During his short and troubled life, Dave Tough consistently proved himself to be a masterful drummer, comfortable in a wide range of settings, willing to confront and overcome stylistic revolutions. He always displayed musical, technical and intellectual gifts, that might well have taken him to the top of any artistic pursuit and served him for a generous lifetime. At times, he seemed to have the ambition for this; but he also had disturbing flaws that not only circumscribed his career but also tragically shortened his life.
He was born, David Jarvis Tough, on 26 April 1907, in Oak Park, Illinois. He first played drums while a small child and he was still a Chicago schoolboy when he became a member of the Austin High School Gang. This was a loose gathering of white tyro jazzmen who were fascinated with and deeply influenced by black jazz musicians whose playing set alight the clubs and speakeasies of 1920s Chicago. The Gang formulated what became known as Chicago style jazz and Dave, who early mastered the art of playing subtle and infectiously swinging drums, was a significant member of the group. In that same decade, he visited Europe and also spent time in New York City where he made records under the nominal leadership of other members of the Chicago school, notably Eddie Condon and Red Nichols.
He began the 1930s inauspiciously, spending many months inactive through illness, a portent of the future. Tiny and frail, he was repeatedly struck by illnesses that more robust individuals might have shrugged off; and he gave himself no help by drinking heavily. By 1935, however, he was ready to make a mark in a different area of jazz. Until now, the bulk of his work had been in small groups, but the big bands that would dominate the forthcoming swing era were now on the rise. He played first with Tommy Dorsey, then moved swiftly and often fleetingly through many bands: Red Norvo, Bunny Berigan, Benny Goodman, back to Tommy Dorsey, then Jimmy Dorsey, Bud Freeman, Jack Teagarden, Artie Shaw, and others, including depping with Woody Herman.
There were several reasons for his restlessness. Dave insisted on musical perfection: while this was a characteristic shared by some of the leaders for whom he played, it was ignored by others. Added to personal differences, he had an intense dislike for the characterless music demanded by the realities of commercial success that were a sometimes onerous feature of life in the swing era. And there was his own occasionally unstable personality, a characteristic aggravated by his drinking, which was now sometimes excessive. In his private life, he flouted the racial taboos of the time by marrying a black dancer. He also found himself often at odds with former musical associates, and sought to establish an alternative career as a writer. He was briefly inducted into the military during World War 2, playing for a short while in the US Navy band directed by Artie Shaw, but was soon discharged on medical grounds.
It was shortly after his discharge that Dave made his greatest impact on the jazz world when he joined Woody Herman. As the records of Herman's First Herd were played around the world, fans of big band jazz became aware that for all his physical frailty, tiny Dave Tough was a powerful giant among drummers. Yet, despite his undoubted playing skills, Dave had serious doubts about his suitability for bop. His drinking habit had by now became uncontrollable. Observers at the time remarked upon the combination of his discomfort with his role in the changing jazz scene and a deterioration in his physical and mental state, and how it led inexorably to fits. Sometimes, and deeply disturbing to fellow musicians and audiences alike, these fits occurred on the bandstand.
Many of the people who knew him, did their best to help him; not just musician friends but also the writer Leonard Feather and impresario John Hammond Jnr. But Dave would not be helped; portents of disaster had shadowed his entire professional life, and finally they came to pass. Exactly what happened one winter night can never be known. He appears to have fallen in the street while walking home from a gig. Maybe he had another fit; perhaps he was drunk; or he might simply have slipped or stumbled in the dark. Whatever the cause, he fell, fractured his skull, and died from the injury on 9 December 1948 in Newark, New Jersey. His body lay unclaimed, indeed unrecognized, in the morgue for three days.
Whether playing in the small Chicago-style groups of which he was a charter member, or in any of the big bands to which he brought uncommon fluidity, he consistently demonstrated his subtle talents. It was with Woody Herman, however, that Dave Tough reached the apogee of his brief but shining career. In that band he exceeded even his own high standards, urging along one of the finest of the period's jazz orchestras with sizzling enthusiasm, flair and irresistible swing that was rarely equaled and almost never surpassed.
Recommended CDs (all with Woody Herman): The Complete Woody Herman (1945-7) 7-CD boxed set (Mosaic 223); The Woody Herman Story 4-CD boxed set (Properbox 15); The Thundering Herd: Original Recordings 1945-1947 (Naxos Jazz Legends 8.120739); The V-Disc Years (Hep CD2/3435 2)
For more about this remarkable musician, go to Drummerworld where among many things there are several excellent photographs.