Alan Dawson

Alan Dawson (Part 1): A Life in Music

There’s an old adage that says, “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” Those who believe this philosophy to be true obviously never heard of legendary jazz drummer Alan Dawson (1929-1996), a musician who was equally gifted as both a performer and teacher. In addition to mentoring numerous drummers as a faculty member at Berklee College of Music and beyond, Dawson had the distinction of performing with many world-renowned jazz musicians. Through working at Boston-area venues such as Wally’s Paradise and Lennie’s On The Turnpike, Dawson had the privilege to perform with such artists as Coleman Hawkins, Sonny Stitt, Phil Woods, and several others. In addition to his many local appearances around town, Dawson also recorded numerous albums as a sideman with Booker Ervin for Prestige Records, and was the first drummer to follow Joe Morello in the Dave Brubeck Quartet.

His teaching methods have become legendary amongst drummers around the world. His performing credits read like a Who’s Who of jazz royalty. And in the realm of higher education, he exemplified the ideal balance between a career as an academic and an international-level jazz musician as one of Berklee’s first faculty members.

Beginnings in Boston

George Alan Dawson was born on July 14, 1929 in Marietta, PA, but grew up in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston. Music was always present in the Dawson household, as Dawson’s mother and father were amateur musicians. By the time he was 14, Dawson was already performing around Boston with local musicians.

In his late teens, Dawson began formally studying drums with Boston show drummer Charles Alden. In addition to teaching Dawson how to read music, Alden later expanded the lessons to include studies on marimba and vibraphone, which Dawson would later integrate into his teaching curriculum. After serving in the US Army Dance Band during the Korean War, he joined vibraphonist Lionel Hampton’s band on a tour of Europe. Upon his return to Boston, Dawson continued to perform with local musicians such as pianist Sabby Lewis, yet found the irregularity of work a constant challenge, and even attended drafting school for a brief period of time.

Berklee and Booker

In 1957, his luck began to change, thanks to his regular gigs around Boston, “It was during this period of time when I was working at Wally’s with my own group that several students from Berklee started coming in on a regular basis and they kept asking me various things and if I gave lessons.” Even though Dawson was teaching a young Clifford Jarvis and Tony Williams at the time, he had never seriously considered a foray into education full-time. Nonetheless, Berklee president and founder Lawrence Berk called Dawson to join the faculty at his newly emerging school. During his 18 years as a teacher, he taught numerous students who later went on to have star-studded careers themselves, including John “JR” Robinson, Kenwood Dennard, Casey Scheuerell, Steve Smith, Vinnie Colaiuta, Harvey Mason, and Terri Lynne Carrington.

In addition to becoming popular as a teacher at Berklee, Dawson’s visibility as a performer also began to rise during this time. In 1963, Dawson began working as the house drummer at Lennie’s On The Turnpike, a nightclub located in Peabody, Massachusetts, “Lennie’s-on-the-Turnpike was actually the first job that I had where we operated as a house band or a house rhythm section playing behind different well-known individual stars such as Sonny Stitt, Phil Woods, and others such as Roy Eldridge and Coleman Hawkins. So in that respect that’s the best kind of exposure I’ve ever received really.”

One of Dawson’s most fruitful associations that came as a result of his work at Lennie’s was that with tenor saxophonist Booker Ervin, who asked Dawson to appear on his album The Freedom Book for Prestige Records, alongside pianist Jaki Byard and bassist Richard Davis, “After a week at Lennie’s with him, he mentioned to me, ‘You know I’m supposed to be doing a record date pretty soon. I’d sure like you to make it.’ This kind of commitment involves a person really putting himself out because he could have gotten just about any drummer in New York for scale and yet he actually thought that much of me to have me come down from Boston.”

As a result of this date, Dawson was awarded the “Talent Deserving of Wider Recognition” award from Down Beat Magazine in 1965. In addition to recording seven more albums with Ervin, Dawson recorded with other artists on Prestige Records, including Illinois Jacquet, Sonny Criss, and Dexter Gordon.

Brubeck and Beyond

Dawson’s career gained even more momentum when, in 1968, he replaced Joe Morello in the Dave Brubeck Quartet. Dawson especially appreciated the fact that Brubeck’s touring schedule allowed him to continue his teaching career at Berklee. At the time, Dawson said, “Working with the Dave Brubeck Quartet is really an enjoyable experience. Dave doesn’t do anywhere near as many dates as he did years back. And that’s tailor-made for me: with the situation at the school and other activities, I really wouldn’t want to be out anymore than we are at present.”

In addition to recording and touring with Brubeck’s quartet, Dawson also appeared with Brubeck’s family band, Two Generations of Brubeck. In 1975, Dawson suffered a slipped disc injury that prompted him to leave both Brubeck and Berklee. He limited his private teaching schedule to 30 hours per week from his home, and kept his performance career centered within the Boston area with a group that included tenor saxophonist Billy Pierce, pianist James Williams, and bassist Richard Reid. He continued to teach and perform until his death in 1996 from leukemia.

Dawson’s Legacy

Alan Dawson lived a long and fruitful life playing and teaching drums. In addition to having a celebrated career as a performer, Dawson gave scores of drummers the tools from which to develop their own voice on the instrument, including the great Kenwood Dennard (Hiram Bullock, Brand X), “There’s an important artistic paradigm that says, ‘I can take these tools, discipline myself to use them, practice hard and come away elevated as a drummer.’ So his real legacy is that paradigm that other drummers didn’t have. There were other teachers that were popular, but he was the consummate drum teacher. At that time, there was nobody with a bigger reputation as a teacher and I can see why. It certainly persists to this day.”

Berklee professor Bob Tamagni further added, “There’s so many things I admire him for: his musicality, his melodic approach, his listening, his chops, his elegance and stage presence, and his presence in a recording. That’s his performing half. The other half is his teaching half, which has arguably an even bigger contribution to the drumming community because he’s taught us things that are still, to this day, used and built upon, added to, embellished, and varied, all starting with his ideas.” Indeed, nearly 20 years following his death, Dawson’s legacy can still be felt strong within the drumming community.

Next week, I’ll explore that legacy further by talking about Dawson’s numerous four-way coordination applications using Ted Reed’s classic book, Syncopation.


By: Ryan McBride

Ryan McBride is an in-demand drummer in the New York City area. He has performed with Adam Pascal, Adrian Zmed, and Christine Ohlman, and is on the percussion faculty at Brooklyn Music School.

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