You can’t overstate drummer Alan Dawson’s importance in Boston. He was part of the bedrock on which the local jazz scene stands. Superb musician, influential teacher, exemplary mentor, master link in the Boston school of jazz drumming—Dawson was all these things. He was a near-constant presence from the late 1940s into the 1990s. He played with everybody, and we owe him much. It’s a great story, a Boston story.

Photo of Alan Dawson at the drums, late 1970s

Alan Dawson at the drums, late 1970s. Photo by Tyrone Hall.

George Alan Dawson was born in 1929 in Pennsylvania but his family moved to Boston when he was a boy. He grew up on Hammond Street in Roxbury. Always playing the drums, he got his first gig at age 14, with the band of Tasker Crosson, playing at the USO on Ruggles Street. Dawson recalled Crosson calling “Body and Soul,” although he had hoped to debut on a flag-waver. All through high school he played with older, established musicians, like Crosson, trumpeter Buster Daniels, and saxophonist Wilbur Pinckney. After graduation in 1947, Dawson began four years of instruction with Charles Alden, probably the best teacher in town at the time, who drilled him in fundamentals and taught him to read. Dawson began playing marimba in 1949 and later switched to vibes.

From his first days as a drummer, Dawson listened to Jo Jones. He liked Jones’s sound, his use of the cymbals, and his overall approach, which elevated the drums above “a crude banging type of instrument,” as he told Jazz Journal in 1971.

Next came Max Roach. In 1946, Clarence Johnston, another up-and-coming Boston drummer, played for Dawson the Charlie Parker recording of Ko-Ko, with Roach. “I had never heard anybody play like this. I had never heard such cymbals sounds, such conception…If I were to mention the two most influential drummers in my career, I would have to say Jo Jones and Max Roach.” If you listen to any of Dawson’s work, you’ll hear them both.

Dawson, though, learned from many drummers. He claimed Roy Haynes as an influence. During the war years, he hung around Marquis Foster, the drummer at Izzy Ort’s club, for informal lessons. It was Foster who encouraged him to go to Charles Alden.

The Early 1950s: Sabby Lewis and Lionel Hampton

In 1949, Dawson worked with his first name band, that of trumpeter Frank Newton, and in 1950, the main man in Boston jazz, Sabby Lewis, invited Alan to join his band. Daily Record columnist George C. Clarke was impressed, calling Dawson “a young whirling dervish.” But then Dawson got drafted. He was stationed at Fort Dix, in New Jersey, playing in an army band. (Dawson once told an interviewer, “drummers who couldn’t read ended up in the infantry.”)

Meanwhile, Clarence Johnston got Dawson on the Lionel Hampton Orchestra. Johnston was in Atlantic City in summer 1953, working with Jimmy Tyler at the Club Harlem, when Dawson met up with him. He was only days away from his discharge. Johnston told him Hampton was looking for a drummer for a European tour, and he didn’t want the job. He gave Dawson Hampton’s number. Alan called. Two days after his discharge, he joined Hamp’s band, and went to Europe with Clifford Brown, Gigi Gryce, and Quincy Jones in September. They nicknamed the imperturbable Dawson “the Senator.”

After Hampton, Dawson returned to Boston and the Sabby Lewis band. That was not a problem; the drummer who took his place, Floyd “Floogie” Williams, knew Dawson would be returning. Dawson told Williams to call Hampton about the open job, and Hamp hired him. Sometimes, it just comes down to who you know.

The Small Groups, 1956-1968

Dawson stayed with Lewis until early 1956, and commenced a spree of small-group activity that carried him into the 1960s. After Lewis, he joined bassist Eddie Logan’s house band at Wally’s. After Logan’s departure, Dawson led his own band there in 1957, with tenor saxophonist Roland Alexander. When that ended, he worked in pianist Al Vega’s trio long enough to record All by Al (Cupid Records) with bassist Alex Cirin in 1957. This was Dawson’s first recording in the U.S. After Vega came a short stint with Toshiko Akiyoshi in 1958.

Ad for Gretsch Drums featuring Alan Dawson, 1968

That Great Gretsch Sound, as seen in Down Beat, July 25, 1968

In 1959, Dawson formed a trio with John and Paul Neves to work at the Club 47 in Cambridge, playing in the style of the Modern Jazz Quartet, with Dawson doubling on vibes. Next came trumpeter Bill Berry’s quartet in 1961, and the album Jazz and Swinging Percussion (Directional Sound). Later in 1961, Dawson went in a different direction, replacing Jimmy Zitano in Herb Pomeroy’s big band. That lasted until Pomeroy broke up the band in early 1963.

In the mid 1960s Dawson was the house drummer at the fabled Lennie’s-on-the-Turnpike, working about 20 weeks a year, mainly with pianist Ray Santisi and bassist John Neves. They were the rhythm section in Boston in the 1960s. Dawson enjoyed some good nights at Lennie’s: the Gretsch Drum Nights, working with Illinois Jacquet and Milt Buckner (and recording Jacquet’s Go Power! album), and the Live at Lennie’s sessions with Jaki Byard.

Nineteen sixty-eight marked a major change for Alan Dawson. That year he joined one of the best-known small groups in jazz, Dave Brubeck’s. Brubeck broke up his classic quartet in 1967, but he put together a trio to fulfill some 1968 concert commitments with no thought of starting a new working band. He hired Dawson and bassist Jack Six. In the liner notes to his Compadres album, Brubeck says George Wein recommended Dawson as the best drummer available for this tour, so Brubeck invited Dawson to his home in Connecticut to play together, and hired him. Then Gerry Mulligan got involved in those concerts, and a new Brubeck Quartet took shape. Dawson remained with Brubeck for six years.

After Brubeck and the international travel, Dawson was done with the road and he settled into the Boston playing pattern that continued for the last twenty years of his life. He was the town’s top free lancer and he picked the jobs he wanted. Trying to catalog all of Alan Dawson’s activities would simply be futile. He worked often at Sandy’s Jazz Revival, then for three years at Lulu White’s (with Ray Santisi and Whit Browne), three more at the Starlight Roof (with James Williams and Whit Browne or John Lockwood), the 1369 Jazz Club, and Scullers. You name a venue, and Dawson played it.

The 1960s Prestige Sessions

Tenor saxophonist Booker Ervin lived in Boston for about a year in 1953-54, while studying at Berklee, and he and Dawson became friends. In 1964, Ervin asked the drummer to join him on a date for Prestige Records. Dawson’s work on the resulting album (The Freedom Book) impressed the critics, and they named him a Talent Deserving of Wider Recognition in the 1965 Down Beat International Critics Poll. Three more well-regarded “Book” sessions followed (The Song Book, The Space Book, The Blues Book).

Ervin says in the Freedom Book liners, “Yeah, Alan’s a bitch, man. I played with Alan in Boston about ten years ago and it was one of the greatest experiences I’ve had in music. We go together, go the same way.” The notes continue, “A phenomenally sensitive accompanist, he often anticipates ideas and his clean, fresh sound is a subtle amalgam of the driving and buoyant (giving Jo Jones as an example) with the melodic and polyrhythmic (Max Roach).” Those two again!

There were eight sessions with Booker Ervin in all. All the Books paired Dawson with bassist Richard Davis, and on four of the Ervin sessions, Jaki Byard played piano.

Byard also had numerous Prestige dates, and Dawson played on five of them between 1966 and 1969. There was also the live session at Lennie’s in 1965 that resulted in two albums. Although George Tucker played bass there, Davis played on Byard’s studio sessions. Byard, Davis, and Dawson had clearly developed a strong rapport.

Dawson was the drummer of choice for two other Prestige artists, too. He played on five albums recorded by saxophonist Eric Kloss 1967-69, with Davis and Byard on two of them. And he recorded four albums with saxophonist Sonny Criss 1966-69. In all, Alan Dawson played on about 30 Prestige recordings between 1964 and 1969.

Of course, Dawson’s session work did not end in 1969. It stretched on into the 1990s. But his work for Prestige deserves attention because it was pace-setting and in tune with the times.

The Master Teacher

Perhaps Alan Dawson started teaching privately in 1955 because business was slow for Sabby Lewis. It was so slow, in fact, that Dawson went back to school to become a draftsman. His heart wasn’t in it, though; he doodled drum sets in the margins of his blueprints. So he went to work at Wally’s, and that’s when saxophonist Tillman Williams asked him to teach his son, Tony.

Dawson started with only three students—Tony Williams, Clifford Jarvis, and a third who dropped out (probably Bobby Ward). However, a steady stream of drummers sought him out at Wally’s to ask questions. The word got around, and Lawrence Berk called him. In 1957, Dawson joined the faculty at the Berklee School of Music and stayed until 1975. Later he resumed private teaching.

Williams and Jarvis were the first, but the list of Dawson students, taught privately or at Berklee, eventually included Cindy Blackman, Terri Lyne Carrington, Keith Copeland, Kenwood Dennard, Peter Donald, Bill Elgart, Joe Farnsworth, Les Harris Sr and Les Harris Jr, Steve Johns, Vinnie Johnson, Billy Kilson, Joe LaBarbera, Harvey Mason, Lenny Nelson, Ted Pease, John Ramsay, D. Sharpe, and Akira Tana. And these are just the ones I know about.

Honors and Accolades

Alan Dawson got the Down Beat award in 1965, but the eighties were his decade for recognition. Mayor Ray Flynn declared April 21, 1985 to be Alan Dawson Day in Boston, a declaration that coincided with a tribute event staged by the Boston Jazz Society.

Album cover of Alan Dawson's Waltzin' With Flo

Waltzin’ With Flo, 1998 (Space Time Records BG9808)

The 1369 Jazz Club did something quite different when they staged an Alan Dawson Tribute Month, with four concerts on consecutive Wednesdays in March 1987. Dawson named musicians he wanted to play with, and the club hired them. He played on his first night with the twin tenors of Bill Pierce and Andy McGhee. The second night featured alto saxophonist Gary Bartz. The third brought in Barry Harris, a pianist not often heard in Boston. Guitarist Kenny Burrell headlined the final night. Donald Brown and Whit Browne joined Dawson in the section in these various configurations. I remember the Barry Harris night. I was sitting at that table in the front window with the best sight lines. It was something special.

In 1988, Dawson was named Drummer of the Year at the Boston Music Awards. Finally, in 1990, the City of Boston awarded him its Martin Luther King Music Achievement Award, which recognized the city’s most accomplished musicians, while they were still around to enjoy it. (The program, alas, was discontinued in the early 1990s; Sabby Lewis, Roy Haynes, and Jaki Byard were previous recipients). Dawson was posthumously voted into the New England Jazz Alliance’s Hall of Fame in 2001.

There is more to say about this local hero, but I’ll leave this post’s last word to journalist Stu Vandermark, a longtime Dawson admirer. In May 1982, he wrote in Cadence: “If there is a drummer who can play in every context and execute every type of technique with as much fire and rapport as Alan Dawson, I haven’t seen him.” Sounds about right.

Alan Dawson died of leukemia in the Boston suburb of Lexington on February 23, 1996.

Some Alan Dawson Music

There is great music to be heard from Booker Ervin, Jaki Byard, and Dave Brubeck, but I’ll pass on those for now. Unlike high-profile drummers like Roach and Haynes, Dawson stayed a sideman. He recorded only one album as a leader, in 1992, at age 61. Waltzin’ With Flo (Space Time Records), a hard-bop romp, brought together some of Dawson’s frequent collaborators, including Bill Pierce, Andy McGhee, James Williams, and Donald Brown. Sadly, Dawson did not live to see its release, which finally came in 1998. Here are a pair of tracks, with Donald Brown’s “Havana Days” leading off.

Here’s “Old Devil Moon,” with James Williams at the piano and Tony Reedus on drums while Alan takes a turn on vibes.

An outstanding addition to Alan Dawson’s body of work came in 2021, when bassist Harvie S released Go For It on the Savant Records label. It’s a 1985 trio date, recorded live at the 1369 Jazz Club, with guitarist Mike Stern, Harvie, and Alan. It was the first time Stern and Dawson played together. Writes producer Mike Lee in the notes: “Alan was not just a practitioner, he was an innovator, a formative force…Total melody that transcended the concept of the drum as everyone else thought of it. This is why this chance encounter was so rare and uncanny: The embrace of the most modern of the old school with the most knowledgeable keepers of the traditions in the forward thinking young players.” Well said! Here are two standards, “Green Dolphin Street” and “Moment’s Notice.”