Donald Willis Drummond was born on this date, March 12, 1934. He would have been 82 today, had he not died on May 6, 1969 at Bellevue Mental Hospital. The above birth certificate took me about two years to secure from the Registrar General in Kingston but I wanted to prove once and for all when he was born, as the record from Alpha Boys School has him born in 1932. This is a mistake, for whatever reason. He first lived at 26 Potters Row in Kingston, and his mother, Doris Munroe, was a domestic. You can read more about that in my book, Don Drummond: The Genius and Tragedy of the World’s Greatest Trombonist by going to skabook.com. I was even able to find classified ads for her domestic services and more information about her, but little on his father, Uriah Adolphus Drummond, though I did find his birth record, as well as Doris’s birth record, pictured below.
To celebrate Don Drummond’s birthday, I would like to offer the foreword that Delfeayo Marsalis wrote for my book. Marsalis, as you may know, recently performed at one of the Grounation events last month at the Institute of Jamaica courtesy of the Jamaica Music Museum. Carter Van Pelt wrote an extraordinary summary and review of this performance for his blog that you most definitely need to read HERE. Delfeayo Marsalis is one of the top trombonists, composers, and producers in jazz today. He is a member of the distinguished Marsalis family, father Ellis and brothers Branford, Wynton and Jason who earned the nation’s highest jazz honor, a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Award, in 2011. He considers Don Drummond to be a masterful trombonist. The following is his foreword, for which I am very grateful and feel it is a perfect homage to the great Don Drummond on the day of his birth:
In 1985, I was returning to the Brooklyn residence of my eldest brothers Branford and Wynton from a sojourn in Manhattan late one evening. As fate would have it, the Jamaican taxi driver recognized my slide trombone and proclaimed, “You know about Don Drummond and the Ska-talites?” At that point it occurred to me that I had indeed seen in Branford’s collection several albums by this particular group, but—not being interested in Ska music at the time—had not checked them out. The driver continued to rave about Drummond being one of the greatest in history, which I basically accepted with a few grains of salt until he asserted, “J.J. Johnson went to Jamaica just to hear Drummond his legend was so strong!” The matter had suddenly become serious business with the utterance of such a proclamation. Johnson was not only my primary jazz influence, but he was also one of America’s great jazz masters, known for his precision and profound command on the trombone at all tempos and volumes. Would J.J. have traveled to Kingston, Jamaica solely to hear Don Drummond?
I immediately scoured the library and discovered three Ska-talites albums. I listened and was overcome by the pathos and immediacy of Drummond’s improvisations, his melodies expressing an adolescent innocence undergirded with the knowledge of an elder. Extroverted, eccentric and self-taught, Don Drummond’s trombone style has an earthiness and songlike quality that makes it immediately identifiable. His melodies are so simple, perfectly constructed and memorable that they are reminiscent of children’s songs; each note placed in exactly the right place at exactly the right time. He managed to consistently maintain certain qualities not steadfastly present in Johnson’s style.
My interest in Drummond led me to the Brooklyn storefront studio of Mr. Coxsone Dodd at some point in the mid 1990s and eventually to a few trips to Kingston, Jamaica. I found that many of the older people were aware of Drummond and his music. His celebrity was such that stories were shared with equal aplomb about his extraordinary musicianship as well as his peculiarities. He not only worked the women into frenzies with his aggressive rhythms, but he also would cause many to weep at the sorrow he expressed on ballads. During the 1950s-60s, Jamaica was a hotbed of musical talent featuring the likes of Roland Alfonso, Johnny Moore, Lenny Hibbert and Tommy McCook. Don Drummond, it turns out, was able to channel emotions from gentility to absolute rage through his music with as much authority as anyone to ever play trombone.
Trips to Jamaica were learning experiences on many levels; however, the greatest single lesson for me concerned understanding and accepting the traditions of the Jamaican people. Although they were respectful towards me and happy to assist in my efforts to learn about this musical giant, they still let me know in subtle ways that they were Jamaican and I was not. When they wanted to have private conversations, the language became unrecognizable. If there were even a hint of impatience from me, actions slowed down to a snail’s pace. These quirks gave me a sense of how strong nationalism and pride was in the Jamaican people. As a whole, the individuals I encountered had a way of thinking that was centered on honesty, integrity and good old common sense. While they would never admit to the reality as such, these unique qualities of a people, when codified properly, can form the backbone of their art.
Bob Marley gave a voice and hope to all Jamaicans during the 60s and 70s with his songs of political awareness and protest. The individual who influenced Marley the most with songs that celebrated Jamaica and its unique characteristics was Don Drummond. Marley spent a period of time performing with Drummond and clearly knew of his brilliance. Marley’s voice covers the same basic range of Drummond’s trombone and as further proof, his “Crazy Baldheads” is pretty much Drummond’s “Eastern Standard Time” in a minor key! Even without lyrics, the trombonist displayed his socio-political awareness with songs entitled “Man In the Street,” “President Kennedy,” “Lee Harvey Oswald” and “Reload.” Marley was able to take Drummond’s music to the ultimate level, internalizing its strongest characteristics and incorporating them in his own style to great advantage.
Whether by Drummond’s own design or that of producer Coxsone Dodd, the Skatalites performed all of their songs with the famous guitar-led ska (boom-chick, boom-chick) beat. Certainly, a studied and adventurous musician like Drummond was capable of creating less formulaic compositions, and his desire to do so is evidenced in at least one example, “Far East.” This song highlights an awareness of other cultures and musical contributions as it is a tribute to Eastern music in Jamaican terms. One captivating aspect of ska is the degree to which it is specifically localized (from the people) and universal (for all people) simultaneously. While Don Drummond’s distinctive sound was strengthened by consistent performance with the same Jamaican musicians, if he had been afforded the opportunity to share experiences with musicians from different cultures as is customary today, his music could have expanded to even greater heights.
Speculations aside, we celebrate all that Don Drummond accomplished as a great musician and representative for the Jamaican people. Thanks to his ingenuity, ska remains the only music in the world in which trombone plays the lead voice with trumpet and saxophone playing the secondary harmonies. Don Drummond was a soft-spoken introvert whose life was defined by the trombone and the great music he created with it. Trombone provided his voice in a way words could not. Don Drummond played music as though it was all he had; or perhaps as though he felt it was all he had. As listeners, we have benefited greatly from his immense talent and unique ability to touch human souls around the world.
This is the definitive documentation of a seminal figure in the history of Jamaican music which is long overdue!
Perhaps an even better way to celebrate is by listening to his music. Here are links to a few of my favorites. Roll on Sweet Don.