[5 March 2014]
Check out this elevator pitch: Impoverished youth becomes a mostly self-taught musician. This reticent, eccentric musical genius scraps together an existence in an environment where squalor, violence and indifference are the default settings. A latent mental illness that may or may not be schizophrenia becomes increasingly manifest. Musician alienates potential allies and tends to squander some rare opportunities. Ultimately, he finds love with an adored and talented dancer, only to be accused of murdering her, with a knife. Musician, imprisoned and in despair, dies in a mental asylum, aged 35.
Sounds like the makings of a good movie, yes?
It could be. Maybe it should be. Bonus: it has the added import of being a true story. It is the story of Don Drummond’s life. Perhaps the name of the film would need to be “Who Was Don Drummond?”
So, who is Don Drummond?
He is recognized as one of the five best trombonists to ever play the instrument. Needless to say, most folks couldn’t name, or care less, whom the other four happen to be. The tragedy of his too-short life involves how little support and recognition he received in his lifetime. Already a niche figure in an increasingly forgotten genre (ska), the very real possibility that he could become a footnote or trivia question is unconscionable.
Enter Heather Augustyn, who has already demonstrated her expertise with the book Ska: An Oral History. Here, she sets out to pay tribute to and tell the story of a man many consider one of the most important and influential trombonists of any time, in any category.
As a cursory glance at the bibliography and/or index suggests, this book strives to be a definitive account and it succeeds. In truth, unless you are an obsessive fan (of Drummond, or ska), this might prove to be too much of a good thing. Augustyn cuts no corners and deserves praise for the exhaustive detail she provides. Using archival records, photos and dozens of interviews, she gives as good a sense of Drummond’s life and times as we are likely to ever get.
The tension that makes the book intriguing and, at times frustrating (and therefore, necessary) is how little anyone seems to have known or understood Drummond. A quiet boy born into abject poverty in Kingston, Jamaica, Drummond found salvation via music. Augustyn recounts Drummond’s time at the Alpha Boys School and the good fortune he had through his association with Sister Ignatius, who is described as “guide, teacher, mentor, (and) mother.” Ignatius emerges as the unsung hero who invested her time and indefatigable energy to countless young lads who otherwise might have been forgettable, and forgotten.
Drummond has received considerable praise from myriad sources and the opinion that he ranks amongst the top five trombonists puts him in exclusive company often reserved for jazz improvisers; a cursory list could also include Glenn Miller, Jimmy Knepper, Curtis Fuller, Jack Teagarden and, of course, J.J. Johnson. In 1956 jazz singer Sarah Vaughan visited the island and, after hearing Drummond play, claimed he was likely one of the five best trombonists in the world. Dave Brubeck allegedly stopped in mid-performance, astonished at Drummond’s improvisatory skills. Before long he became a regular at the legendary Studio One studios, working alongside Coxsone Dodd. Eventually he linked up with sax player and bandleader Tommy McCook, and the Skatalites went on to become the most respected band in Jamaica.
The future could, and maybe would have been limitless, but Drummond was plagued by chronic mental illness. While never properly (or at least adequately) diagnosed, theories range from major depression to schizophrenia. Even at his most productive, Drummond was a reserved, quiet figure; he lived for music and that functioned as solace and obsession. He inherited a reputation for being difficult to work with, not above sulking during studio sessions, but he was so revered for his ability all of these quirks were tolerated.
The theory that Augustyn explores is whether or not more recognition would have led to increased opportunity and, inevitably, money that could have made things different—and better. As such, his poverty and an increasing alienation left him less able to function. The money these musicians were cheated out of as a matter of course resurfaces as a very familiar, very disconcerting theme, and despite the minor miracles Coxsone Dodd helped create in Studio One, his dealings with the musicians leave much to lament. Even as the Skatalites earned accolades, Drummond seemed incapable of enjoying the success, or much of anything.
The other major event in his life occurs when he links up with the popular and beautiful Marguerita Mahfood, “rumba queen”. For some time they exist happily, and she seems to provide the support and love missing from Drummond’s life. Unfortunately, his mental difficulties never abate, and possibly (though not definitively) as a result of excessive marijuana intake, Drummond descends into a darker place. On the evening of 1 January 1965, neighbors hear a commotion followed by screams. When the police show up, Margarita is dead, having been stabbed multiple times in the chest. Drummond is arrested, tried, and sent to a mental asylum, where he would die before the end of the decade.
Anyone who wants to understand what Drummond was about is advised to listen to his music. Anyone who, understandably, hears that music and wants to gain a deeper appreciation of the man that made it, and the forces that made him, is advised to pick up this book. There are dozens of accolades offered from a variety of musicians and critics, and their consensus speaks volumes. To get a better understanding, on both musical and human levels, how Drummond came to master such a beautiful melancholy in his playing, Augustyn does considerable work to illustrate the ways his environment worked against him, and in some ironic ways, ensured that he developed the sensitive, mercurial sensibility that took his musicianship to another level, even as it ultimately contributed to his downfall.
For every year that passes in our increasingly digital world, we are inexorably one year farther away from the archaic analog reality. Among other things, this means we put more distance between the future and a past that has no chance to keep up, much less compete in an information overload present. Augustyn is to be celebrated for doing the old-fashioned, painstaking dirty work of research and reporting in the service of her subject. One comes away from this book with a clearer sense of who Don Drummond is and why he matters. Most of all, her work serves as a reminder that we owe it to our fragile geniuses to celebrate and commemorate their achievements with the dignity and respect they richly deserve.