They say it was the coldest December ever recorded and that day I hurried from the driveway to Alan Dawson’s front door, hearing the snow crunch underfoot. He greeted me with his characteristic smile. Inside the house –like the man- was warm, gracious and comfortable. There was even a touch of spring, with luscious green plants hanging amid the Christmas decorations. I forgot about the cold as Alan’s words took me to another time.
“Well, it’s hard for me to remember exactly when I got interested in music, but it all had to do with my family. Music was around me all the time. Like most people of that era we had a piano in the parlor – a very nice one, as I remember. My father had never been a professional musician, but he loved music; he played the guitar and some piano and my mother and sister played piano, too. So I was in an environment of music.
As for drums, that dates back to about age five. Next to the voice drums are probably the most natural instrument to express whatever creativity you have – thorough knives, forks, spoons, chair rungs and whatever. But I didn’t get my first drum until I was 12. I was always buying drumsticks in the pawn shops, though. I used to get them for about 15 cents a pair as opposed to 25 cents in a music store. And I would beat on whatever I could find.
When I got that real drum, I improvised and made a funny little thing, a kind of high-hat, from an old ashtray and a wooden stand. And I started playing with the records. Mostly Count Basie, 99% Count Basie. Trying to duplicate that great sound Joe Jones got off his hi-hats. One summer I got a little job cleaning up a camp and managed to save enough money to buy a real hi-hat. I was starting get serious – I had a hi-hat and a snare drum
My first job was on New Year’s Eve in 1943 with Tasker Crosson. And the reason I got the job was because I had a hi-hat. They wanted my hi-hat and I came with it. I wasn’t going to let it out of my sight. Actually I only played one tune on the gig. Of course, I had been practicing lots of fast things and I couldn’t wait. I was sitting up there just begging to play something fast. So what do you think they played –a ballad! I never had a pair of brushes in my hand and I didn’t know what to do. I really stunk.
But I guess Tasker saw some potential, because he hired me a couple of months later to work with him two nights a week. Tuesdays and Saturdays at the USO on Ruggles Street in Boston. Fortunately he had a bass drum and a much better snare than I had. We used to keep them both down underneath the stage – in a little enclosure with a door. So that’s how my first gig came about and I didn’t even own a drum set.
About the drummers who influenced me? Definitely Joe Jones. No question about that. When I started playing I was attempting to copy him. A whole lot of people say “Hey, don’t copy this one.” Well, at that point, the greatest thing I could have done was to try and copy him. There was no danger whatsoever of my sounding just like him. But in the process I had an excellent role model. And when I saw him at the RKO Boston in ’41, I really flipped out. The cross handed type of thing he did was amazing. I was also influenced by Roy Haynes who was probably the most influential drummer to come out of Boston until Tony Williams. And certainly by a fellow named Bobby Donaldson whom I had only seen play once back in 1941, but he had a tremendous impact on me.
Back then, I was too young to go into clubs, but I used to stand outside the door. I used to listen to Joe Booker with Sabby Lewis’ band until the doorman would shoo me away. But my real influence was Joe Jones. Just listening to the records and playing with them. It’s a wonderful way to practice though I never considered it practice. It was recreation for me. I loved it. I would do that sometimes for eight hours nonstop.
By the time I got out of high school, I had four years of professional playing and I thought I was pretty hot, you know. But a good friend of mine, a drummer named Marquis Foster, persuaded me to study with Charles Alden. I stayed with Charlie for four years, right up to the time I was drafted into the army.
And it’s a good thing that I had done some studying. For all I know it might have saved my life. I got into the army band. There were a number of other players, good ones, too, who couldn’t read music and most of them wound up in the infantry.
Fort Dix where I was stationed had two bands: a black band, the 173rd and a white band, the 9th division band. They had just integrated the army in general but the bands were the last thing to integrate. While I was in basic training word got around about me, thanks to Andy McGhee, and I started doing gigs with the band. That made basic training a lot easier. Occasionally the sergeant from the band would come around and say: ‘We need Private Dawson for a gig’ and I would be excused from some hike or exercise.
In 1952 they finally integrated the bands and I was sent up to the 9th division band. When I got up there, I was promoted to private first class, living the life of Riley with a semi-private room. And that band traveled! We went to New York every Monday to do a TV show. That meant if you were out on the weekend, you could go straight to New York. And after the gig, you could hang out and catch a set at Birdland. The next morning you were allowed to sleep late. Pretty good.
Two or three days before I was due to be discharged, we did a parade in Atlantic City and I ran into Andy McGhee and a drummer buddy of mine, Clarence Johnston. “Hey man, you’re just the guy I’m looking for. Lionel Hampton asked me to go with him and I don’t want to go. You got eyes?’ and I said ‘Yeah.’ So that was it. Two days after my discharge I joined Lionel’s band and thereby hangs another tale.
In retrospect it was the best thing that ever happened to me. There were some things I didn’t like, and I’ve talked about them before. But it was a heck of an environment to be in: with players like Clifford Brown, Jimmy Cleveland, Gigi Gryce, Monk Montgomery, Annie Ross and Quincy Jones. It also gave me recognition outside of the local scene and opened up many things for me. Like a chance to do some recording. And I even would up in the Encyclopedia of Jazz.
Except for my tour with Lionel, I never left Boston for any length of time. I’ve always done pretty well here. At the time I was coming up there were places to play seven nights a week and Sunday afternoon. You had a relatively good scale of living, especially for a young person. So I could survive as a performer. But it’s kind of difficult now. Who plays seven nights a week in one place now?
I also don’t like the road, period. Afar being out with Lionel all the time, I came back here as the conquering hero –so I thought. One of the first people I ran into was my old buddy, Albie Pickney. Well, he had been working days and doing gigs and he had a brand new car. I had been living very frugally and had managed to save half my pay – about $1,500 which ws pretty good money in 1953. But I thought, ‘here’s a person who stays in one place, he’s got a stable rent, not paying hotel bills all the time and he can eat at home.’ I was getting disillusioned about the “big time”.
Of course, today, it’s difficult to make it unless you travel around a lot. There are more musicians and fewer places with the potential of a steady gig. Even in New York, most of the people who live there have to travel. New York is the place to be in order to get the connections so that you can leave. It’s kind of rough.
What I’d love to do now are more big band things. I haven’t had as much opportunity to do that especially recently. I was with Herb Pomeroy’s big band for about three years and that was really a ball. There’s more of everything in a big band –more dynamics. A definite growth happens and you become a much better small group drummer, too.
About bass players….there was a time I could name the good local players on one hand and have three fingers left over. But now we have a lot of good bass players: White Browne, John Lockwood, Marshall Wood. And Ron McWhorter. On the national scene I certainly like the Judge, Milt Hinton. One of my all-time favorites was George DuVivier. Ray Brown of course. And I have to mention Monk Montgomery, one of my all-time favorites. I love his playing and his whole philosophy.
Today young players don’t have the opportunities I had. On the one hand there are really good music schools. turning out many good musicians. But the chances to utilize what they learned seem to be diminishing. As for big band experience, I don’t know how they are going to get it. What I call ‘the dead band leader’ bands are still going but the leaders of these bands are gone. Basie, Duke, Woody Herman, Stan Kenton and Buddy Rich. And there are only a few other big bands: Toshiko, Maynard, Bob Florence, Gerald Wilson, Mel Lewis, Frankie Clapp and Nat Pierce.
The future? – well I don’t know. Most people that came up with me, who are around my age group – from 45 to 75, if they are still in music today, they are also teaching. You have to do something else besides playing if you want to stay in this area.
In general, Boston is a wonderful place for musicians getting it together, to grow musically. There a lot of good music on the radio: WBUR, Tony Cennamo, James Isaac, Ron Della Chiesa, Eric (Jackson) WERS and the Harvard station. And there are places for people to play, but they can’t make any money. But when it comes to getting into the profession of playing music, well, you have to go someplace else.”
It was getting dark and Alan got up to turn on the Christmas lights. I noticed a young woman, a student, walking down the driveway – time for me to leave. On my way home I mused about what a fine teacher Alan is. He gives his students much more than technique; they learn love and respect for the music and understand the dedication it takes to be a great musician.
Alan Dawson died in 1996 at the age of 66. It was an honor to know him.