‘Don Drummond: The Genius and Tragedy of the World’s Greatest Trombonist’ is a brand new book that gets to grips with the tragic life of the legendary Skatalites trombonist.
Scanning through a catalogue of forthcoming books from McFarland, a US publisher who foster an impressive array of writing on jazz, I came across a book on Don Drummond. I was excited. Seriously excited! At last, a book on Jamiaca’s finest trombonist, the enigmatic nusician responsible for incredible tunes like ‘Far East’,'Confucious’,'Smiling’,'Don Cosmic’, ‘This Man Is Back’… and the rest.
Written by Heather Augustyn and featuring a foreword by Delfeayo Marsalis – Wynton’s trombone playing brother – this book, ‘Don Drummond: The Genius and Tragedy of the World’s Greatest Trombonist’, is a vital piece of writing and research that delves deep into the pre and post-independence Jamaica to illuminate the tragic life of this tortured but incredible musician.
Don Drummond’s musical life began at the Alpha Boys School – the crucible that gave the world musicians like Lennie Hibbert,Tommy McCook, Johnny ‘Dizzy’ Moore, Edddie ‘Tan Tan’Thornton, Rico Rodrigues, “Deadley” Headley Bennet,Cedric ‘Im’ Brooks, Dizzy Reece and Joe Harriott amongst others. It was under the guidance of their omnipresent surrogate mother, Sister Ignacious, who had an expansive record collection and played both saxophone and flute, and the various Alpha band leaders, that all these musicians acquired a foundation to their craft and from day one it was clear that Don Drummond was different.Drummond was often found practicing in the shade of under the Monkey Tambourine tree at Alpha and while he had friends he was never the most communicative person. It was always about the music and inevitably the teenage Don Drummond was recruited by Eric Deans who, like other JA bandleaders, used Alpha as a source of talent. The Eric Deans Orchestra played six nights a week at the Colony Club in Halfway Tree Road entertaining “society” people and tourists with a selection of music by Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman et al.
After Drummond and Deans parted company, following a trip to Haiti, Drummond pretty much worked with every band in town . When he played with visiting US jazz super-stars Sarah Vaughn and Dave Brubeck he succeeded in blowing them both away with his unique sound. According the singer Don Drummond was among the Top Five trombonists in the world.
Augustyn paints a vivid picture of their working life as musicians in the mid Fifties up to Independence in ’62 when the rise of Sound Systems created momentum and direct demand direct for original Jamaican music that could be played into the dances. Session work shifted from the clubs to the studio.
Central to Drummond’s story is that of that Anita Mahfood aka “Margarita – The Rhumba Dancer” and it’s through Anita that Augustyn reveals the class nature and social divisions in Jamaican society along with an insidious undercurrent of violence and abuse. Anita’s reputation as a dancer began at the age of 12 when she won Vere John’s Opportunity Hour and despite her father’s wishes the rebellious Anita relentlessly pursued her dream. As Margarita she became an incredibly popular local star and that led to marriage with boxer Rudolph Bent- the Dark Destroyer – who sadly continued a cycle of physical abuse that had plagued her early life.
It was at the legendary Bournemouth Club that Margarita first encountered Drummond and his music and it ignited a spark that was to burn so fiercely it would eventually destroy them both. Drummond was famed for being difficult but in fact was suffering from mental illness, periodically vanishing into Bellvue Mental Hospital. Studio One producer and sound man Clement ‘Coxsone’ Dodd knew of Don’s condition and bought him a new trombone as a way of owning him. Drummond was a local star and Coxsone needed him. Recording business was a serious business and at Studio One they had to clock on and clock off. It was a tuff life with small returns and Drummond clearly felt the pressure.While the members of the Skatalites cut hundreds of tunes for various producers (check the discography in the book) the truly innovative playing was left for Count Ossie’s grounation at the Rastafari camp at Wareika Hills. As boy producer Clive Chin visited Wareika Hills with his father but was not allowed to leave the car. It was at Wareika that they gathered to reason, chant down Babylon, burn the chalice and play into the night with the drummers. Margarita was a regular at those sessions and her one and only record ‘Ungu Malungu Man’ – which was retitled ‘Woman A Come’ by Duke Reid – was her paean to Drummond, another camp regular. It featured the fantastic Skatalite drummer Lloyd Knibb on burru drums and evokes Malungu – an exiled godlike character from East African folklore.
In late 1964 Drummond and Anita Mahfood were living together in a single room at 9 Rusden Road in Kingston 2 and on New Year’s Eve Anita ignored Drummond’s demands that she stop dancing and went to dance at the Baby Grand in Crossroads and Club Havana in Rockfort. It proved a fatal decision. Despite the deep love and friendship that existed between them Don’s psychosis fuelled jealousy tragically led to his murdering Margarita on her return. On January 1st 1965 he turned himself into a local police station claiming that Anita had stabbed herself.
The bright light which fueled two spectacular creative people was snuffed out that night. Don Drummond went on to be found “Guilty by reason of insanity” and was confined to Bellvue Mental Hospital. Confirming that the conditions in the hospital were disgraceful – and possibly violent on the part of the staff – he died prematurely from “congestive cardiac failure and anemia” at the age of 36.
Through dozens of interviews Heather Augustyn’s book paints a vivid and at times traumatic picture. She never shrinks from dealing with the cycles of violent abuse and the stigma of mental illness. Her book demands that we learn from the lessons of the past so that we might react differently in the future. Let’s face it, Don Drummond was not alone. He joins a host of stellar artists and musicians who have dealt with depression and psychosis, some of whom were able to deal with it, others who weren’t.
In the end ‘Don Drummond: The Genius and Tragedy of the World’s Greatest Trombonist’ leaves us no place to go but the music and that my friends takes us to those Far East melodies, those groundbreaking compositions… minor masterpieces… that allow his melancholy genius to shine. Roll on Don Cosmic… Ungu Malungu Man!
‘Don Drummond: The Genius and Tragedy of the World’s Greatest Trombonist’ – Heather Augustyn feat. a foreword by Delfeayo Marsalis (McFarland £25.00)