Composer’s Spotlight: Tadd Dameron

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Whenever one is asked to define jazz, it is tempting to cite great jazz improvisers, such as Bird, Trane, Hawk, Brecker, and countless others, yet such a view would seem to be shortsighted. Developing out of Western harmony and African rhythms, jazz reached the peak of its popularity in the 1920s and ‘30s with the advent of the jazz orchestra, known know as the big band, which in turn developed as jazz moved into new areas. In this idiom, many great arrangers and composers (borrowing from the classical tradition) ushered in a tradition of extended forms, orchestration, and solo sections that helped to shape the sound of jazz.


Perhaps the quintessential composer and arranger of the bebop era, Tadley Ewing Peake Dameron, was born in Cleveland, Ohio, on February 21, 1917. While Dameron was one of the innovators of bebop, alongside Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, Dameron’s background was, like many others of the time, comprised of swing-era jazz.

As a young musician, Dameron migrated to Kansas City, where Count Basie, Jay McShann, and a young Charlie Parker dominated the music scene. Dameron worked for a somewhat lesser-known band, Harlan Leonard and his Rockets, as an arranger and pianist before migrating to New York City with Charlie Parker in the 1940s.

The ‘40s were Dameron’s most successful decade, which saw him compose the standards “Good Bait,” “Lady Bird,” “Hot House,” “Our Delight,” and his greatest hit, “If You Could See Me Now,” written for Sarah Vaughn. The ‘40s also saw Dameron working as the primary composer/arranger for Dizzy Gillespie’s big band and the premiere of his only large-scale orchestral composition, Soulphony in Three Hearts. Dameron was commissioned to write for musicians such as Billy Eckstine, Jimmy Lunceford, Artie Shaw, and Count Basie. In 1948, Dameron began collaborating with Fats Navarro; in the ‘50s and ‘60s, Dameron arranged for musicians such as Milt Jackson, Sonny Stitt, Blue Mitchell, and Bull Moose Jackson.

Dameron developed a severe narcotics addiction and was in federal prison from 1959-1961. After suffering multiple heart attacks, Dameron died from cancer in 1965 at the age of 48.


Dameron was one of a select few composers/arrangers to adapt the bebop idiom to large-scale instrumentation; his work as an arranger for Dizzy Gillespie stands out as some of the best in the genre. Dameron also had a significant influence on the development of another great jazz composer, saxophonist Benny Golson, with whom Dameron played in Bull Moose Jackson’s band. Philly Joe Jones, who formed a band dedicated to performing Dameron’s music, called him a “genius.” There is little doubt that Dameron was one of the most important compositional innovators of the 1940s and beyond.

Musically Speaking

The harmonic structure of “If You Could See Me Now” showcases Dameron’s understanding of both bebop and swing era jazz. Dameron begins the piece by moving from the Imaj7 chord to a IV7, a characteristic chord of a traditional blues. While the piece itself is not a blues, the I to IV7 movement at the beginning gives it a bluesy air that hearkens back to an older style of jazz springing directly from the blues.

Also of note in the piece is the use of chromatically descending ii-V7 progressions, which one hears in bars 3, 5, and 6 of the tune. Additionally, while the harmonic structure descends, Dameron’s melody ascends to provide some beautiful contrary motion. This concept at its finest is heard at the end of each A section (for example, at 0:45 on the recording), with the lyrics, “Perhaps then you’ll realize/I’m still in love with you.”

From the standpoint of orchestration, Dameron uses both strings and winds in different ways. Throughout the A sections, Dameron uses the strings to provide harmonic support, while the winds are used to provide occasional counterpoint, and the trumpet feature improvises in the space. For contrast, Dameron swaps the roles of the two instrument groups during the bridge; the winds are used primarily as the harmonic support while the strings switch to a more contrapuntal role. The last A switches back to the original role, but features low winds and piano on different contrapuntal lines, while the improvised trumpet part returns.

Dameron’s style was one that embraced the innovations of bebop, such as the chromatically descending ii-Vs, but was still rooted in the tradition of blues and swing-era jazz, which gave him a unique sound that contributed to the jazz composition canon.



          February 10, 2018