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Lost Masters

Eddie Durham: Genius in the Shadows

By Published: November 12, 2012
Eddie Durham: The Man

By all accounts, including all of those quoted herein, Eddie Durham was a gentle, warm- hearted, occasionally gnomic man. (He would pose questions to the young Phil Schaap such as, "Why is Lester [Young] the greatest clarinetist, when he's not a clarinetist?"

Durham was a mentor to many musicians, teaching them not just the right way to play, but the right way to be a jazz musician. Lawless says, "Eddie was like five hundred men-he was a father, teacher and buddy. The man knew exactly what to do and say at any given time, and he did it softly, in a way that brightened you up. Once I told him that I always talked to myself, and he replied, 'That's a good thing-but don't forget to get the answers.'"

Durham often supplied the answers to questions that didn't even occur to his charges. Lawless relates: "He'd say 'The acoustics are going to be different at every gig, so to gauge the sound of the room, tap the fat part and the tips of your sticks on wood."

Durham also was a sage diplomat. Schoenberg, to whom Durham gave his first gig, says, "Nothing ever seemed to ruffle his feathers. One time we were playing the West End [a New York City club]. We had a wonderful bassist who never had learned to use an amp. I went to Eddie and said 'That bassist is too loud,' and he said, 'I'll take care of it.' The bassist played the rest of the night beautifully. I asked Eddie how he got the guy to lower the volume. Eddie said that he told the bassist that he was playing too loud for these young white boys."

Schoenberg says he cannot overstate Eddie's manifold influence. "It was playing in his band-those thousands of hours-that showed me how to be a jazz musician. It also brought me into contact with the African-American community. I was only nineteen, and my parents were concerned about me going on the road. Eddie assuaged their fears. They entrusted me to Eddie's care, and he became such a part of the family that when my dad died, he had Eddie's funeral card in his hand."

Schoenberg adds that by observing Durham at close range, he gained insight into how African-Americans of Durham's generation survived the 20th century in America. "I learned about masks, the sides of his personality that he chose to show to different people at different times. As an African-American man born in Texas in 1906, he donned a mask he needed to survive in a racist culture. Eddie was frequently the smartest person in the room, but he didn't always show it."

While Durham got the short end of the stick from the music industry, Schoenberg says that, "He never lost the joy of music or the willingness to share it. I've seen so many lesser talents become bitter and dark about what America has to offer-not just racially, but artistically. But when we hit the bandstand, music was music to Eddie. He took this Jewish kid from the suburbs and allowed me to learn my own lessons. He never once told me, 'Do this or do that,' like my parents."

Schaap echoes this: "Eddie was appreciative of the incremental gains in civil rights, and he had contributed to those, but he would never let anger get the better of him. He was at peace with his world, and he was healthier for it. He used music as the device for improving situations. He was a one-category guy-music."

Marcia Durham says that her father "was never loud or used profanity. He wasn't a disciplinarian-he was the most unassuming person you'd ever meet."

When I asked Schaap how other musicians regarded Durham, he replied, "How could you not like Eddie Durham? He was a good friend-to musicians who had better careers, and to those who weren't good friends to him."

Schaap relates that late in life, Durham nursed his former fellow Basie-ite Dickie Wells back to health. "And when Jo Jones urgently required hospitalization, Eddie was the one to come to his rescue-he came from Brooklyn at 4 a.m. to stay with Jo all day until Jo could be taken to the clinic. He was a wonderful, good hearted man, and that rarest of geniuses-a humble one."

Schoenberg provides an example of Durham's modesty: "For Eddie's eightieth birthday, I put together a big band and we played a whole bunch of the charts he wrote for Moten. It was televised on NBC and when a reporter asked Eddie how he felt, he replied, 'You know, most times they wait until you're dead to honor you, but here I am happy to be with all my friends.'"

Schoenberg summed up the prevailing sentiment among my sources for this story: "I was blessed just to be a part of his life and to discover that there were people like him in the world. I wish he was here now, because I'm finally starting to truly understand his lessons, what he was talking about. There was only one Eddie; I wish I could be like him."

Selected Discography

Bennie Moten & His Kansas City Orchestra, all of the 1932 Camden, N.J. sides, especially "Toby," "Lafayette," "Moten Swing," "Prince of Wails" and "Blue Room"

Bennie Moten & His Kansas City Orchestra, "New Vine Street Blues," (1929)

Bennie Moten & His Kansas City Orchestra, "Rumba Negro" a.k.a. "Spanish Stomp" (1929)

Jimmie Lunceford & His Orchestra, "Peckin,'" "Hittin' the Bottle," "Wham," "Time to Jump and Shout," "Harlem Shout," "Pigeon Walk," "Avalon" and "Lunceford Special"
Count Basie & His Orchestra, "Topsy," "Swingin' the Blues," "Good Morning, Blues," "One O'Clock Jump," "Jumpin' at the Woodside"

Kansas City Five & Kansas City Six (the entirety of the recordings)

Eddie Durham, "Magic Carpet"

Glenn Miller, "In the Mood"


Douglas Henry Daniels, One O'Clock Jump: The Unforgettable History of the Oklahoma City Blue Devils (Beacon Press, 2006)

Dave Oliphant, Texan Jazz (University of Texas Press, 1996)

Gunther Schuller, The Swing Era (Oxford University Press, 1989)

Resources for Further Study

Interview with Durham, Guitar Player, 1979

Eddie Durham website

My Encounter with Eddie

I never would've written this article without the music of Eddie Durham, Lester Young, Jo Jones and the rest of the original Count Basie Orchestra. As a college graduation present, my uncle gave me the Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz (Columbia, Special Products, 1973), a six-LP set. Somewhere on side five, Basie's "Doggin' Around" erupted from my stereo system, and at that moment, jazz magnetized me. As much as any other force, it has altered the direction of my adult life.

By the mid-1980s I'd become not only a zealous listener but also a passionate swing dancer. One night circa 1986, I attended an event hosted by the New York Swing Dance Society, whose weekly soirees seemed to summon from the crooks of history many legendary musicians and dancers.

On this night, I happened to be standing next to a slim, well-dressed, elderly man who wore a half-smile that seemed the crystallization of a vast source of experience and the wisdom derived therefrom. I heard someone refer to him as "Mr. Durham" and, after realizing who he was and collecting myself, I decided I had to meet him-not for the usual reasons people seek to touch "celebrities"-to hope that some of their magic rubs off on them-but to express my gratitude. I really didn't know what to say. I mean, he had both enriched my life and amplified the possibilities of art, and I'd always felt a deep emotional kinship to him (and all of the Basie band).

So I introduced myself and thanked him for all he'd done for me-for all of us. He was genuinely appreciative and shook my hand. I floated through the rest of the evening, and it remains one of the proudest moments of my life.

The irony was that there were only a handful of people in the hall-the same people who were dancing to Eddie's music-who even knew his name. He died a year later.

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