The Tragic Life Of Ska Music's Greatest Trombonist

If you're wondering who is considered ska's greatest trombonist, a quick Google search will unanimously tell you that it's Don Drummond. Drummond was one of the founding members of the Skatalites, who are generally credited with having started the genre. All Music tells us that ska began as a combination of several different musical genres, including calypso, rock, and R&B, and Drummond's unprecedented skill with the trombone was an indispensable part of the Skatalites' sound. His musical genius is widely lauded, but his troubled life was tragically short — he died at just 37 — and he never got to see how influential he was.

Drummond was born on March 12, 1932 in Kingston, Jamaica. In an article on Red Bull Music Academy's website, David Katz said Drummond grew up with a single mother who was a domestic worker, and at age 9, he ended up at the Alpha Boys School, a Catholic school for troubled kids. The school's treatment of the boys was horrifying; Katz relates that kids were routinely beaten or locked into cupboards. Despite that, Drummond's talent for and love of music flourished; in the school band, he tried trumpet, euphonium, and French horn before the bandleader directed him to trombone, which he took to immediately. After graduating, he went on to play with jazz legends Dave Brubeck and Sarah Vaughn, and eventually Bob Marley. But the pressure got to Drummond, and Katz states that he landed in and out of Bellevue, Jamaica's mental asylum, from there on out.

'People are supposed to live in an atomic energy'

Jamaican reggae singer Clancy Eccles shared this memory of Drummond (via Red Bull Music Academy): "Don used to go over and pick up this pretty piece of clay and put it in his Ovaltine ... One day Roland and Johnny looked in the bottle, it was clay and all those things mixed together, and Drummond said, 'People are supposed to live in an atomic energy, you are supposed to build atoms inside of you' — that's why he ate the clay." It was later discovered that Drummond suffered from what is now known as bipolar disorder, which causes "extreme mood swings," according to the Mayo Clinic.

The Skatalites took the music scenes of Jamaica, then England, then the world, by storm. But they would last for less than 18 months in their original form. On New Year's Day of 1965, news broke that Drummond had murdered his girlfriend, beloved dancer and Rastafarian champion Anita "Margarita" Mahfood, by stabbing her multiple times, according to the Jamaica Observer. Their relationship had reportedly always been volatile, due in large part to Drummond's mental illness. Drummond was sent to Bellevue one last time, and would remain there until his death four years later. Records stated that he died of "congestive heart failure," but there are other theories (via Skatalites) involving gangsters and possibly the Jamaican government.

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, please contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), or visit the National Institute of Mental Health website.