Profile Of A Legend: Dave Tough
by Scott Kevin Fish
Ralph Hadlock, in his book Jazz Masters of the Twenties, wrote of Dave Tough, “His was an unspectacular influence, for he simply played in the most supportive and tasteful way possible at all times. Tough was a model of restraint combined with positive drive, of steadiness coupled with spontaneous wit. Only Sid Catlett, Jo Jones and Chick Webb could surpass him on all these qualities.”
Hadlock’s summation, however, is deceiving because it implies that it is no great feat to play “in the most supportive and tasteful way possible at all times,” when in fact, this seems to be the goal that every drummer strives for and that few seldom attain.
Dave Tough was born in Oak Park, Illinois on April 26, 1908. He was a member of the “Austin High Gang” from Chicago which included Gene Krupa and George Wettling. Both men owe a great deal to Tough.
The “Austin High Gang” was a group of young musicians who started out with the influence of the then popular white jazz band known as the ”New Orleans Rhythm Kings.” But, Dave Tough knew his way around Chicago better than any of his friends and was responsible for introducing them to the music of the best black bands in town (including the King Oliver band with Louis Armstrong). Tough’s main source of inspiration on drums was Warren “Baby” Dodds, who was the major force in creating the musical style of Chicago musicians.
Trumpeter Jimmy Mcpartland said, “Two Chicagoan ensemble devices that intrigued Eastern jazzmen…the “explosion” a sudden flare preceding each repetition of the initial melodic statement in a conventional song structure, and the…”shuffle rhythm” a staccato heavily accented eight note pattern usually applied to the bridge, or release, of a song. These and other simple but effective methods of increasing and releasing tensions came largely from the mind of Dave Tough, who, more than any other single musician, translated New Orleans musical ideas into the jazz language of the Chicagoans.”
Music and drumming were not Tough’s only talents. He was a lover of literature and one of his greatest ambitions was to be a writer. He accomplished this for a time by writing his own column for the now defunct music magazine, Metronome. In 1929, when Dave was about 22, he decided to leave Chicago to explore the cultural offerings of France. He did some gigging in France and also pursued his interest in writing and writers. He became friends with F. Scott Fitzgerald and Kenneth Rexroth. During this time, Dave developed a drinking habit and George T. Simon quotes Dave as saying that during this period he had “dedicated his life to getting drunk.”
I would like to add something to the record that I’d never found in my research for this article. It is a point that came up in a conversation with ex-Woody Herman drummer Ed Soph. I asked him if during his years with Herman, he’d ever asked about Dave Tough. Herman told Soph that Dave Tough was an epileptic. This condition wasn’t fully understood in the twenties and thirties. In many instances it was considered a mental deficency. As a recommended aid in reducing the epileptic attacks, Tough drank.
Dave finally returned to the States after playing aboard some ships in the Atlantic. After a period of bouncing between gigs, he gave up drinking. In 1936 he joined the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra. George T. Simon, writing for Metronome wrote a review of the Orchestra, “… Tough’s natural swing coupled with a flair for good taste put this ex-Chicagoan right up there as a rating beater.” And, in later years, Simon praised Tough again in writing about the then upcoming Buddy Rich, “It’s my feeling that when jazz history is set down, this tremendously inspiring, swinging drummer will go down, along with Dave Tough as THE man on his instrument.”
In 1941 Tough was at the helm of the Benny Goodman Orchestra, replacing Gene Krupa. Krupa had left to form his own orchestra and to many, the addition of Tough was a welcome change. Whereas Krupa was more of an on-the-beat drummer and very much a showman, Tough was content to remain in the background and build in subtle intensity, never soloing. There are some excellent recordings available of Tough playing with the Goodman small bands. One can hear his subtle changes behind each soloist.
The most swinging years for Dave Tough were 1945 to 1947 when he was the drummer with Woody Herman’s First Herd. This big band had a classic rhythm section of Tough, Ralph Burns on piano, Billy Bauer on guitar, and Chubby Jackson on bass. The rhythm section burned! One writer wrote in reflection, “It was amazing how little Davey, all 97 pounds of him, drove through this machine, cutting right through some of the complicated arrangements to keep the swing going at all times.”
Most of Dave’s musical contemporaries remained in either the dixieland or swing idiom. Dave continued to grow and he had a tremendous respect and admiration for Max Roach, even applying the bebop approach to his own playing. But, this crossover was possibly the undoing of Davey Tough. Arnold Shaw writes, “The grave danger in the jazzman’s pattern of existence is that he may immerse himself in music to such an extent that he develops no other values to live by. If anything goes wrong with his music, he’s a dead duck. That’s what happened to little Davey Tough when he became embroiled in the conflict between dixieland and bop and as a consequence did not know which way to turn.”
One cold icy evening in the winter of 1949, Dave Tough was out walking on leave from a stay at a Veterans Hospital. He had an epileptic attack, fell hitting his head on the sidewalk and was dead. “The death of Davey Tough,” wrote George T. Simon who knew and loved Dave, “while reflecting once again the limited lives of jazz musicians and the difficulties they encounter when they try to achieve greater freedom, does more than merely point a moral. It takes from us one of the most sensitive, talented, intelligent, one of the most wonderful guys in the history of jazz. In so doing, it has done too much.”
“Don’t ever forget Dave Tough,” spoke his first influence, Warren Dodds. “Tough was like a clock. Stick him under a band and he’d make everybody play.”