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Lost Masters

Eddie Durham: Genius in the Shadows

By Published: November 12, 2012
The Blue Devil Years

As well-documented by Professor Douglas Henry Daniels in his book, One O'Clock Jump: The Unforgettable History of the Oklahoma City Blue Devils (Beacon Press, 2006), no band in jazz history had such a disproportionate influence from its recorded output-two songs-as the Blue Devils.

They were the dominant territory orchestra of the Southwest for most of the 1920s and developed a powerful, riff-based style that would reach its apex of expression in Count Basie's Orchestra. (A quick browsing of their personnel reveals why-the Blue Devils included Walter Page, Lips Page, Basie, Lester Young
Lester Young
Lester Young
1909 - 1959
, Jo Jones
Jo Jones
Jo Jones
1911 - 1985
, Jimmy Rushing
Jimmy Rushing
Jimmy Rushing
1903 - 1972
, Ed Lewis
Ed Lewis
, Dan Minor
Dan Minor
(the latter two of which landed in the original Basie band) and Buster Smith
Buster Smith
, who taught both Young and, later, the formative Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
1920 - 1955
sax, alto

While on "Squabblin'" and "Blue Devil Blues," their only records, made in 1929, the band hadn't totally smoothed out the fluid 4/4 rhythm that would revolutionize jazz, they were more rhythmically advanced than any contemporary jazz group-at least on record. (Oddly, neither Durham nor Basie made that date, but on "Squabblin," Smith executes some lightning-fast glissando-filled runs that clearly presage Bird.)

The Moten Years

Bennie Moten, who had a more commercially successful band, gradually hired away the Blue Devils' stars, including their leader, Page, and Durham. The Moten Orchestra recorded much more often than the Blue Devils had, but the contrast between their earlier sides and the epochal 1932 sessions demonstrates a startling leap forward in the rhythmic development in jazz, which occurred within a span of no more than three years, and which from our perspective seems at least a decade ahead of its time.

Phil Schaap explains why those sessions sound so startlingly modern: "The Kansas City- Basie sound was operational in 1932, and its rhythmic sense seems far ahead of its time, but I think that's because not much of any jazz was recorded for the next few years due to the Depression-and there were no recordings by any Kansas City band from that 1932 date until Andy Kirk records in 1935-which prevents us from charting the development of the Kansas City style."

Durham, Christian & the Electric Guitar

Eddie Durham was part Don Redman, part young Tom Edison. His daughter, Marcia, says, "He knew how to build and take everything apart-electricity, plumbing-and that's what he did in the house all day. One result of this tinkering was an instrument that was to rock the world-literally."

Durham's early experiments with amplified and then electric guitar-which began by most accounts as far back as 1929 (See Resource 1 for an interview in which Durham describes them)-would have a seismic impact on pop music.

However, at the time, these doohickeys were considered novelties and their creator an eccentric; Durham's band mates would kid him when he'd plug in his "box" and black out power in the entire hall where they playing.

Schaap says that "[Durham] was among those musicians grappling with instruments not loud enough to join or be heard in a big band. First, he experimented with homemade contraptions that would allow sound to be better reflected and/or used guitars that had the capacity to sound louder."

In Popular Mechanics magazine, Durham discovered that one could create a mini-sound system by building a speaker, microphone and pickup-and proceeded to do so.

By many accounts, including that of the critic Leonard Feather, Durham contributed the first recorded amplified guitar solo on "Hittin' the Bottle," a 1935 record he made with the Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra (which he joined after leaving Moten).

Two certainties are that Durham built his own electric guitars and he is one of several musicians credited with introducing it on record-with the Kansas City Five on March 16, 1938.

Exactly when Durham schooled Charlie Christian in playing amplified and electric guitar depends on your source, but Durham and some of his contemporaries insisted that he was Christian's primary instructor.

Schaap says that saxophonist Eddie Barefield told him that Jimmy Rushing's father had a place of business in Oklahoma City where musicians gathered, and that as early as 1931- when Christian was only 15-he would take lessons there from Durham and examine the pickup Eddie was using.

Other scholars place the year of this historic meeting in the late 1930s. Schaap adds, "Christian shows his allegiance to Eddie on quite a few records, for example, 'Gilly,' by the [Benny] Goodman sextet, where Christian dispatches Eddie's intro to 'Avalon,' from the 1935 Jimmy Lunceford record, in which he uses harmonics."

The Lunceford Years

When Durham left the Moten band in the early 1930s, Jimmie Lunceford, snapped him up for his orchestra, known as the Lunceford Express.

Lunceford's was an arranger's band that already included excellent writers in pianist Ed Wilcox
Ed Wilcox
, alto saxophonist Willie Smith and trumpeter Sy Oliver
Sy Oliver
Sy Oliver
1910 - 1988
(who later became a highly sought crossover arranger by Frank Sinatra
Frank Sinatra
Frank Sinatra
1915 - 1998
and other pop stars). The band, propelled by its great drummer, Jimmy Crawford, had developed a buoyant 2/4 rhythm known as "the Lunceford two."

Schaap says, "Lunceford wanted to extend his band's musical range by relying on its arrangers, not his soloists. Eddie provided the Kansas City element the band was lacking." Schoenberg says that Durham's charts for Lunceford, such as "Hittin' the Bottle," "Wham," "Time to Jump and Shout," "Harlem Shout," "Pigeon Walk," "Avalon" and "Lunceford Special," "introduced ambiguity- harmonically, rhythmically and melodically, by doing things like crossing the bar lines-something a commercial band wouldn't necessarily do.

While Oliver and Lunceford's other arrangers were self-consciously creative [e.g. "I'm Nuts About Screwy Music," in which Wilcox tosses a welter of "weird" effects into the chart, with a vocalist declaiming each in turn], Eddie, like Lester Young and Charlie Parker, did things that were exciting, intellectual and forward-looking, but rooted in a down-home style that wasn't threatening or self-conscious."

Durham also did the majority of his recorded soloing with the Lunceford band, much of it on guitar.

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