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Drummond crucial in shaping JA's popular music

Published:Friday | May 8, 2015 | 12:00 AM
Don Drummond playing the trombone.

Last Wednesday, May 6, we observed the 46th anniversary of the passing of the legendary Jamaican trombonist of the 1960s, Don Drummond. One of Jamaica's most important musical icons, Drummond was crucial to the emergence and development of the island's popular music. His compositions, comprising mainly ska pieces, were very popular during the 1960s.

Drummond's popularity soared to great heights between 1962 and 1965, when hits like Eastern Standard Time, Music is my Occupation, Addis Ababa, Scrap Iron, Far East, Confucious, Man in the Street, Dick Tracy and Green Island rode high on the charts.

Rated by some experts at the time as being among the top trombonists in the world, Drummond crafted and created some of the best musical arrangements in Jamaica's popular music history, some of which are still being imitated today.

Drummond drew heavily from jazz and blues to create some telling ska cuts, while venturing at times into the world of Latin rhythms to produce the masterpiece Don's Cosmic. The recording, which came at the turn of the decade, was a complete departure from the norm, unlike anything heard previously in Jamaican popular music, as Drummond, in tandem with trumpeter Johnny Moore, unleashed a beauty that had the nimble-footed engaging in some South American steps. The present CEO of The Sound and Pressure Organization (now working assiduously to revitalise downtown Kingston as a musical heritage site), Julian 'Jingles' Reynolds, writing the liner notes for the album Don Drummond 100 Years After, which contained the single Don's Cosmic, spoke of Drummond in glowing terms: "The music of the Skatalites was brilliant, but it was Don that most people wanted to hear and see. His musical genius and eccentricity had moved ahead of him, making fans in every nook and cranny where his music was played.

"His easy but exquisitely professional command of his horn won him compliments from the great J.J. Johnson himself."

With particular reference to Don's Cosmic itself, Reynolds wrote: "The exchanges between Drummond and Johnny Moore on trumpet was like a machine gun in full blast. His bone spoke sometimes like a trumpet high and cutting, and again it was like a baritone, heavy low and grumbling." Additionally, Drummond provided some sweet mid-song instrumental solos on outstanding vocal cuts like Carry Go Bring Come by Justin Hinds and The Dominos, Dearest by Dotty and Bonnie and The Mighty Organ by Lascelles Perkins that helped considerably in making the songs become hits for those artistes.




Drummond's musical journey - like so many other early Jamaican music legends' - began at the Alpha Boys' School in east Kingston on December 10, 1943. Based on his school records shown to me by Sister Mary Ignatius Davies, and which I still have in my possession, he was taken there as a nine-year-old by his mother when she could no longer control his truancy.

'Don D', as he was affectionately called, was reportedly born in Allman Town, east Kingston, on March 12, 1934 and first attended Aloysius Primary School. Two years after entering Alpha, Don was placed in the school's band and taught the trombone, one of the most awkward of instruments, given its push and pull manoeuvres and its queer multiposition note scales.

Under instructions from bandmaster Tulloch, he learnt the instrument in almost no time and soon began entertaining his peers and teachers with crisp, sharp, and extra short notes that many other students found difficult to pattern. The man had been a genius, even from that tender age. But as I have always maintained, there is a very thin line between a genius and a mad man.

While a student at the Alpha Boys' School, Drummond was described as a quiet, introspective boy who worked hard, but seldom spoke or smiled - character traits that followed him through life, and was perhaps symptomatic of his later demise. It was through his horn that Drummond communicated with the world. This epoch-making composer had no less that 150 original and improvised recordings in all, and must truly be ska music's main mastermind. He tailored several jazz, blues and country and western recordings in such a way that they became uniquely his own. Johnny Cash's Ring of Fire, for example, was beautifully reconfigured by Drummond to create his big hit Music is my Occupation in 1964.

Drummond spent seven years at the Alpha Boys' School. After graduating from the institution in 1950, he was recommended to and accepted by the very popular and famous Eric Deans band as a trombonist. There, he was allowed to express and develop his musical talents to high levels. A jazz-oriented piece, titled The Answer, was perhaps the most popular of his early recordings.




A Caribbean tour by the band between 1951 and 1952 gave Drummond the opportunity to widen his musical horizons, gaining valuable experience in the process. Stints with Kenny Bradshaw's band and Kenny Williams' orchestra also proved beneficial to the teenager. By the middle of the 1950s, Drummond, who by now was considered the island's top trombonist, became greatly influenced by current American jitterbug boogie, which shaped his next set of recordings that included Schooling the Duke, Reload and Looking Through the Window.

By the second half of the 1950s, the influence of rhythm and blues began to be felt in Jamaica. It eventually gave birth to the ska beat, and the formation of the Skatalites band. It was a period of enormous musical enjoyment, as the band with Drummond as the star act, recorded some memorable pieces like The Guns of Navarone, Man in the Street, Scrap Iron, Bridge View, and President Kennedy.

Drummond did the bulk of his work for producers Clement Dodd and Duke Reid, and to a lesser extent, Randy's, Leslie Kong and Justin Yap.

A long history of mental illness, which hospitalised Drummond on several occasions, came to a head on New Year's Day 1965, when he stabbed to death his girlfriend, Anita Mafood, in a fit of jealous rage. He was declared a criminal lunatic and died in the Bellevue Asylum Hospital under mysterious circumstances on May 6, 1969.