Dave Tough – Little Giant

November 27, 2012


During his short and troubled life, Dave Tough consistently proved himself to be a masterful drummer, comfortable in a wide range of settings, willing to confront and overcome stylistic revolutions. He always displayed musical, technical and intellectual gifts, that might well have taken him to the top of any artistic pursuit and served him for a generous lifetime. At times, he seemed to have the ambition for this; but he also had disturbing flaws that not only circumscribed his career but also tragically shortened his life.

He was born, David Jarvis Tough, on 26 April 1907, in Oak Park, Illinois. First playing drums while a small child, he was still a Chicago schoolboy when he became, appropriately enough, a member of the Austin High School Gang. Not quite what their name implied, this was a loose gathering of white tyro jazzmen all of whom were fascinated with black jazz musicians whose playing set alight the clubs and speakeasies of 1920s Chicago. Deeply influenced by these musicians, the Gang formulated what became known as Chicago-style jazz and Dave, who early mastered the art of playing subtle and infectiously swinging drums, was a significant member of the group.

In that same decade, Dave visited Europe and also spent time in New York City where he made records under the nominal leadership of other members of the Chicago school, notably Eddie Condon and Red Nichols but by the start of the 1930s, this tiny and frail young man was repeatedly struck by illnesses that more robust individuals might have shrugged off. He thus began the new decade inauspiciously, spending many months inactive through illness.

woody herman story cd cover


This was a portent of the future; and he gave himself no help by drinking heavily. By 1935, however, Dave was ready to make a mark in a different area of jazz. Until now, the bulk of his work had been in small groups, but the big bands that would dominate the forthcoming swing era were on the rise. He played first with Tommy Dorsey, then moved swiftly (and often fleetingly) through many bands: Red Norvo, Bunny Berigan, Benny Goodman, back to Tommy Dorsey, then Jimmy Dorsey, Bud Freeman, Jack Teagarden, Artie Shaw, and others, including depping with Woody Herman.

There were several reasons for his restlessness. Dave insisted on musical perfection: while this was a characteristic shared by some of the leaders for whom he played, it was ignored by others. Added to personal differences, he had an intense dislike for the characterless music demanded by the realities of commercial success that were a sometimes onerous feature of life in the swing era. And there was his own occasionally unstable personality, a characteristic aggravated by his drinking, which was now sometimes excessive. In his private life, he flouted the racial and social taboos of the time by marrying a black dancer. He also found himself often at odds with former musical associates, and sought to establish an alternative career as a writer. He was briefly inducted into the military during World War 2, playing for a short while in the US Navy band directed by Artie Shaw, but was soon discharged on medical grounds.

It was shortly after his discharge that Dave made his greatest impact on the jazz world when he joined Woody Herman. As the records of Herman’s First Herd were played around the world, fans of big band jazz became aware that for all his physical frailty, tiny Dave Tough was a powerful giant among drummers. Yet, despite his undoubted playing skills, Dave had serious doubts about his suitability for bop.

woody herman cd

Naxos Jazz Legends

It certainly didn’t help that his drinking habit had by now became uncontrollable. Observers at the time remarked upon the combination of his discomfort with his role in the changing jazz scene and a deterioration in his physical and mental state, and how it led inexorably to fits. Sometimes, and deeply disturbing to fellow musicians and audiences alike, these fits occurred on the bandstand.

Many of the people who knew him, did their best to help him; not just musician friends but also the writer Leonard Feather and impresario John Hammond Jnr. But Dave would not be helped; portents of disaster had shadowed his entire professional life, and finally they came to pass. Exactly what happened one winter night can never be known. He appears to have fallen in the street while walking home from a gig. Maybe he had another fit; perhaps he was drunk; or he might simply have slipped or stumbled in the dark. Whatever the cause, he fell, fractured his skull, and died from the injury on 9 December 1948 in Newark, New Jersey. For three days, his body lay in the morgue unclaimed, indeed unrecognized.

Whether playing in the small Chicago-style groups of which he was a charter member, or in any of the big bands to which he brought uncommon fluidity, Dave consistently demonstrated his subtle talents.

woody herman v-disc cd cover

Hep Records
CD2/3435 2

It was with Woody Herman, however, that he reached the apogee of his brief but shining career. In that band Dave Tough exceeded even his own high standards, urging along one of the finest of the Swing Era’s jazz orchestras with sizzling enthusiasm, flair and irresistible swing that was rarely equaled and almost never surpassed.

The Real Duke Ellington?

November 20, 2012

Fortunately for all of us, there’s no shortage of material by Duke Ellington and his wonderful orchestra. For the newcomer, though, there might almost be too much. Now, if you are a fan, you might well argue, with considerable justification, that there’s no such thing as too much Ellington. But try for a moment to imagine what it must be like for someone coming along today who has yet to encounter this man and his music. Where should a newcomer begin?

At the risk of irritating the many Ellington experts, I have attempted to select just three Ellington albums I regard as unmissable. For me, these three, which have appeared frequently over the years, are exceptional, offering as they do, intriguingly varied glimpses of one of the finest bands ever to grace jazz.

First of the three albums is The Blanton-Webster Band (Bluebird), which comes from a short but highly productive and creative period in Ellington’s life.

Blanton-Webster CD cover

RCA Bluebird

He was of course always productive and creative, but this period, 1940-42, was astonishing even by his own high and prolific standards. Several of the band’s members had already spent long periods as Ellingtonians: Harry Carney, Johnny Hodges, Sonny Greer; others were relative newcomers, notably Jimmy Blanton and Ben Webster, whose contributions were of such importance that their names have ever afterwards been appended as identifiers for this brief era. Nothing on this album is weak or wasted, even the alternative versions included here add to our knowledge and understanding of and delight in the band.


But is it the real Duke Ellington?


The second album, At Newport 1956 (Columbia Legacy) marks the turning point in public awareness of the band; that evening designed by an alchemist when everything went right.

Duke at Newport CD cover

Columbia Legacy
C2K 64932

Its centerpiece is a roaring Paul Gonsalves solo that bridges the two parts of Diminuendo And Crescendo In Blue, even if this had the unfortunate consequence of tying the saxophonist to a roof-raising role despite his being one of the most rhapsodic of Ellington’s players (and, No, I haven’t forgotten Webster and Hodges). What this album gives us, is an immensely enjoyable view of the band, ensemble and soloists, in command of music and listeners. (This particular reissue has everything, including studio remakes.)


But is this the real Duke Ellington?


Twice I’ve asked the same, seemingly heretical, question, which stems from a remark made by Johnny Hodges. This is what has led me to question the claim often implied – sometimes explicitly stated – that these two marvelous sets of music really do present archetypal Ellington.


What was that remark? Well, one day, in the early 1960s, in conversation with a friend of mine, Hodges observed, ‘If you never heard Ellington play for dancing, then you never heard Ellington.’


Let’s be clear, this was not a deep discussion, just a casual conversation in the midst of which came this almost throwaway remark; but it is something of a conversation-stopper. Think about this for a moment; if Hodges was right, then almost no one living today really heard Ellington. After all, pretty nearly everyone around today has heard Ellington only on record or in the concert hall. And these are the sources of the two foregoing albums. In the case of The Blanton Webster Band  we hear Ellington in the recording studio, bound by the three-minute side and, despite the glories that abound, perhaps affected as were many jazz musicians of the era by the relative austerity of the setting (to say nothing of the time of day, when they perhaps would rather have been . . . well, resting). As for At Newport, this has the band in concert; admittedly not a concert hall, but at a festival, a setting that has some of the same general ambiance, albeit considerably livelier than most.


This is why Fargo 1940 is so special; it is a dance date. Recorded with commendable foresight, by Jack Towers and Dick Burris, and with remarkably good sound considering the time and circumstances and technical shortcomings, this set captures that free floating spirit of an organization that was not only an outstanding jazz band, but was also an exceptional dance band.

Duke at Fargo 1 CD cover

Jazz Classics
JZCL 5009

Given the date, it is obvious that the band’s personnel is pretty much the same core of musicians as for The Blanton-Webster Band. Not surprisingly, therefore, many of the solos heard are on par with, or sometimes superior to, those on the studio recordings. Yet an indefinable atmosphere hangs over the Fargo dance; it is an ambiance that sparks the soloists and fires the ensemble, bringing out the very best in everyone and making it possible to detect a glimmer of what it was that prompted Hodges to make his remark. Not surprisingly, this exceptional set continues to reappear and in at least one case with additional tracks.

Duke at Fargo 2 CD cover

STCD 8316/7







Okay, so my choice of these three superb albums is just my opinion. Ask a hundred other fans of Duke Ellington and the chances are you’ll get very different results. That said, these albums are, I believe, three important and invaluable examples of the Duke Ellington orchestra at its very best; everlasting aural images of a band of musicians who, with extraordinary alchemy, created magical music over many decades.

Any newcomer to Duke Ellington should seek to hear any, preferably all of these albums, and then hopefully add them to his or her collection. If you are not a newcomer then you probably have them already. If you haven’t, you should.

Crime Fiction – Penitence

November 7, 2012



Bruce Crowther

Texas detective Phil Davis investigates an elderly road accident victim bearing scars inflicted over decades. Learning that similarly scarred men recently suffered accidental deaths, he digs deeper.

FBI agent Luis Valdez, seeking to unearth a dangerous undercover group of political extremists, makes a connection to the scarred men and the long-ago death of a young woman.

While Phil and Luis tie together the two investigations, psychiatrist Rozalina Ericson pursues her own agenda through an old man who has served 25 years for the young woman’s death.

And then there is Quinn, ruthless, unstoppable, an all-purpose killing machine wreaking havoc in northern Texas and New Mexico.

These lives intertwine explosively as today’s upholders of law and order clash with centuries-old religious extremism.

 Penitence - book cover

 . . . . . . . . .

In this contemporary crime novel, the horrific killing of a young woman 25 years ago haunts the lives of those who knew her. Also affected are others who seek to uncover the secrets of followers of ancient discredited religious traditions. 

ISBN – 13:978-1479204281  & 10:1479204285

Available in print or digitally. To buy this book, go On-line (including Amazon) or to Walk-in book stores (including Barnes & Noble), or ask . . .

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