Since 2004 Plastic Crimewave (aka Steve Krakow) has used the Secret History of Chicago Music to shine a light on worthy artists with Chicago ties who’ve been forgotten, underrated, or never noticed in the first place.
Dave Tough looked like a gaunt but elegant character in a classic film noir, and his life took some dark, dramatic turns as well. A poet and intellectual, Tough was also one of the original bohemian musicians, and while following his own unique muse he helped pioneer the hard-driving Chicago style of jazz drumming.
Tough was born to Scottish parents in Oak Park on April 26, 1907, and his interest in drumming took root at an early age. He was enamored with New Orleans drummer Baby Dodds, who’d become a fixture in Chicago in the 1920s and recorded here with Louis Armstrong’s famous Hot Five and Hot Seven bands—Dodds was one of the most important jazz drummers of the pre-big-band era, and one of the first to be captured improvising on wax.
While attending Oak Park High School, Tough made friends with saxophonist, composer, and bandleader Bud Freeman, who was part of Chicago’s famous Austin High School Gang. The gang got together as jazz-besotted kids, ages 14 to 17, at Austin High School in 1922: Freeman (C-melody tenor saxophone), Jim Lanigan (piano, sousaphone), Jimmy McPartland (cornet), Dick McPartland (banjo, guitar), and Frank Teschemacher (alto sax, clarinet).
Within a few years the band was frequently playing at the Lewis Institute, where Tough was taking language and literature classes, and he would often join in on drums. (The Lewis Institute no longer exists, having merged in 1940 with the Armour Institute of Technology to form IIT.) The Austin High Gang performed under several names as their personnel evolved, including the Blue Friars and Husk O’Hare’s Wolverines (the latter with Tough as a regular member). In 1927, jazz guitarist Eddie Condon led the group for two sessions as “McKenzie and Condon’s Chicagoans.” Those recordings helped make the young players famous, but the newly married Tough had already left to play in Europe, replaced by Gene Krupa.
Tough had become a full-time professional musician in 1925, the year he turned 18, and he worked with the likes of pianist “Jumbo Jack” Gardner, singer and saxophonist Art Kassel, and violinist Sig Meyer. He split his time between the U.S. and Europe in the late 1920s, often traveling with clarinetist Danny Polo. He played in Nice, Ostend, Berlin, and Paris with guitarist George Carhart and clarinetist Mezz Mezzrow. Lore has it that the Prince of Wales (who briefly reigned as Edward VIII in 1936) sat in on Tough’s drums at a gig.
Tough returned to the U.S. in 1929, playing with prominent big-band leaders such as Benny Goodman and Red Nichols and often recording with them in New York. After a break due to illness in ’32—probably the first time his drinking really laid him low—Tough returned to the game in ’35, moving to New York to drum for massively popular big-band star Tommy Dorsey as well as Red Norvo and Bunny Berigan. In 1936 he and his wife divorced, and he wouldn’t remarry till the mid-’40s.
Tough also kept playing Dixieland, and after leaving Dorsey’s band in 1938 he began what would become a pattern of jumping capriciously from one job to the next—including gigs with the likes of Jack Teagarden, Eddie Condon, and Joe Marsala.
Early in World War II, Tough became part of the swing orchestra led by clarinetist Artie Shaw, and after joining the navy in 1942 he played in Shaw’s naval band. He had epilepsy and was eventually discharged on medical grounds—in part because the disorder wasn’t well understood at the time, often mistaken for an emotional or mental problem.
Though slight of frame, Tough was a powerful player. A perfectionist who hated to take solos, he was known to gripe about the insipid, overly commercial music many bands had to play to survive. He had the skill and musicality to work with the biggest names of the era, but he was frequently dissatisfied and remained restless.
Tough did perhaps his most revered work with Woody Herman’s big band in 1945. Herman had gotten on board with the emerging bebop style and played an important role in popularizing it. Tough admired pioneering bebop drummer Max Roach, but he wasn’t a big fan of the style—he thought of himself as much more of a Dixieland drummer. His hard-swinging playing shepherded the high-energy stampede of Herman’s Herd, and it made him a star—but he saw jazz changing out from under him.
While Tough tried to develop a second vocation as a writer, his already serious drinking problem got worse. In November 1947 he played with cornetist Muggsy Spanier at the opening night of Chicago’s original Blue Note club at 56 W. Madison, but he was already in decline. “By the New Year’s Eve performance at the end of Muggsy’s engagement,” wrote Dan Caine in a 1989 Reader story, “it was clear that Tough, debilitated by booze, was at the end of his career.”
While out for a walk on leave from a veteran’s hospital in Newark, New Jersey, on December 9, 1948, Tough fell during an epileptic seizure, struck his head on the snowy sidewalk, and died. His body laid unclaimed in the morgue for three days.
Though Tough only made it to age 41, his legend lives on. Countless recordings spotlighting his mad drum skills are still in circulation on LPs by Benny Goodman, Woody Herman, Tommy Dorsey, and others. Drum nerds continue to study his groundbreaking playing, and I found a lengthy online testimonial by UK drummer Bob Henrit, most famous for his work in Argent and the Kinks, that discusses minutiae such as Tough’s technique of sawing pieces out of his cymbals. “He cut chunks out of them to broaden their sound and removed strategic rivets to shorten it,” Henrit wrote in 2014. “He was famous for his ‘blurred’ ride figures where the sounds of strokes seemed to run into one another; this may well have come from his choice of heavy sticks with a round bead.”
Henrit also quotes several jazz titans praising Tough, including Dizzy Gillespie, who had this to say about his unflashy but not-just-timekeeping swing: “Dave never got in the way; he didn’t overplay. What we need today are a few more Dave Toughs.” v
The radio version of the Secret History of Chicago Music airs on Outside the Loop on WGN Radio 720 AM, Saturdays at 6 AM with host Mike Stephen. Past shows are archived here.