Don Drummond, a great, but underappreciated trombonist

Don Drummond

Don Drummond, by unknown photographer, possibly 1962

I came across the name “Don Drummond” on the Trombone Forum in connection with something called “ska.”

I mentioned Drummond and ska trombone in A History of the Trombone, but didn’t investigate. Then I thought of him when trying to decide what to write about here and listened to some videos.


It didn’t take long to find about a Don Drummond biography called The Genius and Tragedy of the World’s Greatest Trombonist by Heather Augustyn.

In the foreword, Delfayo Marsalis writes he first became fascinated by Don Drummond when he visited Jamaica. A taxi driver told him J.J. Johnson went to Jamaica just to hear Drummond play ska music. He also claimed no one influenced Bob Marley more than Drummond

Marsalis also observes that consistently performing with the same Jamaican musicians strengthened Drummond’s distinctive sound. But he had no opportunity to share experiences with musicians from elsewhere and expand his horizons.

Little tangible evidence of Drummond’s life exists aside from photographs and recordings. No musical notation survives in his handwriting. No photo of his mother or any other relative survives. Friends and associates have written their memories, but none claim that they really knew him.

Don Drummond’s childhood

Don Drummond was born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1932. Or 1934. Sources differ. His parents were Uriah Adolphus Drummond and Doris Maud Munroe. He was a day laborer, she a domestic. Uriah disappeared from Don’s life. Don and his mother were very close.

Don’s mother made sure he went to school. He attended first Franklin Town Primary School, then Alpha Elementary School. The latter was a Catholic school and very strict.

By about age 9, Don had so little interest in school that he started skipping class. If he attended at all, he was late and spent the day goofing off.

Fellow student Winston Martin recalled that he’d sit around playing a paper kazoo. He regularly drew an audience from all over the neighborhood.

Martin knew Drummond not from Alpha Elementary School, but Alpha Boys’ School. That was the school for wayward boys.  According to Martin, the Resident Magistrate’s Court ordered Drummond’s placement there because his mother couldn’t handle his antics.

I have seen this school described as a terrible place where boys were beaten regularly. That was normal everywhere in the 1950s. From ancient times until late in the 20th century, teachers routinely beat boys. It was an expected part of education. Beatings at a school for truants must have been even more intense.

Truant schools also essentially gave up on providing much education for the students. The boys attended academic classes half days and spent the rest of the time learning trades. Gardening, tile making, and other manual trades didn’t interest Drummond, but he applied himself to music.

The band director noticed Drummond’s talent. After trying him out on various instruments, he steered him to trombone. He soon played better than some students with two years more experience.

Ska music history

Drummond is most associated with a musical style called ska. It developed in the 1950s at about the same time Jamaica became an independent nation instead of a British colony. Oddly enough, most sites devoted to ska mention Drummond only in passing, if at all.

Ska came about in part because tastes changed among American black audiences, but not in Jamaica. R&B moved in the direction of rock music and the cerebral bebop style took over jazz.

At about the same time, Jamaican entrepreneurs began to develop the “sound system.” That is, they operated a mobile and massively amplified DJ unit.

Sound systems enabled poor people to hear records they couldn’t own. Clubs hired sound systems because they were cheaper than hiring live bands.

Sound system operators had to start recording local talent, including Don Drummond, to give Jamaican audiences new music in the styles they wanted to hear. And the local talent blended imported jazz and R&B with traditional calypso and mento.

This new blend became known as ska. It is in quadruple meter in a quick tempo intended for dancing. It features a walking bass and a strong back beat. It developed a guitar technique called “skank,” but wind instruments play a dominant role. Especially trumpet, saxophone, and trombone.

At first, the DJs made recordings only for their own sound system performances. Eventually they began to press copies to sell.

Clement “Coxone” Dodd was among the earliest sound system operators. He sometimes had five sound systems playing in different parts of Kingston on the same night. Later he founded Studio One and became Jamaica’s first record producer.

In the 1960s, ska gave way to reggae music as the dominant Jamaican style. It enjoyed a wave of popularity in Britain in the 1970s and another in the US in the 1980s and 1990s.

Genius and madness

Drummond emerged at just the right time to take part in developing ska and Jamaican music. Six weeks before his graduation from Alpha Boy’s School in 1950, he joined the Eric Deans Orchestra. It was Jamaica’s leading jazz ensemble. He made a strong musical impression, but Deans’ girlfriend became infatuated with Drummond. Deans’ fired him.

Drummond had no trouble finding work playing trombone with other prominent groups. The members of one had all formerly attended Alpha. By 1955, Drummond had become recognized as Jamaica’s best ska trombonist.

He fronted his own band and quartet. Both ensembles introduced his own original compositions. He also worked with such international stars as Sarah Vaughan and Dave Brubeck.

When Dodd started Studio One in 1964, he hired Drummond to play trombone as part of his house band, the Skatelites. This despite knowing that Drummond was not dependable.

Drummond had severe psychiatric problems and checked into a psychiatric hospital, Bellevue, several times. He performed and recorded brilliantly when he checked out. That is, if anyone could find him.

Some eccentricities

His friend and neighbor Winston Smith wrote about some of Drummond’s eccentricities. He would come to the bandstand, take his trombone apart, shine it with a chamois, and put it back together. Then he often wandered away without playing a note. It was Smith’s job to bring him back. He couldn’t always succeed.

On one occasion, Drummond didn’t show up at all. Smith got on a bicycle to look for him. After a long search, Drummond, trombone case in hand, jumped on the bicycle. When they got back to the club, Drummond insisted he couldn’t go on stage until he played something for Smith upstairs.

He played it a couple of times, and Smith liked it and asked what it was. Drummond replied he had just worked it out. It was his excuse for being late.

He asked if Smith thought the band could play it. Smith asked how they could play it if they didn’t know it. But Drummond had written out sheet music. The tune, “This Man Is Back,” became one of Drummond’s biggest hits.

Once Smith noticed Drummond sitting on a book outside a club where he should have been performing. Drummond said he wasn’t ready to go in. Something was bothering him.

He opened the book and turned to the section on renowned trombonists, including J.J. Johnson, Kai Winding, and Curtis Fuller. He complained that he was as good as most of them and better than some.

Smith had to explain that Drummond wasn’t in the book only because he wasn’t known outside Jamaica. It wasn’t because anyone thought he didn’t deserve recognition.

According to another story, Drummond came out on stage once, opened his fly, and urinated. He always wore a felt hat and always looked great. But he never wore shoes.

Don Drummond murder: not guilty by reason of insanity

Drummond met an exotic dancer named Anita Mahfood (stage name Margarita), and they moved in together. It could have been a good relationship for him. She adored his creativity.

He had converted to Rastafari. Much of Jamaican society ostracized members of that religion at the time, but Margarita championed it.

Nevertheless, the two had a volatile relationship. Margarita danced nearly naked. Drummond vehemently disapproved. He was usually heavily medicated.

On New Year’s 1965, Winston Smith and friends were celebrating at a night club. Margarita came in at about 2:00 wearing what little she had worn at the performance she had just given.

Drummond should have been performing with the Skatelites, but never showed up.

Margarita asked for a ride home, so Smith and the others gave her a ride, watched her open the door, and drove off. That was the last anyone saw her alive. By 9:30 the next morning, radio news broadcast that Drummond had murdered her.

Future Prime Minister P.J. Patterson, the Skatelites’ manager and a lawyer, defended Drummond in court. Drummond was recommitted to Bellvue and died there in 1969. His death certificate says he died of congestive heart failure. Some of his friends insisted that Margarita’s father had ordered a hit.

When he murdered Mahfood, he essentially killed ska. The Skatelites soon broke up. Ska music morphed into rocksteady, and then reggae before the end of the decade.

Winston Smith’s son Stan Evans Smith reviewed Augstyne’s book and wrote

Don Drummond’s short-lived, tragic life is the story of an accomplished musical genius, whose triumphs with little support are unheralded.

Drummond was acknowledged by musical giants such as the great Glenn Miller, jazz pianist George Shearing, who rated Drummond as one of the top five trombonists in the world, Jimmy Knepper, Curtis Fuller, Jack Teagarden J.J. Johnson, jazz singer Sarah Vaughan and Dave Brubeck, as one of the five best trombonists to ever play the instrument.

It is ironic because it represents the loss of possibility, which could have been limitless because unlike his other Jamaican counterparts, Monty Alexander and Wilton Gaynair, Drummond was not able to benefit from the international success of ska music.

Clement “Coxone” Dodd / Steve Huey. AllMusic
Don Drummond: Jamaica’s most talented and troubled trombonist / David Katz, Red Bull Music Academy Daily. November 22, 2013
Don Drummond: The genius and tragedy of the world’s greatest trombonist / Heather Augustyn
From a review of Augustyn’s bio by Stan Evan Smith
History of ska / the Reggaskas
Memories of my friend; the great Don Drummond / Winston Smith, 2010

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