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Dameronia: The Life and Music of Tadd Dameron by Paul Combs

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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.)

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