The Most Important Jazz Musician You’ve Never Heard Of – Loren Schoenberg On a New Eddie Durham Documentary

Jazz88’s Peter Solomon spoke with Loren Schoenberg, Senior Scholar at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, about a new documentary airing this week on PBS about pioneering trombonist, electric guitarist, composer, and arranger, Eddie Durham.


PETER SOLOMON: I’m Peter Solomon, you’re listening to jazz 88.

(Music plays: “Wham, Re Bop Boom Bam” by Andy Kirk featuring June Richmond)

That’s Andy Kirk’s orchestra recorded in 1940 with singer June Richmond on a piece called “Wham, Re Bop, Boom Bam”, that happens to be the title of a new documentary exploring the musical legacy of Eddie Durham, a pioneering trombonist, guitarist, composer and arranger, who may be one of the most important musicians that you’ve never heard of. To learn more, I spoke to one of the producers of the documentary, Lauren Schoenberg, the Senior Scholar at the National jazz Museum in Harlem.

LOREN SCHOENBERG: Eddie Durham is a major figure in jazz history, as a composer, as an arranger (and) as a pioneering electric guitar player. And it’s hard to think of anybody really who’s more important and less appreciated than Eddie Durham. So I felt it was really time to tell that story. He was born in 1906, he died 1987. And here we are in 2024. And now there’s a wonderful one-hour documentary about this man’s life explaining why he was so important.

SOLOMON: Tell me a little bit if you would about about his early life. I understand that he spoke Spanish for years early on, and can you talk about San Marcos where he’s from and his musical background?

SCHOENBERG: Eddie Durham was born in San Marcos, Texas 41 years after the end of the Civil War, and it was a huge intersection of Hispanic culture, African American culture and Native American culture. In that part of the country. Eddie is a product of all that. One of the languages that they spoke at home was Spanish. English would have been in his second language, but that happened very early on in his life. His brother was one of the Rough Riders with Teddy Roosevelt and the Spanish American War. So I would think that if you put the name Eddie Durham in the center of a crossword puzzle, and said “I want to talk about American history,” there’s really no way that you can’t go through Edie.

His father played the violin and his brothers played music. And by his teen years, Edie was already up and running, playing various guitar-like instruments and also playing the trombone. So by the early 1920s, he’s out there playing the circuses, playing in bands, whatever the heck jazz was gonna become. He was right in the middle of it as it was happening. And always with that, that Texas twang, Texas blues that’s different than the South, where it’s different than Kansas City. It’s its own thing. He’s really a pioneer in many ways.

SOLOMON: You just mentioned Kansas City. Now, he was a part of Count Basie’s orchestra in the 1930s, as both a trombonist I guess, mostly as a trombonist and arranger. Can you talk about his role in Basie’s band?

SCHOENBERG: There was a great band in Oklahoma City, a legendary band called Walter Page’s Blue Devils. And out of that band came Count Basie and Eddie Durham, and Hot Lips Page and Jimmy Rushing, and many people who later came to fame throughout, either through Basie’s band or through Kansas City jazz. And long story short, what was happening in jazz in the 20s and early 30s was people were figuring out how to take the music that was largely improvised, write it down, and leave enough room for people to improvise, to create yet another level of music, Duke Ellington did it on the East Coast. And the Count Basie band, which got credit for all this. Really, the genesis of it is in what Eddie Durham wrote. So when Count Basie started his own band, they were already playing a lot of the old things that Eddie had written for Walter Page and Bennie Moten. And as they came to New York and started making records, they brought Eddie back for one year and said, “We want you to arrange for the band, play trombone in the band and electric guitar. And so all those things that defined Basie in that first year, really, a lot of the credit has to go to Eddie Durham. He had already played with Jimmy Lunceford and Cab Calloway. After that he went to Count Basie that’s really where the magic really happened.

SOLOMON: Where does Eddie Durham fit into the pantheon of electric guitar? I know he was an early adapter . Was he one of the first guys to record on the instrument?

SCHOENBERG: When it comes to Eddie Durham and the electric guitar, think of it this way. It’s like, if you were to take a piece of wood out of a wooden sculpture and then the whole thing collapsed, although it’s a piece of wood that is not near the top. That’s kind of Eddie Durham and the electric guitar in a number of ways. First of all, he was Charlie Christian’s mentor, Charlie Christian is, as we all know, at the root of all electric guitar playing or much of it. Were there other people at the time who were experimenting? Yeah, there’s a guy named Leon McAuliffe, with Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. There’s other people fooling around with the guitar and the electric guitar. But Eddie’s combination of his unorthodox way of playing the instrument, the fact that he was an arranging genius and that somehow he married it into this Kansas City Count Basie thing, and a series of records that he made in 1938 called the Kansas City six with Lester Young, Buck Clayton and friends are among the all time poetic high watermarks of recorded jazz music and it was Eddie’s record date.

In the sense, he’s more than advanced and Charlie Christian in many ways, as an accompanist, so he’s a prime figure, but we have to shy away from saying he was the first or the most important, but you take him out of the picture, and it’s radically different.

SOLOMON: So in addition to playing with Basie, he was a presence in Jimmy Lunceford’s band. Can you talk about his connection to Lunceford?

SCHOENBERG: Eddie Durham was one of the first guys to leave the whole Walter Page, Bennie Moten Nexus and kind of go to New York to the big time they all went later. So he went with Cab Calloway. And as he famously told the story, one night he got so bored or just whatever he just left his guitar and his trombone on the stand because Cab at that point, the band was a singer’s band and what Eddie could bring to the band, he just wasn’t interested. So then he went with Jimmy Lunceford. His band, which was, in a sense, diametrically opposite from the Basie band. There were few solos, great players in the band, but it was still mostly an ensemble band. And that’s the first real flowering of the modern big band Eddie Durham. He transformed in a way the Lunceford band, his arrangements for that band sound like no other. But the solos were still a minor part of it, the creative part, it was mostly arrangements. So he left Jimmy Lunceford, and he was floating around and then basically came to New York, and basically was playing a lot of his old things. And there’s articles in the paper about how why isn’t he getting the credit and Basie’s recording these things. So it was worked out that Edie would come into the Basie band the following year, and stay for one year put his name on a whole bunch of this stuff. And frankly, if you look at the record labels, Peter, you’ll see that some of those Basie classics first record say Eddie Durham, composer and the second time it comes out as Durham , Count Basie, the third times it comes out. Count Basie, Eddie Durham, and Lord knows someone else and this stuff was kind of taken away from him. That’s the that’s the way the music business was.

He was not a great business man. But I’ll tell you something, he died at more at peace with himself and his life. The fact that no one knew really who he was until Phil Schaap came around and then the rest of us joined them and started kind of putting him up front. He wasn’t that kind of guy. He’s a fascinating figure.

SOLOMON: So I want to talk about Eddie during the war years. Talk about Eddie’s work with Glenn Miller.

SCHOENBERG: After Eddie Durham left Count Basie in 1938, Artie Shaw was after him. Benny Goodma was after him, a lot of the white band leaders. And it was, at that point, not uncommon for a great African American arranged like Fletcher Henderson or Jimmy Mundy, or Sy Oliver. And these people to like, go from the black bands, to the white bands, which were, you know, making a lot more money and getting a lot of credit that maybe wasn’t even due them. Frankly, you know, what the swing era really is, is white America waking up to what black America had been doing for a long time. And so a lot of the white band leaders wanted to have these great black arrangers. So Eddie wrote for Artie Shaw, he wrote for a band called Jan Savitt’s band. And then he went with Glenn Miller, just when Glenn Miller was starting to make it big.

(Sings intro to “In the Mood”) Baba bop, bop, bop bop…in a flat. Everybody knows that. If you put a bunch of five year olds on dance floor, and somebody plays that they get up and just start dancing. Now, Eddie Durham didn’t write in the mood, he didn’t even arrange In the Mood. What he did was he altered the version that Glenn Miller had and kind of sprinkled his magic dust on top of it, and somehow transformed it into this thing that it became. And he was there for several months or a year or so. And wrote some incredible arrangements, but also helped tinker with things that other people wrote, or special projects like what he did with the Ink Spots. So he was with Glenn Miller, left Glenn Miller, actually in 1940, before America entered the Second World War, and wound up spending most of the war-years leading all female bands, old girl bands, as they used to call the International Sweethearts of Rhythm. And it’s unbelievable. He was on the bill with the biggest stars, it’d be Eddie Durham, and so and so. And he wrote arrangements, there’s hardly any recordings of that stuff. It’s lost to history.

SOLOMON: What about after the war, what what was happening with Eddie’s career?

SCHOENBERG: Well, he had a big hit tune. Again, a whole bunch of other people glommed on to it called “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire,” which was a big hit during the war years. So he was getting some royalties. And even though you know, they had added people on to a lot of his hits with the Basie band, I think he had a pretty good income stream, so he kind of disappears almost from the capital letter bandleader world. And slowly as the 40s goes into the 50s, Eddie recedes into writing, he arranges for some people, kept his family fed and lives out Long Island, and kind of disappears from the capital letter music business does do a lot of gigs. And again, he was not quite like Bartleby the Scrivener, but it’s just like, you know, he didn’t really choose to compete and to be out there. It’s an odd story. And then finally, in the late 60s, early 70s, when people started rediscovering these giants, some of whom didn’t have Eddie’s income stream. I mean, he was not a wealthy man by any stretch of the imagination, but he could support himself and his family very, very comfortably. Finally, a lot of them were bank guards and messengers and stuff like this and Stanley Dance and other people started recording them for English record labels. And then this band, The Harlem Blues and Jazz band came around. And then Phil Schaap, started booking stuff at a place called the West End in New York. And all of a sudden, there were enough people out there to say, Wow, here’s some giants of the music. And so, he came back in the late 60s, early 70s. And by the mid 70s, he was really starting to get a lot of recognition, albeit in a very small little segment of people who cared about the older music. And in 1977, 78 is when I joined his band as an 18 or 19 year old and I spent the next several years playing with him, so I I got to see it and experience on the bandstand. I mean, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say 1000 hours or so.

SOLOMON Were there things that really impressed you about Durham? Besides knowing the history?

SCHOENBERG: No, of course, playing with Eddie Durham… I don’t know what the analogy would be. I mean, this sounds overblown, but it would be like, you know, some great composer being around them when they wrote when they played, you know, Bach, Brahms, Beethoven, all those people were great improvisers. And there’s an old saying “the best improvised music sounds composed, and the best composed music sounds improvised. And Edie was one of those people with that spirit, who could lead a band and I was in a band with him on trombone, and two oddball guitars that he had invented. One was kind of a half of a bass and half of a guitar. And the other was, I think, a 12 string or 18 string, I don’t know what it was on guitar, he played and electric organ, and a drummer, and that was it. And playing all those nights and seeing how he could stretch a composition out with riffs and backgrounds was absolutely magical, but it was a subtle art. That’s the kind of thing that really couldn’t be recorded. But he’s one of those people whose true essence would never really be captured, because it had to do with long things and, and just a long thing in the same sense of I think that you know, the real genius of Lester Young doesn’t exist on record, but that’s another topic for another time.


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