Eddie Durham: Genius in the Shadows

Jim Gerard By

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On December 13, 1932, in the eye of the Great Depression that was devastating the record industry, the Bennie Moten 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'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, pioneering bassist Walter Page, tenor saxophonist Ben Webster and pianist Count Basie, 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, 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;
  • made singular contributions to the books of bands such as Artie Shaw's and Tommy Dorsey'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 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's trumpet soloing-he showed everyone the instrument's possibilities for technical execution and emotional expression. Durham personally taught it to Charlie Christian, Floyd Smith 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's in the development of jazz orchestration. He codified the feeling of Southwestern jazz the same way Jelly Roll Morton did with New Orleans music. You really hear it when he joins the Jimmie Lunceford 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 and Don Redman 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."

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, Jo Jones, Jimmy Rushing, Ed Lewis, Dan Minor (the latter two of which landed in the original Basie band) and Buster Smith, who taught both Young and, later, the formative Charlie Parker.)

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.)
About Eddie Durham
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