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Lost Masters

Eddie Durham: Genius in the Shadows

By Published: November 12, 2012
Durham's Music, Neglect and His Role in Jazz History

By consensus, Durham's most significant contributions to jazz were as an arranger and composer. Schoenberg says, "Eddie found a way to capture on paper the fluidity of jazz improvisation by devising a unique orchestral timbre that reflected the wild and wooly music of Kansas City and Oklahoma City in the late 1920s.

"Anybody could write down the riffs, but it's a lot harder to cull from a multitude of possible choices the right notes and know to which instruments they should be assigned. "He told me that when he came to the Moten band he couldn't understand why every player in the band had to play the root, third, or fifth [which meant that someone always replicating another player's note]. He extended the orchestra's harmonic range by introducing sixth chords, which are common now." (For example, if Durham wrote a Bb6 chord, his band mates would hear it as a Gm7.)

Schoenberg adds that Durham helped Basie, who had a languorous attitude about writing, flesh out his ideas (of which the Count had many).

Schoenberg also cites what he calls Durham's "long-range creativity" [which he shared with Lester Young], his way of writing that was not only what the classical musicians would call "through-composed," but that wasn't "climax-driven, where each tune has to have a climax, which is true in much of jazz."

Schaap says that Durham's signature was a leanness in orchestration (and melodies, many of which were riff-heavy) and the use of counter-melodies as opposed to the interludes that were important to great arrangers such as Don Redman, Bill Challis
Bill Challis
, Duke Ellington, Gil Evans
Gil Evans
Gil Evans
1912 - 1988
and Eddie Sauter
Eddie Sauter

Durham's writing approach was, "That's the melody, and I've got to make it jazz." He was a minimalist.

However, Schaap adds that Durham was as thorough as anybody in his voicings and textures-"a tricky combination of instruments and stacking of notes in relation to the preceding and subsequent chords and the melody. Plus, he was superb at merging choruses, a difficult task-then and now."

Schaap, who also serves as a musical advisor to the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, claims that Durham's music is very hard to correctly transcribe off the records. "When [the JALC band] tried to play 'Topsy,' I told Wynton Marsalis
Wynton Marsalis
Wynton Marsalis
, who leads the band] 'You're playing the wrong notes.' Wynton said, 'Play the record,' and then said, 'You're right.' And some musicians who Wynton told to transcribe it couldn't. Nobody's ever going to transcribe 'Topsy' correctly because there's too many switches and weird clusters of instruments." (In fact, Durham ran out of instruments that could play low pitches in the reed section and for the record's final chorus he used his trombone to simulate a baritone saxophones.)

As an instrumentalist, Durham's most notable work was on guitar, rather than trombone.

"Drum-cussionist" Rudy Lawless, who Durham recruited for a short-lived big band in 1946, testifies, "His guitar playing, even when played a 32-bar thing, was very personal," and that it conveyed a shade of blues in which "you could feel the happiness. He made each listener feel he was playing just for him. He played a fine rhythm guitar, too."

Schoenberg says that, although the "mature" Charlie Christian's playing doesn't resemble Durham's, his famous "Stardust" solo "sounds like Eddie."

Schoenberg also feels that "Eddie had a much broader conception of the instrument than Charlie. People said Charlie played these long lines, but Eddie's approach was broader and more interesting-the range of chords, sounds and effects he gets on the Kansas City Six records is fascinating. He's playing in an inimitably orchestral way."

Aside from Durham's self-effacement, there are many explanations for Durham's neglect by journalists (even during his peak years), jazz historians and, sadly, many listeners. Schaap feels that the main reason is that each of Durham's gifts to jazz "fell under the umbrella of his associates, so almost everything he did for Basie was subsumed under Basie's name. What he did for the electric guitar, which was huge, was subsumed under Charlie Christian. And some of his unique credits, like 'In the Mood' for Glenn Miller and the Sweethearts of Rhythm, didn't bring attention to him."

Daniels says, "Look at what he accomplished. He was a great composer and arranger. [Daniels claims that Durham and trumpeter Edgar 'Puddinghead' Battle wrote a musical about Uncle Tom's Cabin called Uncle Tom, which never has seen the light of day.]

"One of his apprentices was Charlie Christian, and if a person is known by his students, it's hard to top that. He was a fine trombonist, and not many musicians are threats on both strings and brass. He experimented with instruments.

"He was sophisticated and cosmopolitan, more than was readily apparent, and because he was clean-living, he didn't fit the stereotype of the jazz musician. When a family member objected to his nightlife, he replied, 'David [the Biblical king] was a musician.' He's deep - and jazz criticism isn't prepared to explore that deepness. The mainstream press finds it hard to appreciate a man of that genius. As a result, people don't know who he is. I haven't met a guitarist yet who's heard of him."

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