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Lost Masters

Eddie Durham: Genius in the Shadows

By Published: November 12, 2012
The Basie Years

Count Basie, whose band had rapidly risen to national prominence but who needed more arranged music, hired Durham in 1937 to write an entirely new book for his band. Until then, the band had relied on "heads," passages improvised, often by sections, which were popular in Kansas City, plus charts generously donated by Fletcher Henderson
Fletcher Henderson
Fletcher Henderson
1897 - 1952
. They'd also relied on Durham's work-without his consent.

Schaap describes the situation: "Eddie left Lunceford after a battle of music with Basie in Albany. He was upset because Basie had taken Eddie's compositions and arrangements, retitled them and fleshed them out. An example is 'One O'Clock Jump,' which Eddie had written for Moten under the title 'Blue Ball.'

"So they worked out a deal in which Basie hired Eddie as both an arranger and player, and Eddie was compensated for the money [in royalties] he'd lost. Eddie joined Basie to protect his intellectual property, most of which was not copyrighted."

Schoenberg puts a different spin on Durham's joining Basie. "My take is that John Hammond [who had discovered the Basie band] played a key role in helping Basie improve the band, by bringing in players such as [lead alto] Earle Warren
Earle Warren
and Eddie."

Durham spent a year writing musical history, and many of his charts entered the jazz pantheon: "Swinging the Blues," "Topsy," "John's Idea," "Time Out," "Every Tub," "Out the Window," "Sent for You Yesterday," "One O'Clock Jump" and "Jumpin' at the Woodside." Schoenberg observes that the work Durham did for Basie was "radically different from the Lunceford stuff."

He continues: "The Lunceford band didn't have any genius soloists, whereas Basie's band had Lester Young and Herschel Evans
Herschel Evans
Herschel Evans
1909 - 1939
[plus Buck Clayton
Buck Clayton
Buck Clayton
1911 - 1991
, Harry "Sweets" Edison
Harry "Sweets" Edison
1915 - 1999
and Dickie Wells]. In the Lunceford band, Eddie had to make the solos a minor element, and those solos were average by the standards of the day.

"Basie wanted to have the spontaneity and flexibility of a small group-and Eddie excelled in creating pieces that were highly structured, yet conveyed the feel of a combo. "Eddie was like the point guard on a basketball team-the guy who never scores the basket but sets everyone else up. Having someone like Eddie sitting in the band meant a lot to a creative spirit like Lester."

Durham's daughter, Marcia, told me that "My father felt that rehearsing with Lester was so easy, that he would show him a phrase by playing it on the trombone, and Lester would play it back exactly. He also said that Jo Jones was the hardest to work with, due to his hot temper."

Freelance Arranging Years

After Durham left Basie in 1938, he became a freelance arranger, devising "In the Mood," "Glen Island Special" and "Wham" for Glenn Miller, as well as "Slip Horn Jive" (which, Schoenberg says, was based on trombonist Bennie Morton's solo on "Nagasaki" from a Basie air check). He contributed a reworked "Topsy" for Benny Goodman and a new version of "Blues in the Groove" (originally done for Lunceford) to Jan Savitt
Jan Savitt
's Top Hatters. Schoenberg notes that an air check of Artie Shaw's band doing "Time Out" in the late 1930s suggests that Durham wrote for Shaw as well.

Despite this plethora of essential charts by Durham, Schoenberg concludes, "There's nothing to equal artistically what he did with Basie. I don't think he even appears on a record from the 1950s to the early 1970s."

Yet before Durham's recording hiatus, he joined (on electric guitar) some of his Basie colleagues in now-historic record sessions under the names the Kansas City Five and, with the addition of Lester Young, the Kansas City Six. Dan Morgenstern and others assert that these recordings are what firmly established the electric guitar as a jazz instrument.

In 1940, Durham led a small group under his own name that featured his electric guitar, most prominently on his tune "Magic Carpet"; the starkly sinuous lines of his solo have led Schaap and others to consider it one of Eddie's most essential records.

That would prove to be the apex of Durham's career. He had arrived at a point where he could've gone in any number of directions-such as starting his own band-potentially leading to fame. Instead, he more or less dropped out of the scene-but not due to alcohol, drug abuse or any behavior that even hinted at self-destruction. (Durham never smoked, drank or cursed.)

Eddie Durham simply didn't care for the limelight-or at least not enough to navigate its perilous paths or sacrifice his integrity.

Singer Sarah McLawler, who knew Durham, said that a former member of the Lunceford band told her that Eddie's personality was keyed quite low. "When he'd give the band a new chart, instead of discussing it or leading the band through it, he'd go straight to a corner of the room and play guitar."

Schaap says, "There was very little written about him because his talents had been subsumed under others' names [the fate of all arrangers]-like Basie and Charlie Christian. I think he felt that things were not going to break for him like it had for those others, and he accepted it. He'd had a very small taste of stardom and realized that its shenanigans weren't worth it and that his talents would allow him to have a decent life-which was good enough."

Durham was circumspect-the kind of man who would rather act than explain and who would convey that reticence enough to discourage interlocution. About Durham's gradual fade-out, Schoenberg says, "He didn't care about being famous."

Durham didn't completely vanish in the 1940s, but left a lot of unfinished projects and loose ends. He formed a big band that didn't record. He appears on the prestigious Kansas City Jazz anthology on Decca (out of print but available online).

In the early 1940s, the all-woman big band the International Sweethearts of Rhythm hired him to write their book and act as leader and overall coach. The Sweethearts' commercial success and the WWII draft that left a dance band void led to increased demand; thus, Eddie Durham's All-Girl All-Star Band was born. Although they never recorded, Durham always bestowed high praise on his female musicians, claiming they could play with the best, regardless of gender.

Durham's blues-drenched writing and rhythmic innovations helped spawn rock 'n' roll that, in one of our culture's tragic ironies, pushed a lot of jazz musicians to the cultural periphery.

Durham had retreated there voluntarily, says his daughter Marcia-although he kept musically active. "My father was 51 and my mom was 25 years younger. [Durham married numerous times.] They had five children. He stayed home and raised us for 15 years. But he also ran a club in Long Island, that I was not aware of it until I was older. And he wrote at home, mostly charts, at the piano."

For years, Durham led a small group in upstate New York. He didn't resurface until the 1970s, when a new generation discovered the music of their bobby-soxed parents. At this point, Durham joined The Countsmen, a combo of Basie alumni that played primarily in New York City clubs.

His arrangement of "In the Mood" garnered him a Hall of Fame Grammy Award, and in 1986 his fellow musicians feted him with a celebrated 80th birthday tribute. Eddie Durham died in 1987.

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