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Tadd Dameron, A Jazz Master With A 'Lyrical Grace'

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Tadd Dameron, A Jazz Master With A 'Lyrical Grace'

Tadd Dameron, A Jazz Master With A 'Lyrical Grace'

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JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. And it's time now for music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LYDEN: Tadd Dameron was called the architect of bop. He was a composer and pianist who fused the sophisticated arrangements of the big band era with the complex harmonies of bebop. He wrote songs that became standards. He mentored a generation of musicians. He helped to change modern music. But over the decades, Tadd Dameron's name has faded into obscurity. Now, a new biography is calling attention to this forgotten jazz master. Tom Vitale has the story.

TOM VITALE, BYLINE: In the 1940s and '50s, Tadd Dameron worked with everyone who was anyone in jazz, from Miles Davis to Artie Shaw, Count Basie to John Coltrane.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VITALE: Everything Dameron touched had one thing in common, says Paul Combs, author of "Dameronia: The Life and Work of Tadd Dameron."

PAUL COMBS: A penchant for lyricism. Almost everything that he writes has a very lyrical grace to it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VITALE: Tadd Dameron made complex music with little formal education. He was born in Cleveland on February 21, 1917, where he began playing piano at the age of 4. In 1952, in the only known recording of his voice, Dameron told disc jockey Harry Frost that everyone in his family was a musician.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TADD DAMERON: Mother played piano. My father played piano and sang. My brother played the alto. My cousin and aunts, uncle played guitar and bass.

HARRY FROST: Where did you get your early training?

DAMERON: Well, through my mother, to teach me piano, you know? But not to read - just by heart and by memory.

VITALE: By the time he was 23, Dameron was composing and arranging for Kansas City swing band Harlan Leonard's Rockets.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VITALE: In the early 1940s, Dameron moved to New York where he embraced the new sound called bebop with its driving rhythms and difficult harmonies. He began writing for the movement's pioneers, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "HOT HOUSE")

VITALE: "Hot House" became a bebop standard, as did Dameron's compositions "Good Bait" and "Lady Bird." Dameron started arranging for Billy Eckstine, who led the first bebop orchestra.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VITALE: Tadd Dameron brought form to the kinetic new music. He said his sense of harmony came from the classical impressionists.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DAMERON: On the vein of Debussy or Ravel.

FROST: Your writing is imaginative, but still, it has melody, and it has continuity to it.

DAMERON: Right.

FROST: So many of these modern fellows seem to get lost in their own arrangements.

DAMERON: I try to make it flow. You know, it's just like reading a book. Just a regular story. You know, you just can't have one idea, and then you jump to another one. I try to make it flow coherently.

VITALE: That sense of structure made Dameron the most important arranger of the bebop era, says biographer Paul Combs.

COMBS: Tadd brings this larger compositional framework into bop where a lot of the boppers were just about, let's play the tune and set off some fireworks and play the next tune, you know? Much more care in all of that. And that's a big, big influence.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VITALE: Dameron formed his own band and hired the best players of the younger generation, including trumpeter Miles Davis, who went on to use some of Dameron's ideas in his groundbreaking "Birth of the Cool" sessions. But like so many of his colleagues in the post-war era, Tadd Dameron became addicted to heroin. In 1958, he was busted. He spent the next three years in a federal narcotics prison in Lexington, Kentucky.

Ira Gitler supervised two of Dameron's recording sessions in the 1950s and went on to write several books on the bebop era. Gitler says while Dameron was in prison, he kicked his habit.

IRA GITLER: When he came back to New York, I ran into him. And we were talking, and he came up to my apartment. I had a piano. You know, we really connected. He was a very mellow, beautiful man.

VITALE: A man who had been through a lot. In a 1947 interview in Metronome magazine, Tadd Dameron said: There's enough ugliness in the world. I'm interested in beauty. That was the whole point of Dameron's arrangements, says biographer Paul Combs.

COMBS: Even when the harmonies are very advanced, he's never drawing attention to that. They're all at the service of making this beauty that he wants to put out in the world as a balm for the ugliness and strife.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VITALE: Ira Gitler put it this way:

GITLER: Well, his melodies were so beautiful, but at the same time, they swung. He was airborne to me. You know, he was in the heavens before he got there.

VITALE: Tadd Dameron got to the heavens all too soon. When he died from cancer on March 8th, 1965, he was just 48 years old. For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.

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