings intended for larger groups. Dameron then followed the example of bandleader Duke Ellington, writing a composition called Soulphony for full orchestra. Gillespie performed in the work's premiere at Carnegie Hall in 1948.

By that time, Dameron had become a musician avidly watched by jazz progressives. Esquire magazine named him its Best New Jazz Arranger for 1947. Performing on keyboard, he formed a sextet that held forth at the Royal Roost nightclub on Broadway. "The finest young musicians in jazz were flocking to hear the Tadd Dameron band at the Royal Roost," noted Robert Palmer of the New York Times, and those who actually passed through the band included a pair of superb trumpeters, Fats Navarro and, slightly later, Miles Davis, who brought Dameron to Europe to appear with him at the Paris Jazz Festival in 1949. Later still, in the early 1950s, Dameron played a key role in discovering another new trumpeter, Clifford Brown.

Sometimes overlooked was the degree to which Dameron's own compositions and arrangements showcased the work of other instrumentalists. Dameron's own contributions on piano were likewise discounted for some years, although jazz historian Frank Tirro grouped Dameron with Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk when listing the pianists who accomplished the most interesting innovations as bebop developed in the late 1940s. In 1951 and 1952, joining other jazz musicians who sought out more lucrative work in the field of popular music, Dameron did arrangements for the rhythm-and-blues band of Bullmoose Jackson.

In 1953 Dameron formed a new jazz band featuring Clifford Brown on trumpet. One of his best-loved recordings, the album Mating Call, dates from the mid-1950s and displayed the talents of another growing jazz giant, saxophonist John Coltrane. He worked constantly on new music. "Whenever he got an idea in his mind, he would just sit down and start writing," jazzman Philly Joe Jones, who roomed with Dameron, told Palmer. "He could write out a whole composition just lying on the floor. Once in a while, he would get up and walk over to the piano to check what he had written, and it was always right."

Drug abuse, which killed Parker, caught up with Dameron as well, and led to his imprisonment in Lexington, Kentucky, from 1958 to 1961. Dameron continued to write music in prison, contributing material to an album by Blue Mitchell. He resumed work after his release, contributing some arrangements used during bandleader Benny Goodman's tour of the Soviet Union in 1962. But his health remained poor. Suffering from both heart disease and cancer, he died in New York on March 8, 1965. "Dameron, who combined swing and beauty, made an indelible contribution to the development of modern jazz," wrote historian Leonard Feather. An ensemble called Dameronia surfaced in the early 1980s, reproducing arrangements that captured the sound of Dameron in his prime, and the many facets of his talent have been well represented on jazz reissue CDs.

by James M. Manheim

Tadd Dameron's Career

Wrote arrangements for Harlan Leonard and the Rockets, Kansas City, early 1940s; moved to New York City; wrote arrangements for Dizzy Gillespie band; worked in weapons plant during World War II; headed own sextet, from 1947; appeared with Miles Davis at Paris Jazz Festival, 1949; formed band with Clifford Brown, 1953; wrote music while imprisoned on drug charges, 1958-61; wrote arrangements for Benny Goodman tour of U.S.S.R., 1962.

Tadd Dameron's Awards

Esquire magazine, Best New Arranger, 1947.

Famous Works

Further Reading



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