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Eddie Durham: Genius in the Shadows

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On December 13, 1932, in the eye of the Great Depression that was devastating the record industry, the Bennie Moten
Bennie Moten
Bennie Moten
1894 - 1935
composer/conductor
Orchestra shuffled "on their uppers" into a converted church in Camden, N.J., and silently launched the Swing Era, three years before clarinetist Benny Goodman
Benny Goodman
Benny Goodman
1909 - 1986
clarinet
's formal inauguration as the "King of Swing" at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles. While composer/bandleader Moten has vanished into the mists of history, his band boasted an assemblage of jazz legends: trumpeter Hot Lips Page
Hot Lips Page
Hot Lips Page
1908 - 1954
trumpet
, pioneering bassist Walter Page
Walter Page
Walter Page
1900 - 1957
bass, acoustic
, tenor saxophonist Ben Webster
Ben Webster
Ben Webster
1909 - 1973
sax, tenor
and pianist Count Basie
Count Basie
Count Basie
1904 - 1984
piano
, before his appointment as Count. But the quantum musician most responsible for rearranging the rhythmic nucleus of jazz was Moten's trombonist-guitarist-arranger, Eddie Durham
Eddie Durham
Eddie Durham
1906 - 1987
multi-instrumentalist
, who embossed his charts with the fluid, prairie-open, 4/4 stamp of the Southwest.

In tunes such as "Moten Swing," "Toby," "Lafayette," "Prince of Wails" and Durham's masterpiece, a distillation of Richard Rodgers's "Blue Room," which he stripped down like a master mechanic, chorus after chorus, to its rhythmic core, the Moten band taught future generations of musicians, dancers and fans that you could be unwound yet wound up, that a 16-piece orchestra could achieve the informality of a small group jam session, and that, even amid the most furious of tempi, time could stretch and contract, elasticize- and even seem, for a moment simultaneously evanescent and eternal, to halt.

However, Durham's Moten charts (plus his playing and arrangements for Walter Page's Blue Devils, which preceded them), were just the first of his profound contributions to American music.

Durham, born over a century ago in San Marcos, TX, subsequently:
  • became a major composer/arranger for the mid-1930s Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra;
  • in one year (1937-1938), wrote almost the entire Count Basie book, most of which tunes became classics;
  • played a significant role in the trombone sections of the Lunceford and Basie bands;
  • arranged "In the Mood" for Glenn Miller
    Glenn Miller
    Glenn Miller
    1904 - 1944
    trombone
    ;
  • made singular contributions to the books of bands such as Artie Shaw
    Artie Shaw
    Artie Shaw
    1910 - 2004
    clarinet
    's and Tommy Dorsey
    Tommy Dorsey
    Tommy Dorsey
    1905 - 1956
    trombone
    's;
  • wrote the hit pop tune "I Don't Want to Set the World on Fire"; and
  • formed and/or led several all-female orchestras-thus becoming one of jazz's first (some would say only) feminists.


If all that wasn't enough, Durham was one of numerous creators of both the amplified guitar and the electric guitar. (The origins of the electric guitar are lost in the fog of numerous creation myths. The first recordings using the electric guitar were made by Hawaiian guitarists such as Andy Iona as early as 1933. Bob Dunn of Milton Brown's Musical Brownies introduced the electric Hawaiian guitar to Western swing with his January 1935 Decca recordings. In jazz, George Barnes
George Barnes
1921 - 1977
guitar
recorded "Sweetheart Land" and "It's a Low-Down Dirty Shame"15 days before Durham's debut with the Kansas City Five.)

With the electric guitar, he played a role analogous to that of Louis Armstrong
Louis Armstrong
Louis Armstrong
1901 - 1971
trumpet
's trumpet soloing- he showed everyone the instrument's possibilities for technical execution and emotional expression. Durham personally taught it to Charlie Christian
Charlie Christian
Charlie Christian
1916 - 1942
guitar, electric
, Floyd Smith
Floyd Smith
b.1917
and other innovators of the instrument. ("Created" is to be taken literally: Durham-a tinkerer all his life who many described as a mechanical genius-built or assembled his first plectral devices from scratch.)

So, you might think that Eddie Durham would've seen his visage emblazoned on nightclub marquees, his sly smile beaming from under a pencil mustache in Hollywood close-ups, his name leaping off the title page of biographies and italicized in the jazz history books, and his accomplishments known to even the most casual jazz fan.

You would be dead wrong.

This series is dedicated to the most overlooked, under-appreciated figures in jazz history, and no one fits that description more than Eddie Durham-"the most neglected musical genius of the 20th Century," according to jazz historian Phil Schaap, who knew Durham for decades.

Loren Schoenberg, artistic director of the Jazz Museum in Harlem, says that, "Durham's role, while maybe not as influential, is as important as Morton's and Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
1899 - 1974
piano
's in the development of jazz orchestration. He codified the feeling of Southwestern jazz the same way Jelly Roll Morton
Jelly Roll Morton
Jelly Roll Morton
1890 - 1941
piano
did with New Orleans music. You really hear it when he joins the Jimmie Lunceford
Jimmie Lunceford
Jimmie Lunceford
1902 - 1947
composer/conductor
band-their instrumental range from low to high greatly expands."

Durham imbibed music from birth. Everybody in his family played an instrument. When he was still a child, his older brother Joe formed the Durham Brothers Orchestra, and Eddie began his professional career playing local dances and celebrations.

Like many prominent jazz musicians, he reaped experience from the eclectic gamut of early 20th century showbiz, playing with jazz bands, traveling theater groups, circuses, minstrel troupes and Wild West shows. It was in the last of which that this "genius" first began to arrange, says Dan Morgenstern, quoted in the documentary film, Eddie Durham: Ambassador of Texas Jazz."

Yet Durham melded that practicality with serious formal training. Joe insisted that Eddie receive a superior musical education at the Chicago Conservatory, which was open to African-Americans (Coleman Hawkins
Coleman Hawkins
Coleman Hawkins
1904 - 1969
sax, tenor
and Don Redman
Don Redman
Don Redman
1900 - 1964
arranger
were other alumni.)

In Chicago, Durham heard King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band at the Lincoln Gardens and, says Schaap, "He had a vision that Chicago jazz in the 1920s was relatable to that from Texas, yet different, and that was the beginning of his desire to orchestrate."

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