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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.)

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, alto saxophonist Willie Smith and trumpeter Sy Oliver (who later became a highly sought crossover arranger by Frank Sinatra 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.

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. 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 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 [plus Buck Clayton, Harry "Sweets" Edison 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."
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