Duke Ellington Band Drummer Dave Black, 78

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 7, 2006

Dave Black, 78, a jazz drummer who toured and recorded with Duke Ellington's big band in the mid-1950s and inspired composer Billy Strayhorn to write the drum showcase "Gonna Tan Your Hide," died Dec. 4 at his home in Alameda, near Oakland, Calif. He had pancreatic cancer.

Mr. Black, an immensely versatile drummer, played swing, bebop and early rock with equal skill in his native Philadelphia. After seeing him perform, Fred Astaire called Mr. Black "the only drummer I've seen with dancing fingers."

He joined Ellington in 1953, after beating out Ed Shaughnessy and Philly Joe Jones in a contest to replace Ellington drummer Louis Bellson. He stayed with the band two years, until a diagnosis of polio forced his departure after a date in Portland. He missed the Ellington revival that followed the bandleader's celebrated July 1956 appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival.

After recuperating, he became a staple of a Dixieland revival band led by trumpeter Bob Scobey and a much-admired freelance drummer in the San Francisco area, performing with singer Lena Horne, pianist Earl "Fatha" Hines and others. He also co-led the Gene Krupa tribute band from 1966 to 1992.

Speaking of Ellington, Mr. Black told jazz writer Nat Hentoff: "Of all the band leaders I have worked for, he was very free -- letting you play your way, your style. I remember one night we were playing 'Rockin' in Rhythm' and I just got the bug. I played it as Latin 6/8, and he loved it. I felt like a million-dollar star. When the set finishes, he said: 'That's it. When you feel something, just go for it. That the way to do it.' "

David John Black was born Jan. 23, 1928, to Scottish immigrants. His first memory of music was banging on a toy drum sent by an aunt in Scotland. In 1948, he won the Gene Krupa National Drum Contest.

After graduating from a vocational high school in Philadelphia, he became house drummer at the Blue Note club in Philadelphia, where he backed such visiting luminaries as Charlie Parker, Zoot Sims and Georgie Auld -- saxophonists of wildly different styles. Bellson became Mr. Black's champion with Ellington after seeing the young drummer at the club.

Mr. Black can be heard on such Ellington albums as "The 1954 Los Angeles Concert" and "Ellington '55." His recording of "Gonna Tan Your Hide" was on the 1975 compilation "Hi-Fi Drums" that also featured Krupa, Bellson, Buddy Rich, Stan Levey and Chuck Flores.

Steve Smith, a drummer with the rock band Journey, once praised Mr. Black's rapid bass drumroll and "really swinging polyrhythms."

He continued an active career until recently and particularly enjoyed the audience reaction at seeing a septuagenarian complete whirlwind drum solos on "Jumpin' at the Woodside."

"People are amazed I can do all that stuff," Mr. Black told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2004. "It's the age thing. When I was a great drummer at 24, nobody gave a [expletive]. Now that I'm old and can hardly sit up, they say, 'Jesus, did you see that old man play?' "

Mr. Black, who won a Charlie Chaplin imitation contest as a young man, was also known for drumming pratfalls. A favorite routine he had with Ellington was to trip himself as he walked to the drum set onstage. Later, he liked feigning blindness and playing drums with a walking stick.

His marriage to Lorraine Jeffers Black ended in divorce.

His wife second, Olga Black, died about five years ago. A son from his second marriage, Lawrence "Brittley" Black, a drummer with the heavy metal band Crime, died in 2004.

Survivors include a son from his first marriage, Brian Black of Springtown, Tex.; two sisters; five grandchildren; and 11 great-grandchildren.

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