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Identifier: IJS-0006

Tommy Benford drum set and papers



  • 1937 - 1992

Scope and Contents

The collection consists of one linear foot of personal papers and a drum kit. Included at the beginning of the collection are two folders, one containing biographical information such as publicity releases and a list of bands Tommy played in, and the other containing removal notices.

Within the series the materials are arranged by subject. The bulk of the collection, however, is the photograph series which is not only the most sizable but also the most comprehensive documentation of Benford's long career. This series stands out both physically and topically. The photographs are divided into several parts: items in Box 1 are slightly oversized and photographs regarding Bob Greene's World of Jelly Roll Morton have been kept in that series in order to form a comprehensive intellectual focus.

The papers document Benford's diverse professional experience, however, records of his early years (pre-1937) are lacking. The collection inventory describes the collection to the folder level and, in some cases, to the item level.


1 Linear Feet (4 boxes and drum set)

Conditions Governing Access

This collection is open for use.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

The Tommy Benford Collection and drum set were donated to the Institute of Jazz Studies by his widow, Mrs. Dorothy Benford in May of 1994.

Language of Materials



Tommy Benford drum set and papers (1937-1992) consists of one linear foot of personal papers housed in three archival boxes (one document box and two flat boxes). Included are letters to Benford, manuscript notes, ephemera, broadsides, clippings, travel memorabilia, drum set, and photographs.

Biographical / Historical

Thomas Phoenix (Tommy) Benford (b. April 19, 1905, d. March 24, 1994) a prolific jazz drummer from the 1920s through the 1980s, was born in Charleston, West Virginia in 1905. With his brother, the noted tuba player Bill Benford, Benford received his musical education at the notorious Jenkins' Orphanage in Charleston, South Carolina, where trumpeter Jabbo Smith also learned his craft. His musical career and penchant for traveling abroad began when the Jenkins' Orphanage band toured England in 1914. The tour was curtailed, however, because of the outbreak of war on the continent. Benford escaped from the orphanage twice with his brother, the second time successfully. It was then, circa 1920, that Benford joined a minstrel show in Virginia, The Green River Minstrels. Soon thereafter, Benford traveled with a patent medicine man and with various entertainment shows, circuses, and carnivals. Several years later he moved to New York. A prolific sideman, Benford began playing in orchestras including the Marie Lucas Orchestra, which went on to Washington, D.C. in the early twenties.

Among the many artists, musicians, and composers Benford worked with were Charlie Skeete; Jelly Roll Morton, contributing to Kansas City Stomp and Shreveport, both 1928; Bill Benford (ca. 1928); Edgar Hayes; Sy Devereaux (1932); Fats Waller; Coleman Hawkins (1937); Benny Carter (1937); Eddie Brunner; Bill Coleman; Eddie South (1938); Joe Turner; George Johnson, St. Tropez, France (1938); and Willie Lewis (1938,1941). After his return to the United States Benford toured various military posts (1941-1943), and worked with Noble Sissle (1943), Snub Mosely (1946-1948), Bob Wilbur (1948-49), Jimmy Archey (1950-1952). During the 1950s Benford was a freelance musician, toured Europe again in 1960-61 with the Jazz Train Revue by Eddie Barefield, and worked extensively with Clyde Berhnardt's Harlem Blues and Jazz Band (1973-9, 1981), and with Bob Greenes World of Jelly Roll Morton (1973-74, 1982).

Benford's career brought him to Europe in the 1930s during a period when jazz and its musicians were very well received overseas. He opened at Chez Florence in Paris, recorded with Coleman Hawkins, Django Reinhardt, and Stephane Grappelli, played at the avant-garde club Boeuf Sur La Toit, and played in George Johnson's Orchestra in St. Tropez on the French Riviera (1938). Benford was with Willie Lewis when war broke out in Europe in 1939. He made his way to Switzerland, then Spain and Portugal, playing all the way. He came back to the U.S. on the Exeter with his son, Tommy Jr., in October 1941 and moved in with his sister in New York. During his time in Europe, Benford married his first wife, Sophia Mezzaro, a dancer, singer, and pianist from Vienna. She died in Paris giving birth to his oldest son, Tommy Jr. in 1939. Benford married his second wife, Dorothy, in 1952 and had three children with her.

Much of Benford's life was spent "traveling"—geographically, or between bands and orchestras. One thing is certain, according to Benford, who once said, "I already knew it didn't matter where I was. When I'm behind my drums, I'm home."


The Collection is divided into seven series: Series 1: Letters and Manuscripts, 1959-1992 and undated, Series 2: Ephemera, circa 1950s-1980s, Series 3: Clippings, 1938-1980, Series 4: Travel,circa 1937-1988, Series 5: Bob Greene's World of Jelly Roll Morton, 1974-1982, Series 6: Photographs, 1938-1980s, Series 7: Drum set

The collection includes one flat box of unprocessed materials (containing record booklet, with Benford notes from Jazz Odyssey; pamphlet: "Straight System of Modern Drumming," 1923; Arrangements/parts: "Drums Anyone," for drums (by Benford?), piano, tpt, clar, bone, bass; Travel Abroad: Holland-America Cruise activities programs, 1960; Songlist mss., undated) and one box of unprocessed audiovisual materials. Please contact archivist for assistance with these materials.


The collection was previously entitled "The Tommy Benford Collection(MC006)". The collection title was changed to "Tommy Benford drum set and papers (IJS-0006)" in 2021. Benford's drum set was previously part of IJS's artifact collection.

Tad Hershorn, Robert Nahory, and Caryn Radick
2012 January
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard

Part of the Institute of Jazz Studies Repository

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