(Review by Steve Shafer)
Back in the early 80s, before I had ever listened to my first Skatalites record, I was aware of Don Drummond's untimely death. Some pop-culture reference book that was kicking around our house contained a list of musicians who had died terribly young, usually in sordid circumstances (Hendrix, Joplin, Morrison, etc.), and it had an entry that detailed how in 1965 The Skatalites' trombonist Don Drummond had murdered his girlfriend, Anita Mahfood--and after he was tried, found to be criminally insane, and committed to Bellevue Hospital, he died a few years later at age 35, under questionable circumstances. Of course, since this was the pre-internet age, and New York City always has had a large immigrant Jamaican community, I had assumed that Drummond died at the Bellevue Hospital on First Avenue in Manhattan (instead of the one in Kingston, JA). I've since become very familiar with Drummond's and The Skatalites' music (and even had the fantastic opportunity to work a bit with Lester Sterling and Lloyd Brevett during my tenure at Moon Records), but never learned much about the man behind such extraordinary and foundational music as "Man in the Street," "Ringo," "Don D Lion," "Don Cosmic" (the nickname producer Clement "Coxsone" Dodd conferred on him, due to his erratic behavior), "Marcus Junior," "Confucious," "Occupation," "Lawless Street," "Green Island," "Eastern Standard Time," and hundreds of other ska tunes.
Heather Augustyn's terrific new book, "Don Drummond: The Genius and Tragedy of the World's Greatest Trombonist," the first biography of Drummond ever written (!), helps flesh out his life and career--by no means an easy task, given Drummond's struggle with mental illness (he was either bi-polar or schizophrenic); his tendency to keep to himself and only talk about playing the trombone and music; and the multiple (and oftentimes conflicting) versions of Drummond's life presented by his contemporaries (Drummond has no close living relatives).
Given these considerable obstacles, Augustyn was determined to present as complete a portrait of Drummond as possible, traveling to Jamaica repeatedly to visit the legendary Alpha School (where the current students were learning to play Drummond's "Addis Ababa"); the clubs in Kingston where he performed; the areas in the Wareika Hills where he communed and played music with Count Ossie and the rastas; the bleak, one-room flat where he and Mahfood lived (and where she was killed by Drummond); and the asylum where he was treated multiple times before the murder and where he was committed afterwards and later died--and to interview anyone who worked with or was in any way connected to Drummond. (Indeed, while Drummond remains a somewhat elusive figure, Anita "Margarita" Mahfood--the very popular "Rumba Queen"--comes into crisp focus, courtesy of interviews with her children and friends; she was the half-Lebanese, half-white Jamaican professional nightclub dancer who, to some degree, transcended race and class to expose the upper class nightclub patrons to the drumming and culture of the socially outcast rastas.)
Drummond was born in 1932 to a poor, single mother and had the extraordinarily good fortune to be placed by the local court (due to his truancy) at the Alpha School for Boys at age nine. Essentially a vocational school run by Roman Catholic nuns--and led by the extraordinary Sister Mary Ignatius who was particularly supportive of her musically gifted students (she ran the school's sound system at parties and had an extensive record collection)--Alpha was the ideal place for Drummond's innate musical abilities to be discovered and then sharply honed (indeed, had he not come to the attention of the authorities and been enrolled at Alpha, one wonders if Drummond would have had any other opportunity to develop into a world-class musician that he became). It soon became apparent that Don Drummond's "occupation" (his training) should be music; after learning several other instruments, it was manifest that his greatest affinity was for the trombone. Under the tutelage of band leader Reuben Delgado and the mentoring of older student Carl Masters, Drummond flourished and became quite accomplished at his craft--spending most of his free time by himself practicing under the school's Monkey Tambourine Tree (though he did mentor younger trombone students, such as Rico Rodriguez, who went on to great fame in his own right, and worked with bands such as The Skatalites and The Specials).
In 1950, six months shy of graduating from Alpha, Drummond was recruited by guitarist Ernest Ranglin (and with Sister Ignatius' blessing) to join the Eric Deans Orchestra, which played American big band, Latin, and popular jazz pieces in the local clubs frequented by tourists and upper-class Jamaicans. (It was not uncommon for bands to recruit young musicians straight out of Alpha--it was a primary feeder for local acts and the Jamaican military's band.) Drummond further refined his performing chops playing jazz standards in a variety of bands--including his own--to great local acclaim. During this period, Drummond was hailed in Jamaica by his contemporaries--and by visiting international musicians, such as Sarah Vaughn, who declared him to be one of the top five trombonists in the world, and Dave Brubeck, who while performing with Drummond, stopped playing the piano to watch and listen to him, in awe of Drummond's improvisational skills--as one of the best musicians Jamaica had ever produced.
But towards the mid-1950s, as imported American rhythm and blues records began to dominate the Jamaican airwaves and the burgeoning and extraordinarily influential sound systems, popular tastes changed (and, of course, the American jazz, R and B, and early rock music was given a local twist, which eventually gave birth to ska in the early 1960s), and the fierce and often violent competition between the sound system operators (and the opening of the first recording studio on the island--Federal--in 1954) led to the explosion in the local recording of popular tunes (they often simply renamed and re-arranged the originals without giving any credit or royalties to the composers), as well as original tracks. At first these songs were cut on acetates as one-off recordings, to be exclusively used by the sound system operator who paid for it--in order to attract a loyal, paying following to their parties, who came for the great music while parting with their cash for liquor. But soon it was discovered that there was much greater profit in selling these songs as mass-produced 7" singles.
So, as the focus of the music business shifted to a great degree from stage to studio in the late 1950s, musicians were compelled to follow the money (as poor as the wages were). The best live performers such as Don Drummond (and the future members of The Skatalites) were recruited as session men for all of the top sound system operators cum producers (Clement "Coxsone" Dodd, Duke Reid, etc.) and he found himself working many days a week in the studio (his first released recording was Owen Gray's "On the Beach" in 1959), coming up with new arrangements for covers or bringing in his own compositions to be recorded--usually in one take, on the primitive one or two track recorders (they weren't even paid to rehearse--of all the Jamaican producers, only Justin Yap ever did that and, as a result, later captured some of the best Skatalites recordings in existence). Outrageous as it seems now, in the 1960s, Drummond and the other musicians only were compensated for their time in the studio and received nothing else for their work or for their compositions--no mechanical royalties and, in most instances, no publishing royalties on hundreds of their recordings/compositions, and nothing for works/recordings that were licensed to labels in the UK (to this day, Dodd's heirs receive the royalties on an extraordinary number of Drummond's compositions). The producers told the musicians what to play and how to play it. They had the money and all the power.
One particularly heartbreaking episode in Augustyn's book that illustrates the producer's almost complete control over the musicians in the studio (and how Drummond was completely consumed by his music) relates to Coxsone Dodd (he had bought Drummond's trombone on the condition that the musician pay him back over time--and thus had another way of wielding power over Drummond):
In a play for increased creative control and a greater share of the financial pie, the best musicians on the Jamaican scene banded together in 1964 to form what would become the preeminent ska supergroup, The Skatalites (Tommy McCook, Roland Alphonso, Lloyd Brevett, Lloyd Knibb, Lester Sterling, Don Drummond, Jah Jerry Haynes, Jackie Mittoo, Johnny Moore, and Jackie Opel)--which showcased Drummond's wonderful brilliance as a composer (he was The Skatalites' primary songwriter), arranger, and performer (make sure to check out the mind-blowing Don Drummond discography by Michael Turner in the back of the book). The Skatalites recorded hundreds of songs during their brilliant, original, 16-month incarnation, but it all crashed and burned with Drummond's murder of Mahfood on January 1, 1965. The band then split into two groups: Roland Alphonso and Soul Vendors and Tommy McCook and the Supersonics.
Throughout Drummond's career, commerce stubbornly trumped art and even though his music wonderfully transcended the ugly business of the nascent Jamaican music industry, he did not. Drummond lacked the connections and respectability (he was too dark-skinned, poor, hung out with the ostracized rastas, and, to be honest, in later years was odd and unpredictable) to be chosen for international promotional tours (like the "uptown" Byron Lee and the Dragonnaires, who represented Jamaica and were presented as the palatable and refined version of ska music at the 1964 World's Fair in NYC) that would have brought him much greater recognition and renumeration (the money and world-wide fame would only come in the decades after his death and line the pockets of others). Some, like band leader Carlos Malcolm, thought Drummond's fame and musical ambitions were stymied (and that he was driven to despondency not madness) by the considerable constraints put on him by the producers (as well as the tastes of the record buying public to some degree--who wanted nothing but ska music in the first half of the 1960s) who dictated how and what he could play in order to earn a very meager living. No doubt, this stress, disappointment, and despair must have exacerbated his mental condition and certainly contributed to his eventual demise.
While Drummond's behavior became increasingly erratic during his adult years (he first checked himself into Bellevue in 1960), his prodigious talents caused his friends and collaborators to overlook his bizarre, anti-social behavior; it was all a matter of Don being Don. There are disturbing stories in this book of Dodd and others checking Drummond out of Bellevue and ferrying him to recording sessions and gigs; of Drummond rolling a peeled banana in the sand and consuming it--and of him literally eating dirt; and times when he would appear on stage, open up his case, polish his trombone, place the instrument back in its case, and walk off stage (and in one instance, he allegedly urinated off the stage). But more often than not, he had it together enough to perform on stage and in the studio brilliantly--his illness didn't always interfere with his craft. (It does appear that Drummond often self-medicated--as many untreated mentally ill people do by abusing alcohol or illicit drugs--by smoking marijuana, though Augustyn cites studies that this may actually have aggravated the symptoms of his mental illness.)
Drummond and Mahfood encountered each other over the years in the various nightclubs where each had been performing and she eventually moved in with him. Mahfood was enamored with Drummond in no small part due to his incredible musical talents and to escape her physically abusive husband, the boxer Rudolph Bent (her father had also beat her as she was growing up). There is some question as to whether their relationship was platonic or not, though she clearly loved him on an emotional level, as illustrated by her declarations of love for Drummond expressed on her one recording (accompanied essentially by The Skatalites), "Woman A Come," found on the seminal ska collection from Mango, More Intensified: Original Ska 1963-1967, Volume 2 (which was one of the few vintage ska comps easily found in the late 1980s and was hugely influential on many traditional third wave bands). What is clear is that after an argument overheard by witnesses (where Mahfood repeatedly referred to a knife wrapped in cloth at Drummond's feet), Drummond stabbed Mahfood several times in the early hours of January 1, 1965 and later reported to the police that Mahfood had stabbed herself. There has been much speculation as to Drummond's motives, but in light of his mental illness, they are essentially rendered moot, as he was most likely delusional during the murder (and justly convicted as criminally insane and committed to Bellevue).
The treatment of schizophrenia and other mental illness in the 1960s was still relatively primitive (lobotomies and electro-shock therapy were in use even at the best first-world mental health facilities), though the development and use of anti-psychotic medication such as Thorazine and Lithium helped alleviate many symptoms, they were often prescribed at such dangerously high doses that they left many patients semi-catatonic and threatened their overall health. According to Augustyn's book, no records exist of Drummond's treatment at Bellevue (they were either thrown out or lost in one of the may hurricanes to hit Jamaica over the years), but she speculates that poor management of his antipsychotic medications may have caused his death from a heart attack (she debunks the myth that Mahfood's father somehow arranged for Drummond to be knocked-off in revenge for his daughter's murder).
While I've omitted a wealth of details in my brief (and probably flawed) sketch of Drummond's life, Augustyn's biography of Drummond provides a compelling and multi-layered rendering of this truly great musician, in a valiant and largely successful attempt at revealing the real Don Drummond, while dispelling some of the tantalizing lurid myths associated with his illness and death. Having served as a caseworker for homeless and formerly homeless people suffering from mental illness (most of whom were diagnosed with schizophrenia), I know first hand that people with mental illness can be very guarded and seem almost opaque. I often found myself learning very small, but still very revelatory, bits of information about their lives (past and present) after years of working with them. So, it comes as no surprise that Drummond's thoughts, feelings, dreams, and fears are largely absent and unexpressed in this narrative--they were trapped or obscured by the symptoms of his mental illness and never shared with others (though the music he made with his trombone was probably the only means he had of expressing that part of his inner life that was free of his illness--Drummond's trombone was his true and hauntingly melancholy "voice"). So, all of us are left to sort through other people's biased recollections and faulty memories, the incomplete official records, and to surmise what other scraps of information have been lost or discarded over the decades--and Augustyn makes every effort to be a trustworthy and reliable guide through this life that will always remain partially uncharted. As you read Augustyn's "Don Drummond: The Genius and Tragedy of the World's Greatest Trombonist," make sure you play some of his records at the same time, so you can marvel at the truly extraordinary and beautiful music Don Drummond was able to create out of a life filled with adversity and madness--and let his music fill in the blank spaces between the lines.
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Check out Heather Augustyn's excellent related blog, Foundation SKA, here.
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Read a terrific interview conducted by Charles Benoit with Heather Augustyn about this book at Reggae, Steady, Ska.
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