Don Drummond and the Philosophy of Music

By McKenzie, Earl | Caribbean Quarterly, December 2010 | Go to article overview

Don Drummond and the Philosophy of Music


McKenzie, Earl, Caribbean Quarterly


IT IS OFTEN SAID THAT music is the most difficult art form to write about. Doing so, someone said, is like trying to dance to architecture. This has never stopped critics, poets, philosophers and others from trying to put into words what many regard as ineffable. I therefore undertake this essay with an awareness that we may have to be silent about some aspects of our responses to music, as Wittgenstein would probably say.

When I consider the music of Don Drummond, the celebrated Jamaican trombonist, three main questions come to my mind. First, has any progress been made towards a phenomenology of his music? Second, what, if anything, does his music mean? Third, is his music good? These questions do not exist in water-tight compartments; they obviously merge into each other. They are separated because each emphasises a different aspect of his music. I am also aware that they are not the only questions of a philosophical nature which may be asked about his music. I shall not ask any questions about its formal structures or moral dimensions, even if some of these may be touched on in passing. The three questions which interest me will be examined in turn. My main aim is to try to show that there are aspects of the philosophy of music which are relevant to a discussion of Drummond's work.

There are many activities carried on in the name of phenomenology. I am using the word in what is perhaps its most elemental sense: the description of phenomena as they appear to consciousness. I have already hinted at the difficulty of applying this to musical phenomena. I believe that along with philosophers, the persons who are most likely to do this well are literary writers, especially poets, and in some cases critics. So my main focus will be on what some of our poets and critics have to say about the appearance of Drummond's music to their consciousness.

There is another reason for this link between philosophy and literature. It has to do with the links between existentialism, phenomenology and literature. Mary Warnock writes: "The Existentialist philosopher, then, must above all describe the world in such a way that its meanings emerge."1 This, she argues, is also what poets, novelists and filmmakers do. My interest, then, is in the question of what meanings emerge from poetic descriptions of Drummond's music. Many philosophers who work in this area describe themselves as existential-phenomenologists, for these two philosophical movements can be fruitfully combined in this kind of undertaking. In the absence of any major investigations of this kind in the Caribbean - at least that I know about - I am regarding our poets and other literary writers as pioneering existential-phenomenologists.

Some of the poems I have seen tend to focus on the man rather than on his music. Irish prose writer, dramatist and poet William Butler Yeats has suggested that you cannot separate the dancer from the dance,2 and Drummond the man is no doubt inseparable from Drummond the musician. But the relation between an artist and his work is a complex matter, and I will not speculate on that here. Suffice it to say that a fascination with Drummond the man is understandable, for his extraordinary biography included poverty, a troubled childhood, insanity, murder, incarceration, allegations of suicide, and rumours of a mysterious burial in the night. The life-story of a public figure can be one of his or her biggest assets, and when one as dramatic as Drummond's is combined with his widely acclaimed musical genius, it is easy to see why he has attained the status of folk hero and aesthetic icon. So the significance of his persona has to be taken into account, and I will therefore begin by looking at some images of the man that appear in both the poems and the critical pieces examined.

Bongo Jerry, in his poem "Roll On Sweet Don",3 puts Drummond in the tradition of mythological-artistic characters like the Pied Piper and Peter Pan, and sees parallels between them and Drummond's role in Jamaican society. …

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