Born in Jubilee Hospital Kingston on March 12th 1932, to Doris Munroe and Uriah Drummond of Hitchen Street, Allman Town, Don grew up fatherless and quickly developed a reputation as something of a wild child. Unable to exert any control over her wayward son, his mother eventually gave up on the task and on December 10th 1943, had the boy enrolled at Kingston's famed Alpha Boys School. Located in South Camp Road, South Central Kingston, the Catholic Church school had become the last refuge for many young, local boys from deprived backgrounds, likely to otherwise be deprived of a sound education, spiritual guidance and discipline.
The profile of the troublesome Drummond perfectly fitted the Alpha profile and the tough and rigorous programme of self-improvement enforced so forcibly by the Sisters of Mercy quickly taught boys of his nature the advantages of honesty and hard work. Over the years that followed, the regime certainly seemed to benefit the youngster, who in his end of school report was described as intelligent, industrious, civil and willing, showing interest in gardening, tile manufacture, tailoring and, above all, music. And it was the teaching of music that topped the Alpha curriculum, the self-proclaimed 'Nursery for Brass Band Music' having long since established a tradition of nurturing young, talented musicians.
Indeed, not long after Drummond himself graduated from the school, former pupils, alto saxophonist Joe Harriott and famed trumpeter Dizzy Reece, both made their name as leading players on the European Jazz scene, a fate that may well have been in store from the young trombonist had it only been kinder. Drummond's main instructor was native Kingstonian Reuben Delgado, a former clarinettist in the Jamaican West Indies Regiment, who placed particular emphasis on the teaching of Classical music and whose exacting, daylong lessons ensuring a degree of proficiency in even the least skilled of players. Under such conditions, the youngster thrived and while he demonstrated the first signs of the musical genius that was later to blossom so gloriously, outside Alpha's gates, Jamaica was awash with local bands, vying to satisfy a growing demand for live entertainment from both locals and visiting patrons. The thriving hotel and club scene led to the formation of a multitude of aggregations, many of whom drew upon the school's rich vein of young, not to mention cheap, talent.
Eric Deans led such a band. Deans, who like the majority of his local contemporaries, specialised in Swing and Latin music, had become renowned for taking on former Alpha boys and providing them with a grounding in the business, and when, towards the latter part of 1950, a vacancy for a trombonist arose, he naturally looked to the school for a suitable replacement. And so it was that he auditioned the enigmatic teenager who, he had been informed, possessed an extraordinary talent, a claim the bandleader soon realised was suitably justified, and following the audition the school was informed of his intentions to offer the trombonist full-time employment. On 31st October 1950, six weeks earlier than scheduled, Drummond was discharged from Alpha, immediately starting work with the Eric Deans Orchestra, resident band for the Colony Club in Half-Way Tree Road.
One of those fortunate enough to witness the rookie's inaugural performance at the Colony Club recalled many years later, 'who, among those who heard him in those yesteryears, can ever forget when at 2 am, pianist Linton struck the E-flat minor opening chord, Donald Jarrett started slightly brushing the snare drum, and the Don slid gently through the tune. 'Full Moon And Empty Arms', drawing tears from the eyes of drunk and sober patrons.'
Within weeks of that memorable night, Drummond embarked with the orchestra on a tour of Haiti, a trip that coincided with the death of his beloved grandmother. There had existed a strong bond between the youngster and his elderly relative who had been so supportive of his ambition to follow a career in music; spending what little money she had on procuring him his first horn. Deans had been notified of the bereavement, but chose keep the information from the young musician until their return to Jamaica, by which time the funeral had long since passed- it was a decision that would to haunt Drummond throughout the remainder of his life.
In 1954, the young man's formidable talent finally received national recognition when he was acclaimed as Jamaica's 'Best Trombonist', an award that served to enhance his growing reputation. By now he was a headline act, fronting his own combo, whilst also guesting in various local Jazz bands that included ensembles led by Baba Motta, Lester Hall, Sonny Bradshaw, Vivian Hall and Kenny Williams. It was around this time he regularly performed on the same bill as a 'Rhumba' dancer by the name of Anita Mahfood, an attractive young woman who took the more exotic sounding stage name of Marguerita. The daughter of local fish trader, Jade Mahfood, the teenage girl's beauty and carefree spirit enraptured the serious-minded musician and soon the dancer and musician commenced what soon proved to be a deeply passionate and ultimately doomed relationship.
As the fifties drew to a close, Drummond was firmly established as one of Jamaica's most gifted performers, admired in equal measure for his technique and versatility, proving skilled at all forms of Jazz, be it Be Bop or Swing. One of his regular accompanists, the gifted guitarist Janet Enwright, later recalled how at a concert at Kingston's Cricket Club's Sabina Park in 1959, celebrated Jazz pianist Dave Brubeck stopped playing in awe at Drummond's astounding improvisational skills, while also around this time celebrated Jazz pianist George Shearing and singer Sarah Vaughn are both attributed as rating the Jamaican as one of the world's top five trombonists.
But Drummond was more than just a proficient technician - his music possessed an extra quality lacking in the work of many equally gifted players: a 'feel' that later would be described as 'soul'. Such was the beauty and intensity of emotion he was able to express through his music, it was not unknown for those with whom he performed to break down in tears. Yet it was a gift that came at a terrible price, for the passion that he expressed so eloquently drew upon a deep melancholia, a condition with which he was increasingly plagued as the years wore on.
In addition, for all the acclaim, his finances remained far from healthy and in a bid to improve his situation, he took on studio work from one of the enterprising new producers at the forefront of the island's fast developing recording industry, Clement 'Coxson' Dodd. Dodd had previously made his name on the sound system circuit, his 'Coxson's Down Beat' rivalling the likes of 'Tom the Great Sebastian' and 'Duke Reid The Trojan' as Kingston's most popular set.
As has been well documented over the years, the transformation from promoters to creators was one of necessity, rather than any overriding ambition to produce records. The shuffling style of raw American Rhythm & Blues favoured by Jamaican audiences was fast becoming obsolete, a trend that contributed significantly to the scarcity of 'exclusives' - records so obscure operators could almost lay claim to them as being their own. In such an environment there was little option but for men such as Dodd to begin producing their own 'specials'.
The local club and hotel circuit provided a ready-made pool of talent from which entrepreneurs could cherry-pick suitable musicians, while the frequent talent contests gave a platform for up-and-coming singers, such as Cuban-born Laurel Aitken, Wilfred Jackie Edwards and Owen Gray. Needless to say, a player of Drummond's calibre soon found himself in demand.
Coxson Dodd was, by all accounts, the first to employ the trombonist for session work, although the date and details of Drummond's earliest recorded effort to see issue are matters of some debate, with some claiming the honour belongs to Owen Gray's 'On The Beach', and others that the aptly titled instrumental 'Don Cosmic' was the trombonist's inaugural effort. Whatever the case, by the dawn of the sixties Drummond was increasingly accepting session work.
But while demand for his talent was never an issue, his delicate state of mind increasingly endangered his ability to perform, with early indications of his troubles highlighted by a telling comment in an Alpha report of April 1961 that stated he had 'not been mentally well, but plans to continue music'. Frequent spells away from music resulted in lost income, but the support of Jamaica's community of gigging Jazz players helped ease the financial strain - a benefit concert in June '62 raising much needed income during this troubling time.
By 1963, Drummond was back on his feet, frequently recording for Dodd's growing concern, more often that not accompanied by fellow Jazzmen, such as tenor sax man Rolando Alphonso, bassist Cluett Johnson and guitarist Ernest Ranglin. He was also regularly performing with a band put together by another revered former Alpha Boy, Thomas 'Tommy' McCook. McCook, a saxophonist and flutist of some renown, had left Jamaica in the mid-fifties for the Bahamas, finally returning home in 1962, after which time he had resumed his playing career with a Jazz ensemble that at one time or another included Drummond, Alphonso and Ranglin, along with trumpeter Billy Cooke, Leslie Butler or Cecil Lloyd on keyboards, bassist Lloyd Mason and Carl McLeod on drums.
Having established a reputation as Kingston's premier Jazz ensemble, the band were lured into the recording studio to cut an album's worth of material for Coxson Dodd, the end result being 'Jazz Jamaica From the Workshop', an impressive collection that sounded almost a million miles away from the developing Ska sound popular among the regular sound system patrons.
Indeed, until this time, McCook and many of his colleagues had been keen to distance themselves from what they deemed to be a far too simplistic and restrictive form of music, but early in '64, developments abroad dramatically altered such disparaging attitudes. Diminutive Jamaican songstress, Millie Small achieved what none had previously thought possible, breaking Ska internationally with her smash hit, 'My Boy Lollipop', her success producing a flurry of interest in the exciting new sound from Jamaica. Suddenly every US and UK major company wanted a piece of the action and either financed local bands to recreate the style or sent envoys to the Caribbean to record the real deal.
Suddenly the prospect of performing Ska was not quite such an unattractive proposition and around the spring of '64, McCook put together what would soon become the greatest exponents of the genre. Comprised of some of the finest of players on the circuit, the group's brass section alone contained a truly dazzling array of talent, the revered sax-man lining up alongside Drummond, Alphonso, Lester 'Ska' Sterling on alto sax and trumpeter Johnny 'Dizzy' Moore. The remainder of the band was almost as impressive, it being comprised of Lloyd Knibb on drums, bassist Lloyd Brevett, guitarist Jerome 'Jah Jerry' Haines, and child prodigy, Donat Roy 'Jackie' Mittoo, the band's keyboard player.
As for the choice of their collective name, according to most accounts, it was McCook himself who was responsible, after Lloyd Knibb had proposed the contemporary sounding 'Satellites' - the launches of Sputnik and Telstar having recently marked the beginning of the Space Age. The saxophonist's simple adaptation of the title resulted in a mantle that was both topical and relevant: the 'Skatalites'.
'Tommy McCook & the Skatalites' made their first public performance around May 1964, with the Hi Hat Club on Water Lane in Rae Town the probable venue, although as with much of Jamaican music history, there is some dispute over the precise details. Certainly by early June they were appearing at Queen's Theatre, playing in between showings of motion pictures, with vocals provided by the dynamic Barbadian Jackie Opel - or O'Toole as he was originally listed in press ads. Soon after, their road manager, Blondel Calnek (aka Ken Lack) had them booked on a series of engagements that included regular appearances at the Bournemouth Beach Club in Eastern Kingston and the Orange Bowl on Orange Street.
Before long, even the most snobbish of Jamaica's music commentators, who had so readily dismissed Ska as 'monotonous and unimaginative', bowed to the Skatalites' talent, with Drummond in particular frequently receiving the greatest praise. In one particularly vitriolic attack on the genre, a Jamaica Gleaner columnist paraphrased the words of Oscar Wilde when he cuttingly wrote in 1964, '…There was always this little tent of blue, which prisoners called the Ska. Any manipulator of the Ska-beat appeared to be as helpless as that wretched, condemned guardsmen in Reading Goal - and no less hamstrung', before adding, 'It clearly needed someone to twist those prison bars. Don Drummond, with his slurring, off-beat swing, has done it.'
Unsurprisingly, local producers were keen to take advantage of both the Skatalites' breathtaking talent and growing popularity, with every operator of note clamouring for their services. Heading a list that included Prince Buster, Leslie Kong, Vincent Chin, Justin 'Phillip' Yap, Lindon Pottinger and Vincent 'King' Edwards, were two men who would continue to vie for dominance in the local recording industry throughout the remainder of the sixties: Clement 'Coxson' Dodd and Arthur 'Duke' Reid.
While much of the Skatalites' work was to provide musical accompaniment to local vocalists, the group were also given the opportunity to shine as the featured act, with Ska more often than not the preferred style. In the summer of '64 three of the band's instrumentals rode high in the national JBC chart - a version of Mongo Santamaria's 'Fat Back' (aka 'Tear Up') and 'Bridge View', both of which were produced by Dodd and accredited Roland Alphonso in the lead role, and Drummond's own 'Eastern Standard Time', cut for Reid's Treasure Isle imprint around the same time.
The remainder of the year continued in much the same vein, with the Skatalites undertaking a gruelling schedule that involved numerous live dates and regular recording sessions for an array of Kingston-based producers. Under such intense, relentless pressure something was bound to give, and as 1965 arrived, that something appeared to be Drummond's state of mind.
The story goes that after missing a New Year's Day gig, Drummond had become infuriated, allegedly blaming his young girlfriend on the failure to administer his prescribed medication. Whether or not that proved to be the cause of what was to follow, we shall never know for sure, but what is certain is that around 3 am on the morning of January 2nd, Mahfood returned to the flat the couple shared at 9 Rushden Road after performing at the Baby Grand Club in Cross Roads and Club Havana. There followed a dispute between the young woman and Drummond as to whether or not he had locked her out of the building, after which she went inside, only for a five-minute period of silence to prevail. It was then that Hibbert recalled she heard Mahfood exclaim, 'Imagine I taking a five-minute nap and when I wake up I see you sitting beside me very serious. Wha' happen man?' it was a question to which the musician responded, 'you don't want to sleep. Go and sleep, nuh man. Ain't you just come in?' but the dancer, clearly nervous, retorted, 'Ah can't sleep under these conditions for you have a knife wrap in some chamois between you feet'. Drummond was heard to reply that the knife was in his trousers behind the door, but after checking his clothing, Mahfood said, 'No, the knife is not in your pants pocket, it is wrapped in a chamois between your feet'.' The musician tersely denied the assertion, but there soon followed what the neighbour understood to be the young woman shouting in panic, 'No Junie, no Junie, no Junie - help! Murder!' Yet despite the nature of the cries, Hibbert did not act, stating the young woman would always 'bawl out for murder' when quarrelling with her lover.
According to reports from the time, Drummond then headed straight to Rockfort police station, where he informed Constable Aston Pennycooke, 'Ah woman in de yard stab herself with a knife and ah would like de police to come and see her.' He was then accompanied back home by two police officers, who upon entering the couple's front room were confronted with the sight of Mahfood's lifeless body, the knife that had killed her covered by a piece of chamois cloth, still protruding from her breast. The trombonist is said to have then commented, 'Dis is de cloth which she held the knife with and stabbed herself'.
Drummond always maintained his innocence and that the wounds that caused her death were self-inflicted - what seemed a conceivable assertion given Mahfood's far from conventional behaviour and apparent fascination with knives. There were also stories circulating that the pair often indulged in games of sexual nature that involved the use of blades - respected Jamaican historian, Herbie Miller commented years after the incident, 'Don and Marguerita played that game many times, stabbing each other'. He also related the story of a man who, after one such stabbing session, took Mahfood to a drug store to get her wounds dressed and when they returned to see Drummond, the couple embraced and claimed the wound had been a result of foreplay. Another scholar, Kingston-based professor, Frederick Hinkling, claimed in 2006 that the stabbing was most likely an accident and that had Mahfood reached a hospital in time she would have survived.
But the coroner's report left little reason for jurors to question the musician's guilt. According to his deposition, the four wounds in her chest, all of which had been deep enough to cause death, could not have been self-inflicted, while the fresh scratch marks on Drummond's wrists were consistent with those caused by fingernails, indicating a violent struggle had taken occurred. In light of his statements, it came as no surprise when in July 1965, the musician was convicted of Mahfood's murder and sentenced to spend an indefinite period in strict custody at Kingston's Bellevue Hospital, an institution established to treat those deemed to be of unsound minds. There, the trombonist spent the next four years, a period during which the Skatalites folded, the group's rendering of the 'Guns Of Navarone' movie theme breached the British charts, and Ska was superseded by Rock Steady, a style which in turn had given way to the rhythms of Reggae.
On the morning of May 6th 1969, Drummond was found dead on the floor of his cell. The official verdict was death by natural causes, a spokesmen for Bellevue stating he had been unwell for some period leading up to his passing, but many remained unconvinced, with various rumours circulating as to the true cause. Some claimed it had been heart failure, possibly brought on by malnutrition or even because of his medication, while others maintained his death was due to a severe beating from warders or a revenge killing instigated by Mahfood's father.
Four days later, news of Drummond's tragic death was announced in Jamaica's national paper, the Gleaner, the article coldly stating 'Donald Drummond, rated Jamaica's top trombonist, and up to 1965, reputed to be among the best five trombonists in the world, died on Tuesday in the Belleview Hospital, where he was an inmate as a criminal lunatic.' Its dispassionate tone was in stark contrast to the mood of those angered at the musician's treatment at the hands of the authorities, many of who gathered on May 14th outside Madden's Funeral Chapel in North Street, the venue for Drummond's funeral service. With feelings running so high, it came as no surprise when a demonstrator, later alleged to be respected drummer Hugh Madden, interrupted proceedings, demanding a post mortem be held before the burial. The chaos that ensued resulted in the service being abandoned, and upon the wishes of Drummond's family, the musician's body was interred at May Pen cemetery at 9 am the following day.
Soon after, Prime Minster, Hugh Shearer announced that the winner of the prestigious annual Festival Song contest would in future receive the 'Don Drummond' award, a decision generally applauded by the Jamaican public, as reflected by the general sense of outrage in reaction to a letter to the Gleaner that complained a convicted murder should be condemned and not praised. One journalist in particular caught the mood of the nation at large when he wrote in response, 'Don Drummond was unmistakably ours, though he was rated as one of the best trombonists in the world. We loved him unconditionally. Today he does not live in our memory as a 'convicted murderer'. He is remembered as a very gentle man who flew away on the wings of his music, far away from the bitter reality of life he could not face. In one mad moment of madness he killed a Rhumba dancer, the woman he had loved. It was a crime of passion. We mourned with Don Drummond for the tragedy that came upon him. It was our tragedy too. We forgave him for he knew not what he had done. After the pain and the sadness of his passing, we still remember the joy of his music and wish to honour him for enriching out cultural heritage.'
Close friend and musical colleague, Roland Alphonso later exclaimed, 'I was devastated when he died. I loved him, he loved me. It hurt 'cause I still played everyday and that's when I missed him the most.' He was not alone in his sense of loss. In the wake of his passing, concerts were held, eulogies penned and songs composed, all in his honour.
Duke Reid, one the producers with whom the trombonist had recorded extensively sought to pay his own homage, dusting off some of the tapes from some of Drummond's old Ska sessions, before giving a selective number of recordings a contemporary Reggae feel, courtesy of Winston Wright's overdubbed Hammond organ. For reasons best known to the Treasure Isle boss, also among those tracks updated were Dotty & Bonnie's 1964 hit, 'Dearest' and 'Let George Do It', one of Reid's earliest big sellers that featured Drummond's protégé, Rico Rodriquez. Of the remaining ten tracks, all but one were instrumentals that featured Drummond to varying degrees, while the one remaining recording was Mahfood's sole vocal effort, the haunting (if somewhat off-key) 'Woman A Come', a buru-styled track written of her paramour, 'the king of ace from outer space'. The seemingly random selection of material may well have been due to the dozen recordings originally being intended to form an album back in '64, when a similar set entitled 'The Skatalite' saw issue on Reid's Treasure Isle imprint, although this remains supposition.
Released in Jamaica as 'Don Drummond's Greatest Hits', the collection was licensed to Trojan, who re-tilted the set, 'Memorial Album' before issuing it towards the tail end of 1969. Five years later, the London-based company put out what was to all intents and purposes an accompaniment selection, albeit without Winston Wright's embellishments. Distributed on the company's Attack subsidiary and simply entitled 'Tommy McCook', the LP was in fact a straight re-issue of the aforementioned LP, 'The Skatalite', the compilation finally receiving its official UK release a decade after hitting the stores in Jamaica.
Over the four decades since Drummond's passing, the tributes have come in many forms - concerts, radio broadcasts, poems, awards, seminars and conferences on his life, and of course recordings. On the tenth anniversary of his death, a Jamaican journalist eloquently wrote 'the timeless quality of some black music is that it will not be silenced. It lives, powered by a sprit that is as fresh now as when it was created. Don Drummond's music is that timeless… Don D transcends and is still unsurpassed. That inner cry, which gave his trombone its unique sound, is too personal to be successfully imitated. His loneliness and its brooding blues has given him a 'kind of sainthood' in a contemporary culture, and much of his music was a forerunner to the upsurge in black consciousness in the late sixties… in a eulogy ten years ago [in 1969], Bongo Jerry said, 'Dan De Lion blew an iron that was black and blue, a Peter Pan to lost black man.'
More recently, Jamaican poet/playwright/musician/musician/professor of literature Kwame Dawes penned a dramatic biography of the celebrated trombonist in the acclaimed play, 'The Valley Prince', while there have recently been discussions concerning the possibilities of making a feature film of Drummond's turbulent life.
2009 marks the 40th year since Jamaica lost one of its best-loved sons and as a tribute to his life and his music, Trojan presents this long over-due collection. Aside from the dozen recordings that comprised 'Memorial Album', this 2CD set also contains the original, early sixties mixes of the tracks on the LP, along with the entire 'Skatalite' collection from 1964, plus an additional 13 Duke Reid-produced instrumentals from the era. Consequently, this is not just a fitting tribute to one of the most loved and talented performers ever to grace the Jamaican music industry, but also the most comprehensive collection of Treasure Isle's pre-1965 output yet to see issue.
In summarising Don Drummond's life, a journalist recently wrote that his was a 'story of music, passion and hardship; one of madness and murder' - an accurate a précis as could be conveyed, but of course there was so much more to the man capable of reducing an audience to tears through the sheer beauty and passion of his music.