As a teenager, Alan Dawson studied drumset with percussionist Charles Alden for more than four years before serving in the military (Army) during the Korean War in his early 20's. During this time, 1951-1953, Alan played with the Army Dance Band stationed at Fort Dix where he was able to explore the post-bop jazz era by performing with pianist Sabby Lewis and his eight piece orchestra. After his release from duty in the Army, Alan started working with the legendary drummer/vibraphonist Lionel Hampton for a three-month European tour.
In 1954, Alan returned to Boston where he maintained an active recording career, taking brief breaks to tour and give drum clinics. Although his goals were centered more around performing, Alan began teaching privately, more of an informal impartation at first, but formally when taking on a young drummer named Tony Williams as his student. It was in 1957, the same year that Alan became the house drummer at Wally's Paradise in Boston, that he began what turned into an eighteen-year teaching association at the Berklee College of Music. Soon after Dawson was also performing with John and Paul Neves, and worked with Herb Pomeroy at the Stables from 1959-1960.
Alan was the house drummer at Lennie's On The Turnpike, in Peabody, MA from 1963-1970 where he had the opportunity to perform and record with some of the leading jazz artists of the time. There were a substantial number of recordings made at Lennie's for Prestige Records (1963-68) with Alan on drums, Jakie Byard on piano, George Tucker on bass, and Joe Farrel on woodwinds. One famed recording from this period is The Jaki Byard Quartet Live! Alan Dawson quickly became Boston's premier drummer of choice, not only for local players but touring jazz giants as well. New York in the 1960's was clearly a time when Alan's recording experiences shifted into high gear; playing drums for saxophonist Booker Ervin's The Freedom Book. In 1968 Alan took over the drum chair with the Dave Brubeck Quartet, replacing Joe Morello, and toured with Brubeck's family band, Two Generations of Brubeck.
In 1975, Alan suffered a ruptured disc which required surgery. This ended his touring days, including his work with Brubeck, and his tenure at Berklee. Maintaining a more relaxed lifestyle, Alan returned to limited teaching via private instruction at his home in Lexington (a suburb of Boston) and formed a quartet with fellow Berklee faculty members; saxophonist Bill Pierce, bassist Richard Reid, and pianist James Williams.
Alan Dawson's performance credits include the likes of Dave Brubeck, Jaki Byard, Booker Ervin, Tal Farlow, Frank Foster, Terry Gibbs, Dexter Gordon, Lionel Hampton, Earl Hines, Hank Jones, Quincy Jones, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Charles McPhereson, Charles Mingus, Frank Morgan, Phineas Newborn, Oscar Peterson, Woody Shaw, George Shearing, Sonny Stitt, James Williams, Phil Wilson, Teddy Wilson, Phil Woods, Reggie Workman and many others.
As a performer and educator, Alan Dawson made a decision to limit his teaching to thirty hours per week. This resulted in an extensive (and impressive) waiting list of students who wanted to learn his "rudiment ritual", something he is well known for to this day. His approach to practicing, secrets to independence, ever present obsession for obtaining musical variation, plus his ongoing quest for control of sound, color and swing were all things that his students sought to glean from this master musician.
Although Dawson had planned to be a performer first and foremost, he always analyzed everything he was playing. He figured out that as a teacher he who could impart many of his performance secrets to his students. Alan was a professional player who had developed himself to the point that he felt very comfortable thinking like a teacher. For him, it was important to balance the two, teaching and performing, and in doing so he found that both areas of his life significantly improved.
Dawson's approach to teaching was simple in that he focused primarily on playing music; the instrument itself was secondary. He consistently emphasized to his drum students the importance of knowing the melodies and forms of tunes in order to better fulfill the role of accompanist in the band.
Some of Dawson's best known teaching concepts were of a musical four-way independence approach, using Ted Reed's Syncopation For The Modern Drummer and George Stone's Stick Control as textbooks. He always felt that coordination was good to have, but when taken to extremes could set up a rhythmic interference ... rather than keeping the groove flowing. Dawson's students can and will testify that he went well beyond the use of exercises, books and rudiments for merely technical purposes, but rather pursued musical ways to utilize and incorporate those materials. Alan was quoted as saying that, "The difference between jazz and other music is like the difference between marching and dancing - marching is done on the heels and dancing is done on the toes. If you take away those written accents on the beat or syncopate the rolls, you can get a nice jazz feel."
Dawson is also well-known for being a strong advocate for the use of brushes on the drumkit. His use of brushes on all sticking and rudimental exercises was first conceived from his own admitted lack of skill at playing with brushes. He discovered that by using brushes, one doesn't get much rebound, thereby creating a sense of needing to "lift" or "pick up" after each stroke. He also stressed the use of correct posture and body movements while at the drums; a key ingredient to achieving proper balance in sound as well as promoting and developing control of all four limbs.
Former students of Alan Dawson include household names such as Terri Lyne Carrington, Vinnie Colaiuta, Keith Copeland, Kenwood Dennard, Jake Hanna, Billy Kilson, Joe LaBarbera, Harvey Mason, John "J.R." Robinson, Casey Scheuerell, Steve Smith, Tony Williams and many others.
On February 23, 1996, Alan Dawson died of leukemia at the age of 66. He will always be remembered for his dedication to his craft and the excellence that he continually sought to attain. People will remember his kindness and giving nature, his smile, and incredible for teaching and imparting knowledge. The world experienced a real loss with his passing, yet his memory will live on to inspire us all, especially those who studied with, performed with, and heard him play.
MY MEMORIES by Bart Elliott
I was fortunate to study with Alan Dawson for a solid week in the summer of 1981 while attending the 10th Annual International Percussion Symposium, presented by Ludwig Industries and the University of Wisconsin - Madison.
I was only 17-years-old at the time, and had recently decided that I wanted to pursue music as a vocation. Alan was kind enough to spend some extra time with me outside of the normal schedule of masterclass instruction to which I'm grateful to this day. To be honest, I don't think Alan saw anything special or unique in me ... well, except that I was the first person Alan had ever met who owned his book, Blues & Syncopation in 3/4 & 4/4 for the Drumset, part of the Siegfried Fink Percussion Studio. In fact when I asked Alan to sign my book he wrote, "Bart, I must say you're one in a million. Best wishes, Alan Dawson" (see slideshow above). And just to show you his sense of humor, when I asked him for his autograph at the end of the week he wrote, "To Bart, who has demonstrated remarkable good taste - Alan Dawson" ... again in reference to me owning a copy of his book.
I have audio recordings from my time with Alan, including masterclasses and live performance (see Alan Dawson - Rare Recordings), some of which I am sharing in the Premium Resources here at the Drummer Cafe. Unfortunately someone pilfered my one-on-one audio recordings of Alan, some of which included a performance of his "rudiment ritual". This featured Alan playing his entire warm-up using brushes on the Snare drum with a Samba Kick/HiHat foot ostinato.
One of my most popular lessons here at the Drummer Cafe is Expanding Stick Control for the Drumset which is largely based on the approaches I learned from Alan as he showed me how to work with both Stick Control and Syncopation.
I learned a lot from Alan Dawson that week in Madison, WI ... far more than just playing the instrument. I'm very fortunate for the time I was able to spend with Alan. The things that I gleaned from him are now the foudation for all that I do as a performer/educator, husband/father. Thank you, Alan, for all that you've given to us; you've truly enriched our lives and continue to inspire us through your music and our memories of you.