and Ripple from Green Island:
Musical Legacy of Don Drummond
by Clinton Hutton.
by Joseph CARNEY
Part I of II.
Those that wail, gather round.
Don Drummond leaned forward in his chair.
His trombone rested, for the moment, balanced
in between his stiffening thighs and the
wooden floor strewn with cheap rugs. He
ran his right index and middle fingers
back and forth in a perfect semi-circle
through the space between his throat and
the collar of his well recognized, turtleneck
sweater. He twisted his head, left and
right, in perfect counter rhythm to this
ventilating hook, and embraced the slow,
cooling, pause that it delivered. Looking
out across the modest expanse of Studio
One’s recording chamber, he could
see, on this warm Kingston July day in
1964, a staggering collection of musical
talent that would go on to advance Jamaican
(and in turn, all) music to epic heights.
Don Drummond knew that he was a de facto leader of this progressive
guard of the new island independence.
His star shone brightly as the most ambitious
and prolific composer and performer of
ska – the pulsing, energetic, dance
music that had literally lowered the flag
on British colonial rule in August 1962.
Popular favor was uniquely his. His education
and early bandstand experience had also
led him to strive (along with the man
who had assembled this session and was
running the one track Ampex 350 tape machine
– Clement “Sir Coxsone”
Dodd) for acceptance of a genuine, Jamaican,
jazz genre. Over three hundred recorded
songs would eventually bear Drummond’s
name and/or input. “Blue beat”
would nearly take over the mid-Sixties
UK music underground, due in large part,
to his work. Only just into his twenties,
he was already a giant among aspiring
giants. Who were the other giants in the
room? Along with sound system champion
and visionary producer Coxsone, the rest
of the newly dubbed Skatalites readied
their instruments. Lloyd Knibbs, drums;
Lloyd Brevett, bass; Jerome “Jah
Jerry” Haines, guitar; Jackie Mittoo,
piano; Roland Alphonso and Tommy McCook,
tenor saxes; “Dizzy” Johnny
Moore, trumpet; and Dennis “Ska”
Campbell, baritone sax. On vocals were
the lovely Beverly Kelso and the distinguished
firm of Braithwaite, Livingston, and McIntosh.
The last three Wailers would eventually
be better known as Junior, Bunny, and
Don Drummond sensed nothing special or historic in this summer
session day beyond the fact that he was
once again getting a chance to play the
music that he wanted and needed to play.
Feeling a bit cooler, he tipped up the
brim of his hat beyond his forehead. He
scratched five times with an unclipped,
right, middle fingernail against his closely
cropped, dark, widow’s peak curls.
He took one final mental walk through
the meticulously drawn charts cradled
in his left arm. These charts, as always,
would be his anchor in the session’s
bay. They would also be his (and the other
Skatalites’) literal launching pad
for inspired, exploratory, improvisation.
He exhaled and unconsciously tapped his
right foot up and down as the session’s
lead vocalist stepped up to the microphone.
Robert Nesta Marley was ready to take
a pass through “Simmer Down.”
Contrary to the song’s title, Don
felt the heat recollecting itself under
his turtleneck. A still deeper fire burned
far below his comfortably worn garment.
His heart, his head, and his very soul
were all flicked by the flames of a great
“pressure reach.” In a few
months, there would be the conflagration
that would be the end of Don Drummond.
The session would yield four other tracks
that would begin Bob Marley and the Wailers’
road to world influence and renown. By
1965, Don Drummond would look back at
this and other such days of speed from
the tortuously, slowed purgatory of the
Bellevue mental asylum - as a convicted
murderer. Held responsible for the horrific
stabbing death of his girlfriend, dancer
and singer, Anita “Margarita”
Mahfood, Don Drummond would die behind
those bars and locks in 1969. The authorities
would claim suicide. Most would reason
that it was yet another murder. From this
final bloody mess, Don Drummond’s
music would live on.
* * * * *
The slide trombone has no valves. It resides in the special house
of musical instruments that must change
their size and shape in order to create
different notes. Imagining the details
of studio scenes like the one above also
involves twisting and reshaping the possibility
of the in between, as it relates to the
sad dearth of documentary evidence that
exists on the life and career one of this
instrument’s greatest soul mates,
Don Drummond. The trombone’s lack
of valves also makes it a good representative
of a journey without typical, ninety-degree
turns. It is completely linked to travel
of unexpected curves and constantly changing
straight-aways. It can be both beautiful
and the twisting sense of tortuous. This
in turn, leads to images of everyday,
Jamaican roads that offer views of Eden
style paradise juxtaposed against the
horrific hardships of Babylon. All of
this slides and flows from the life of
Don Drummond. Reconstructing, realizing,
and in the Rastafarian method, reasoning
on the trail that he blazed, can lead
to as many questions and “what ifs?”
as tell tale facts.
In this case, one of the few well-known photographs of the man,
some session notes via Bunny Wailer,
some scholarly treatises on the larger
subject of reggae music as a whole,
and Drummond’s music, serve as
the root note for a scale of illustrative
speculation. It is hard, if not impossible,
to push Don Drummond into the boundaries
and borders of Marley level reportage.
It is, however, very possible to underscore
existing themes and phenomena that exist
in Jamaican music (and music worldwide)
due to the ground breaking contributions,
struggles, and even failures of Don
Drummond. The man made a tremendous
splash during his life in the waters
of his own “Green Island.”
Upon his tragic downfall and death,
the splash rippled ever outward, touching
great musical oceans of the unknown.
* * * * *
Like Marcus Garvey, another controversial Jamaican pioneer, Don
Drummond was from the beginning “not
a usual man.” The two men would
be linked in other ways. Garvey would
be revered as one of the heroes of Rastafarianism.
Drummond would be one of the first popular
musicians to embrace and advance the faith.
Both shared humble, Jamaican beginnings.
Don Drummond was born in 1943 in Kingston.
Rough circumstances led him to the famous
Alpha School of West Kingston before the
time he was ten. Alpha was named correctly,
as the premier bastion of strictness.
It was a truly tough reform school run
by nuns with surprising resources. Along
with schoolwork and prayer (and beatings)
music was emphasized as the chosen method
of rehabilitation. Don Drummond became
an excellent trombone student. So quick
was his development in both orchestra
and marching band settings, that soon
he would be asked to become a young instructor
and would be regarded by most as a master.
The timeline of his career in and out of Alpha is stunning. He
was gigging in clubs by age eleven. He
backed touring jazz greats like Sarah
Vaughn and George Shearing by the time
he hit his teens. More gigs, local tours,
and even recording followed for the star
teen. The bandstand provided great improvisational
advancement to an already solid, technical
musical education that he had collided
with at Alpha. These components in turn,
combined with a wild, natural ability
to breed a frenetic intensity in both
Don Drummond’s playing and his life.
The fire roared brightly in the Jamaican
night. Its’ heat brought the beginnings
of mental instability. He would fight
this instability all throughout his early
In Don Drummond’s education at The Alpha School and his early
public career, three strong factors emerge
that would shape his work and eventual
influence. First, he was educated with
technical precision. This included the
martial steps and cadence of marching
band as well as the compositional theory
and sight-reading of the orchestra. Second,
he was bathed in the wellspring of jazz.
In his early gigs in bands like The Eric
Dean orchestra (which also featured the
young Ernest Ranglin on guitar) he learned
both the oeuvre and tonal palettes of
big band jazz arrangements. This would
put him firmly in the camp of Jamaican
musicians influenced more by jazz than
by American rhythm and blues. As Tommy
McCook put it (growing through the same
environs), “Jazz was my first love.
I love jazz music.” Painfully, some
of these jazz gigs, at harshly segregated
places like Kingston’s Colony Club,
would also combine with his Alpha days
and home life to form the third effective
precept. They would fuel an intense hatred
of white authority and of whites. Hate,
always a burden, led to even more mental
instability. Trips to the sanitarium became
mile markers on the young man’s
Still, as Don Drummond’s career continued to flourish, his
mates in both jazz and ska grew to accept
and work with Don’s stays in the
hospital. McCook elaborates “We
were playing without Don on a number of
occasions when he was in Bellevue, but
he was always able to come out periodically
and join the group for recordings and
play with the band.” Don Drummond
worked through an obviously huge amount
of pain. The pain’s reoccurrence
and frequency (and failure to cease) seem
to place him not just in the angry young
man sect of his generation’s group
of artists yet also in the most tragic
group of post colonial affliction. All
throughout the twentieth century Caribbean,
where one race was relentlessly barraged
with the brainwashing message of their
own inferiority, “schizophrenia
among the black urban poor was rampant.”
It was seldom diagnosed medically, however,
and the victim was instead locked up or
cast out of the community. In the case
of a uniquely talented musician like Don,
the locks were never permanent and the
community – musical peers –
helped hold him up. It still took a superhuman
individual will to keep moving and creating
on a musical path while battling what
Sylvan Simon calls “the dirty little
secret of the elegant colonial apartheid.”
If Don Drummond had been spared the burn
of segregation and racism in his audiences,
maybe things could have been different
for him. Minus reflective hate, and plus
proper diagnosis and medication, we might
have had more of a long tooth genius.
Sadly, the currents swirled as they did,
and one cannot deny that whatever Don
Drummond had and felt – no matter
how awful – certainly propelled
him. Inspiration swimming with acute alienation
would actually lead him (and Jamaican
music forever more), I and I, to the greatest
and most long lasting influence. Jah.
* * * * *
Before we place Don Drummond in the Wareika hills, let us backtrack
for a moment to consider beyond any affliction,
circumstance, experience, or interest
what makes Don Drummond (or any horn player)
great. This would have to be tone. Sliding,
literally, from the shape shifting brass
trombone, as it did, Don Drummond was
able to call forth something both strong
and tender. He made the trombone a voice
of nuance, capable of rallying out and
out celebration (“Independence Ska”,
“Lucky Seven”) and referencing
plaintive, even mournful, reflection (“Addis
Ababa”, “Eastern Standard
Time.”) A tone this fluid, this
flexible would allow Don Drummond to color
his jazz ska paintings with increasingly
new colors. The major key march would
intersect the minor key meditation, often
in the same song. Don Drummond’s
tone was as human as any neighborhood
character or dancehall singer in the Caribbean,
and his minor over major variations allowed
him to echo back to the roots of Africa
with the verbal dexterity of any seasoned
griot. The “slide” nature
of his beloved trombone also allowed tonal
voyages to some truly uncharted shores.
Like the early sixties give and take of
Eric Dolphy and John Coltrane –
clarinet and saxophone - (happening almost
simultaneously to ska’s evolution)
thousands of miles away, Don Drummond’s
tone could often pause at the “in
between” of standard Western notes.
These “quarter tones” allow
an often-unattainable musical freedom
of expression that can be heard only in
the most rare and most ambitious of players.
Duane Allman’s sublime slide guitar
is a good example of this. So are birdsongs.
Dolphy explained then, “At home
I used to play, and the birds always used
to whistle with me. I would stop what
I was working on and play with the birds.”
Birds, indeed have notes in between Western
notes, and according to Dolphy when “you
try and imitate something they do and,
like, maybe it’s between F and F#,
and you’ll have to come up and down
on the pitch.” Did Don Drummond
have such a secret source (or audience)
for his own tonal charm and flexibility
of pitch? Jamaica is surely the island
of birds, doctor to John Crow, and could
have offered such tutoring. Regardless,
“Don Cosmic’s” tonal
command and pitch adventures grew like
few others. His signature bellow and cry
would take him eventually and naturally
to the other great source of quartertones
and alternate scales. This would be the
music of the East.
* * * * *
of Part I.
some ska. Listen to the Roots Rock that
stems from Don Drummond. Investigate these
excellent sources of musical knowledge.
All helped greatly with this appreciation.
Special Thanks and All Respect to Herbie
Miller of The New School.
Barrow, Steve and Dalton, Peter. Reggae:
The Rough Guide. London: Rough Guides
- Bradley, Lloyd. This Is Reggae Music:
The Story of Jamaica’s Music. New
York: Grove Press, 2001.
- Foster, Chuck. Roots Rock Reggae: An
Oral History of Reggae Music from Ska
to Dancehall. New York: Billboard Books,
- Fraim, John. Spirit Catcher: The Life
and Art of John Coltrane. West Liberty,
Ohio: Great House Company, 1996.
- Meadows, Shane and Fraser, Paul. 24/7.
UK: Independent Film, 1997.
- Miller, Herbie. Class notes Reggae /
SHAP 3005. New School: Fall 2005. Class
available Summer 2006.
- Potash, Chris. Reggae, Rasta, Revolution:
Jamaican Music from Ska to Dub. New York:
Schirmer Books, 1997.
- Salewicz, Chris and Boot, Adrian. Reggae
Explosion: The Story of Jamaican Music.
New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2001.
- Sherlock, Philip and Bennett, Hazel.
The Story of the Jamaican People. Kingston:
Ian Randle Press, 1998.
- Simon, Sylvan. Personal interview. 10
- Skatalites and Friends. Phoenix City:
A History of the World's Greatest Ska
Band. Trojan Records, 06076-80453-2, 2004.
- Steffens, Roger and Pierson, Leroy Jodie.
Bob Marley and The Wailers: The Definitive
Cambridge, MA: Rounder Books, 2005.
- StudioWon.com. http://www.studiowon.com/studiowon/don_drummond.htm.
Reggae website, 2005.
- Tenaille, Frank. Music Is the Weapon
of the Future. Chicago: Lawrence Hill