Eddie Durham: Genius in the Shadows

Jim Gerard By

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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'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.

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, Duke Ellington, Gil Evans and 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, 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."

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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