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Splash and Ripple from Green Island:
The Musical Legacy of Don Drummond

Painting 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 Tosh.

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 development.

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 journey.

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. Rastafari.

* * * * *

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.

* * * * *

End of Part I.

Get 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 Ltd, 1997.
- 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, 1999.
- 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 Jan. 2006.
- 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 Discography.
Cambridge, MA: Rounder Books, 2005.
- Reggae website, 2005.
- Tenaille, Frank. Music Is the Weapon of the Future. Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2002.

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