Friday, May 8, 2009

Dave Tough: 1908 -1948

© - Steven A. Cerra, introduction copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“One thing about Dave Tough: he always was Dave Tough, just as Buddy Rich always was what he was. Tough realized we are what we are. The important thing is to be put into a musical situation where what you are can ‘happen.’ Tough found his place with Woody Herman.” - Mel Lewis
“Saturday afternoon at the Paramount Theater in New York City. The year: 1945. The place was crowded for that time of day. The word was out about Woody Herman’s First Herd.

A bluish light hit the rising stage as the Herman band rose out of the pit, playing Woody’s familiar theme, ‘Blue Flame.’ When the 16-piece band hit stage level, it exploded into ‘Apple Honey’ and immediately displayed great ensemble power as it dashed though this up-tempo ‘head’ arrangement. My eyes were on the little drummer.

He went about his business with little of the grace of a Krupa and Jones, and none of the fireworks of Rich. But the excitement built as Tough, without physically giving the impression of strength, manipulated the band much as an animal trainer would a beautiful hard-to-control beast, making it respond to him. He cracked the whip under the ensemble and brass solo passages adding juice and muscle to the pulse and accents. Each soloist got individual treatment – a stroke here, an accent there, a fill further on, all perfectly placed.

He moved the band from one plateau to another, higher and higher. By the time the band was about to go into the final segment, the audience was totally captured. There was a point during this last section when it felt as though the band would take us through the roof.

When the piece came to an end with four rapid bass drum strokes, I couldn’t figure out what he had done. He had been in the foreground only once during a four bar break, …, otherwise his was the least self-serving performance I had ever witnessed. I turned to my friend. ‘He has no chops. How’d he do it? What happened?’

He smiled, not quite as puzzled as I. ‘It might not have seemed like much,’ he said. ‘But whatever he did, he sure lit a fire under that band.’”
– Burt Korall
It’s not often that that the career of a great musician can be summed up in two sentences, but this may be the case when Dave Dexter said of Davy Tough:

“One of the two or three greatest drummers of all time. A sad guy, such a sad little guy.”

I always thought that Bix Beiderbecke was the saddest story in Jazz until I researched the life of Davy Tough for this JazzProfiles feature.

I’ve played in big bands as a drummer and, for a variety of reasons, I think it may be an experience that is somewhat like piloting a jet fighter plane [okay, humor me here].

To begin with, very few arrangers know how to write drum charts, so looking at the music is like piloting the fighter, but now you are doing it blindfolded.

Once the downbeat is given, an audio G-force is unleashed and the music starts coming at you fast and furious all of which you are supposed to catch and do something with: accent, fill, kick, employ a short solo, crescendo, decrescendo, stop, lay out, start, fill and kick again, employ another short solo, play stop time, double the time: all the while moving the music along, keeping it in balance and not allowing it to slow down or speed up.

And the anxiety associated with this dynamic is heighten by the fact that in most cases, you have no visual roadmap to help guide you toward where the big band is supposedly going. And of course, once played, rightly or wrongly, you can’t take anything back.

When it all comes together and you successfully navigate the band through the arrangements, it’s an immensely satisfying experience. But when it fails, you are responsible for taking 15 or so fellow musicians and driving them into the musical equivalent of a train wreck. [I know I'm mixing metaphors, but it's fun].

One learns to survive, avoid the crack-ups [after the loss of a few engines and their tenders] and – more often than not - actually steer the band “safely” to its final destination.

Ultimately, the tools I learned to channel myself through these challenging and treacherous big band charts was to go and read the first trumpet and the first alto parts because therein lies the key/s to anything that’s happening in an arrangement and to take these notations and super-imposed them at the appropriate places in the drum part.

Larry Bunker [drummer in the original Gerry Mulligan Quartet, Shorty Rogers Quintet, Bill Evans Trio and Clare Fischer's Big Band] was the person who taught me this “science” of super-imposing lead sheet parts. He also urged me to listen to how drummers like Jo Jones with Count Basie’s band and Davy Tough with the Woody Herman First Herd Big Band artfully propelled their bands as though they were pushed by the wind. I also attended the Mel Lewis Big Band drumming “clinic” [in the informal sense of the word] which he conducted every Monday night while performing with the Terry Gibbs Big Band at various Hollywood venues during the late 1950s.

Both Jo and Mel became very well-publicized figures in my lifetime and deservedly so as they were each masterful big band drummers. But who was this Davy Tough?

Thanks to my father’s extensive collection of Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw and Woody Herman 78 rpm records, I did have the opportunity to listen to Davy’s fluid style of big band drumming. He was a wonderful drummer and gave all of these bands a “personality” filled with excitement and energy and he did all of this without ever seeming to put himself first. The drums were never overpowering. They were more like a pulse that you just felt: what Burt Korall calls “The Heartbeat of Jazz.”

But I never knew much about Davy Tough the person and the tragedy that became his life until I read this insightful piece by Whitney Balliett from his, American Musicians: 56 Portraits in Jazz [New York: Oxford University Press, 1986, pp. 121-126].

It is presented on JazzProfiles in its entirety with the caveat that it is
© copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Dave Tough was born in Oak Park, Illinois, the youngest child of James and Hannah Fullerton Tough, both of whom were born in Aberdeen, Scotland. He had two brothers, George and James, and a sister, Agnes. His father was a bank teller, who dabbled in real estate and the commodities market. His mother died, of apoplexy, in 1916, when he was nine, and in 1921 his father married a sister of his mother's. Tough continued to call her "aunt," even though she was now his stepmother, and this gave rise to half truth that he lived with his aunt and uncle. He went to Oak Park High School, but he never graduated. By the time he was fifteen or sixteen, he was playing drums and hanging out with the Austin High School Gang. Tough was already, as Art Hodes puts it, a "runner-around." He was also two people - the hard-drinking drummer and the bohemian, who read voraciously, did some painting and drawing, took language and literature courses at the Lewis Institute, and hung out at a night club called the Green Mask, where he accompanied poetry readings such as Max Bodenheim, Langston Hughes, and Kenneth Rexroth. His friend Bud Freeman says in his book "You Don't Look Like a Musician" Tough took him to a Cezanne show at the Chicago Art Institute.

Mezz Mezzrow, the clarinetist, hustler, and embroiderer of tales, recalls lin his "Really the Blues" how Tough talked:

Dave Tough, who tipped delicately over his words like they were thin ice, always used to lecture me on how important it was to keep your speech pure, pointing out that the French and people like that formed their vowels lovingly, shaping their lips just right when they spoke, while Americans spoke tough out of the corners of their mouths ... I thought Dave's careful way of talking was too precise and effeminate. He thought I was kind of illiterate, even though he admired my musical taste and knowledge. He was always making me conscious of the way I talked because he kept on parodying the slurs and colloquial kicks in my speech, saying that I was just trying to ape the colored man.
Tough's profession and drinking had already estranged him from his family. In 1927, barely twenty, he married and went to Europe with his wife and the clarinetist Danny Polo. He worked with various bands in Paris, Ostend, Berlin, and Nice. The Prince of Wales, who seemed to do little else at this period, sat in on his drums, and Tough drank a great deal. Bud Freeman says that Tough wrote limericks with Scott Fitzgerald, and that Tough was shocked when he discovered that Freeman, over on a short visit, hadn't read "The Sun Also Rises." Tough returned to America in 1929, worked for a time with Red Nichols, and went back to Chicago, where he entered what his biographer, Harold S. Kaye, calls his "dark period." He seems, for the next four or five years, to have been a derelict.
Jess Stacy was in Chicago in the early thirties, and he remembers Tough. "He'd always had trouble with drinking," he said recently. "I used to see him all the time before I joined Benny Goodman, in 1935, and he was in terrible shape. He looked like a bum and he hung out with bums. He'd go along Randolph Street and panhandle, then he'd buy canned heat and strain off the alcohol and drink it-this being during Prohibition. I played with him in Goodman's band in 1938, right after Krupa left and Goodman was running through drummers a mile a minute. Goodman said to Tough one day just before show time, 'Hey, Davy, I want you to send me,' and Tough replied, 'Where do you want to be sent?' He was a brilliant little guy, and I always wondered if he wasn't torn between being a writer and being a drummer."

Tough moved on to New York in 1935, but he still wasn't well enough to work regularly. Joe Bushkin has said, "I was with Bunny Berigan at the old Famous Door, on Fifty-second Street, in 1935, and Davy'd come by with his drums and set up and sit in. It was the fashion then to take the Benzedrine strip out of an inhaler and put it in a Coke, and he'd do that for courage. When he drank too much, he was gone. He was totally out of body. Sometimes, when I was still batching it, I'd take him home with me. He weighed less than I did. I've always been around a hundred and twenty-eight, but he must have been close to a hundred pounds. He was so much of an artist that having a bank account would have been appalling to him. He was a natural musician who did things effortlessly, and that always made you comfortable."
Half of Tough's career was over, and he didn't seem to have much to show for it. But this was deceptive. He certainly had helped inspire the great rhythmic drive of the Chicago players, and he must have helped shape whatever subtlety they had. He had worked his way through the styles of the New Orleans drummers Baby Dodds and Zutty Singleton, and, by ceaselessly experimenting, had become a first-rate, original drummer. He knew books and art, and this added stature and class to the popular image of the jazz musician as an uncouth primitive. His great gifts were far more visible during the last half of his career. Tommy Dorsey, starting his own band, hired Tough in 1936, and appears to have helped him back to some sort of normality. (Tough and his wife were divorced the same year.) He stayed with Dorsey for more than two years, lifting his soloists and giving what was basically a big Dixieland band a fresh and buoyant feeling. He also took on an advice-to-drummers column for the monthly music magazine Metronome. Much of what he wrote tends to be facetious, but it knocked out his peers and gave him the reputation of being a writer. He considers drummers and chewing gum:

After considerable spade work on my research into the effects of chewing gum on swing-drumming, I have turned up a few hitherto unpublished secrets of world-shattering importance: George Wettling and Maurice Purtill chew nothing but Juicy Fruit. James Crawford, the gent who beats out all that gyve [jive] with Lunceford -solid man! - prefers Spearmint. The two Rays, McKinley and Bauduc, are Black Jack men down to the ground.
Once in a while he would get down to business:

This discussion reminds me of Ed Straight, the old Chicago drum teacher, to whom stick grips were a phobia. He was a kind, likable old chap who was usually very calm and patient in his methods. That is, was calm and courteous until you tightened the first two fingers of your left hand around the stick in an attempt to close up your roll. Then he'd raise hell. You'd be rolling along trying to smooth it out nice and even, and suddenly he'd knock the stick out of your left hand. If it flicked out easily, he'd smile; if it didn't, you were in the dog-house. His rule was: at all times during the roll, the left stick should be held so loosely-with the wrist, the thumb and third finger doing all the work-that it can be easily dislodged with just a light flick.
Or even do a one-sentence Hemingway parody:

But I can say this, sir, that Chick Webb is much better than whom and who and he's good and he's very, very good and he does everything there is to be done to a drum and he does it beautifully and sometimes he plays with such stupefying technique that he leaves you in a punch drunk stupor and ecstatically bewildered as this sentence has wound up to be.
Tough left Dorsey early in 1938, and during the rest of the year moved erratically from Bunny Berigan back to Dorsey to Benny Goodman to Bud Freeman, establishing behavior patterns that would become more and more unpredictable. He passed through Jack Teagarden's big band in 1939 and was with Joe Marsala's jumping small band on Fifty-second Street in 1940. He rejoined Goodman in 1941, was with Marsala again, had a good stint with Artie Shaw, and was briefly with Woody Herman. He was in Charlie Spivak's band in 1942, and then he became part of Artie Shaw's Navy band.
Shaw has said, “I first knew Davy in the thirties when he was with Tommy Dorsey, and we'd go up to Harlem to listen to music. He was a sweet man, a gentle man, and not easy to get to. He was shy and reclusive. He had great respect for the English language. He read a lot and I read a lot, so we had that in common. During the Second World War, he was in my Navy band, and we'd manage to get together once in a while 124 American Musicians and talk. He was an alcoholic, and, like all alcoholics, he always found things to drink. I'd assign a man to him if we had an important concert coming up-say, for the crew of an aircraft carrier-and that man would keep an eye on him all day. This was so he wouldn't get drunk and fall off the bandstand, which he had done a couple of times. I think he was the most underrated big-band drummer in jazz, and he got a beautiful sound out of his instrument. He tuned his drums, he tried to achieve on them what he heard in his head, as we all do, and I think he came as close as you can get. He refused to take solos. Whenever I pointed to him for twelve or eight or four bars, he'd smile and shake his head and go on playing rhythm drums."

The Shaw band spent the year of 1943 in the South Pacific, and Tough, worn out, was discharged in 1944. When he recovered, he married Casey Majors, a black woman he had met in Philadelphia, and he rejoined Woody Herman, who had a wild new, young band. Tough, showing verve and brilliance, became the foundation of the First Herman Herd, which lasted until 1946 and was one of the hardest-swinging of all big jazz bands. He suddenly began winning music-magazine polls, and became a star.

Tough's style had evolved steadily. By the time he rejoined Tommy Dorsey, it had pretty well set, although there were still traces in it of New Orleans drumming-press rolls, ricky-tick on the drum rims. His cymbal playing as well as his bass-drum work grew increasingly dominant. Bob Wilber has said, "His cymbal playing was completely legato - that is, each cymbal ring melted into the next one. He fashioned a kind of cymbal shimmer behind whatever band he played with. It was a lateral flow. He kept his bass-drum heads very loose, so that he got a dull thud instead of a boom-boom-boom. And he used a great many bass-drum off beats, in the manner of the early bebop drummers. He also developed a habit on slow tempos of implying double time, thus giving the tempo a lift and a double edge. It's a device every modern drummer uses."
The drummer Ed Shaughnessy, long in the "Tonight Show" band, hung around Tough when he was fifteen or sixteen and Tough was with Woody Herman. He once said of him, "No drummer could match his intensity. He used a heavy stick with a round tip, He had the widest tempo, the broadest time sense, and in that way he was like Elvin Jones. He was always at the center of the beat, even though he gave the impression he was laid back. He played loosely, with not much tension on the stick, and he tuned his drums loosely. He kept a glass of water and a cloth on the bandstand, and before each set he would dampen the cloth and wipe the foot-pedal head of his bass drum with a circular motion. That drumhead was so loose it almost had wrinkles in it. He told me he did this because he didn't want the bass drum to be in the same range as the bass fiddle. He didn't want the two to compete. And he tuned his snare and tom toms the same way, so that they were almost flabby. He was a master cymbal player-maybe the greatest of all time. He had a couple of fifteen-inchers on his bass drum, plus a Chinese cymbal and what we call a fast cymbal - a small cymbal you use for short, quick strokes. And he had thirteen-inch high-hat cymbals. He'd use his high hat, either half open or open-and-shut behind ensembles, and when things roared he would shift to the big, furry sound of the Chinese cymbal.
He had a very loose high-hat technique, and he was always dropping in off beats on it with his left hand. He often used cymbals for punctuation where other drummers used rim shots or tom tom beats. He told me he didn't want to interrupt the rhythmic wave. When he played, he looked sort of like a bird, his arms moving in birdlike arcs. But they moved as if he were playing under the water - not very heavy water. He was a surprisingly strong brush player, and he could easily carry a big-band number with brushes. He hated soloing. I remember in 1946, when he'd won the down beat poll and he was with Joe Marsala at Loew's State Theatre, and Marsala announced, 'We will now have a drum solo from Dave Tough, winner of the down beat Poll,' Davy looked like he was having his wisdom teeth pulled. He was always putting himself down, by saying things like 'I can't even roll on the goddam snare,' or, talking about bebop drumming, 'I can't change gears now and play the way you guys do.' He always liked everything that was new, though. He listened to all the young drummers, and he thought Max Roach was terrific."
The bassist Chubby Jackson worked beside Tough in the Herman band, and he spoke of him: "He was a champion of my life. We'd sit together on the bus between gigs and endlessly talk rhythm. In those days, there was great motivation between the drummer and the bass player, and the relationship could be like a happy marriage. He taught me to play non-metronomic time-that is, to play organized time. He said that human beings weren't metronomes, and drummers shouldn't be, either. Sometimes he would slow the beat down slightly so that the band would have a bigger sound, and sometimes he would speed up half a peg if things were getting sluggish. Or he'd hit five quarter notes in a row as a signal to the boys to pep up. He was the little general of that First Herman Herd. He did strange things to his cymbals. He'd remove all the sizzles except one or two from his Chinese cymbal, and he'd cut a wedge out of a ride cymbal to get a broader sound. He played differently behind each soloist. He'd say Bill Harris plays on the top of the beat, and Flip Phillips plays in the center of the beat-and he'd do specific things for each of them.

But during the final ensembles he and I went our way, and some of those ensembles lifted off the roof. I don't think there has ever been a big band with more feeling and excitement. It was Woody's idea to hire Davy, and we all though,- he was nuts. We were in our twenties and here was this old guy who had been around forever. Because he was the oldest guy in the band, he lived in fear of being thought old. So he thought young, and he was always doing things in his drumming to make it sound modern. And he was always looking for approval. We'd finish a set, and he'd say, 'Hey, Snuggy' which is what he called me-'how was that? How'd you like that?' He never talked like a musician-no lingo or cutie-pie -Hey-man-what's-happenin' sort of thing. He talked more like a writer or lecturer."
The sound of Tough's cymbals changed constantly in the background. The splashing opening high hat gave way to the shining ride cymbal (behind a clarinet), which gave way to a roaring Chinese cymbal (behind a trombone), which gave way to a tightfisted closed high hat, with clicking afterbeats struck on the high-hat post with one stick (behind a piano), which gave way to pouring half-open high-hat figures (behind a trumpet), and, finally, to the open high hat or Chinese cymbal (behind the closing ensemble). He used occasional, often indistinct accents on his snare drum and a steady panoply of jarring bass-drum accents. He created a ringing jubilance with his cymbals. They were also the canvas for the soloists to paint on. It was never clear whether his dislike of drum soloing-in a time when drum solos were the height of jazz fashion-was because he wasn't good at it (his solos, always short, generally consisted of rolling, with accents on the rims, and concluding cymbal splashes) or because he simply disapproved of the custom. Jimmy McPartland has said that Tough's beat was "relentless," and it was. There was no place for laggards or fakes in his musical world, and he would either change them or demolish them.

Tough's drinking, quite controlled with Herman, finally drove him out of the band in September of 1945. He went back to Joe Marsala, and in 1946 he helped Eddie Condon open his new night club in Greenwich Village. (This was when William Gottlieb took his famous gamin-like photograph of Tough in Condon's cellar-his eyes sad and bleared, a cigarette in his mouth, his sticks poised over a rubber practice pad.) He worked on Fifty Second Street with Charlie Ventura and Bill Harris, the former Woody Herman trombonist. In 1947, he went to Chicago with his old friend Muggsy Spanier. He was deteriorating physically, and he was worried by bebop, whose rhythmic intricacies he was certain (wrongly) he could never absorb. He was losing his saturnine good looks. He had a long, wandering, bony face, a high, domed forehead, and black hair with a widow's peak-it was a face, perched on his tiny shoulders, of a bigger man. He spent most of his last four months of his life in the Veterans Administration Hospital in Lyons, New Jersey. Late in the afternoon of December 8, 1948, when he was apparently on his way to the apartment he and his wife had in Newark, he slipped on the street, hit his head on a curb, and fractured his skull. It was dark and he was drunk. He died in a hospital the next morning. He had no identification, and his wife did not find him for three days.
Tributes and Reflections about Davy from Burt Korall’s Drummin’ Men:

“His energy force was so strong that you’d think there was a 400-pound guy sitting up there.”
– Buddy Rich

“I think Dave Tough played more than any white drummer I ever heard. I admired him very much. He was one of my favorites. … Yeah! Dave Tough. He could play!- Arthur Taylor

“Dave’s time was so perfect that your fingers flowed over the horn. He did it for you.”- Max Kaminsky

“He never made an irritating sound.”- Johnny Mince

“He was the most imaginative drummer we ever had in the business. Everything the man hit was musical. If he tapped the floor, it was musical.”- Lionel Hampton

“Dave would lay down such a beat you’d go out of your mind. … And man, did Louis [Armstrong] love Davy.”
- Jimmy McPartland

“He was a natural musician who did things effortlessly, and that always made you comfortable.”
- Joe Bushkin

“Some of the most revered players in history could hardly execute at all in the scholastic rudimental sense. What they did to an extraordinary degree was relate to the musical situation at hand, and to comment with their instruments in a unique and individual manner. This is a far more effective means of becoming indispensable than striving to be a drum athlete.”- Jim Chapin

“A giant rhythm player! With the least amount of ‘chops,’ Dave inspired a whole big screamin’ band with his subtleties and strong feeling for time. And he was probably the most gentle, the kindest, one of the grooviest cats you’d ever want to know."– Woody Herman

“Dave Tough was probably the most underestimated drummer of all and … so musical.”-Artie Shaw

“Dave never got in the way; he didn’t overplay. What we need today are a few more Dave Tough’s”
-Dizzy Gillespie

Burt Korall ‘s Drummin’ Men: The Heartbeat of Jazz – The Swing Years [New York: Schrimer Books, 1990, pp. 205-249].


  1. Thank you so much for bringing Tough to the fore. He's truly one of the unsung heroes of jazz drumming. For a taste of his roaring cymbals, check Woody Herman's "Northwest Passage" on Columbia, or even better, the V-Disc version (available on a Hep CD). For Jackson and Tough's interplay check Four men on a horse", from the Carnegie Hall concert, how they mix time signatures (in 3 and 4) and change tempi at will.

  2. Many thanks for speaking about Davey Tough. I recall many years ago buying Dorsey best of's, being under the impression Rich played on everything. Imagine my surprise at the excitement created by Tough. I then sought out everything I could find him on. The first Herd remains a favorite.
    Great musician!

  3. I've come across Tough's name several times now in reading. Thanks for covering him here. I wish I could have heard him play live.

  4. His book on paradiddles has given me much inspiration and ideas for musical application.

  5. I know Dave Tough died in Newark, NJ, but I've never been able to find any information on where he was buried. Does anyone have any information?

  6. Dave Tough and Jo Jones set the rhythm in drums: a steady elastic beat, abundant swing and drive, a beautiful sound, superb cradling support of the band and the soloists, all served so unobtrusively and so tastefully. And no noise and no embarrassing solos.


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