Paul Combs set himself a considerable challenge in Dameronia, his new biography of arguably the most influential composer and arranger of the bebop era. By Combs’ own admission, the record of Tadd Dameron’s personal history is a sketchy one. Dameron was “secretive almost to the point of paranoia,” and frequently provided interviewers with false or misleading information about his life (such as an occasionally mentioned stint as a premed student that never in fact took place). The inevitable result of this guardedness is a book that is only intermittently satisfying in its treatment of Dameron’s biographical background. But musicians and composers will find Combs’ book invaluable in its precision analysis of the seminal works of this singular jazz talent.
Given the problematic sources at hand, Combs delves as well as anyone could into the life and frequently hard times of his subject. The author traces Dameron’s upbringing in Cleveland and his early gigs writing and arranging for Harlan Leonard and Jimmie Lunceford. He follows Dameron through collaborations with such illustrious figures as Milt Jackson, Mary Lou Williams, John Coltrane and Benny Golson (who in his foreword marks Dameron as a major influence on his own songwriting). He tracks the composer’s checkered romantic relationships as well as his all-too-typical battles with heroin addiction, a curse that resulted in arrests, incarceration and the hobbling of his musical output during what should have been his peak years. (These struggles likely exacerbated the illnesses that led to Dameron’s premature death in 1965, at the age of 48.)
Combs makes a valiant biographer’s effort and occasionally unearths a particularly illuminating quote or anecdote-notably a painfully poignant barroom encounter between two touring musicians and Dameron, dressed in workman’s overalls while on break from a factory job he took between stints on the jazz scene. But the hazy nature of the historical record vis-à-vis Dameron lends the book’s prose an unavoidably oblique tone; many points are prefaced with “apparently,” “it is reported that” and other noncommittal verbiage that protects Combs from making potentially incorrect assertions but nevertheless results in a muddling of the narrative flow. This is not helped by the sparse presence of quotations from Dameron himself. Combs makes the most of the limited interview material available, but as he asserts, “[Dameron] was a man of few words, and those few words were generally reserved for music.”
It’s when Combs turns his own attention to the music that Dameronia proves its worth as a piece of jazz scholarship. A composer and music educator, Combs is fully equipped to tackle the technical particulars of Dameron’s work, and the book features detailed beat-by-beat, sometimes bar-by-bar breakdowns of “Good Bait,” “Hot House,” the ambitious Fontainebleau album and numerous other Dameron classics. Many of these analyses are accompanied by staff notation, and Combs’ explanations are heavy on musical jargon that may prove dry or impenetrable to those not schooled in theory. (I’m not ashamed to admit I had to look up “contrafact,” a term Combs utilizes with some frequency.) But to readers with a musical background, particularly those interested or educated in jazz composition and arranging, these probing and intelligent explorations of an unsung great’s work make Dameronia an essential addition to their library.