The monumental role of Eddie Durham (1906-1987) in the development of Swing has been hidden in the corners of Jazz history and mostly overlooked by the music chronicles until recently. This is a sympathetic biography of a major Jazz arranger, hit songwriter and electric guitar innovator who also played trombone. Even the concept ‘virtuosity’ limits our frame for his broad talents.
Eddie Durham’s associations, partnerships and achievements are explored, noting his crucial role at critical upward inflection points in the careers of Count Basie, Jimmie Lunceford and Glenn Miller. Among his astounding, but little-known accomplishments are being the progenitor of the electric guitar-based Jazz combo format and mentor to Charlie Christian. During the Second World War, he directed all-women orchestras including the famed International Sweethearts of Rhythm.
Durham was a prolific tunesmith writing hit songs and arrangements: “Topsy,” “Moten Swing,” “Slip Horn Jive,” “WHAM Rebop, Boom, Bam,” “Harlem Shout,” “Good Morning Blues,” “Jumpin’ at the Woodside” and “Swingin’ the Blues.” His most successful commercial song was “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire” recorded by the Ink Spots in 1941 and his arrangement of Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood” helped make it an enduring classic.
Litigating a Family Saga
This is an authorized biography by Eddie’s daughter, Topsy M. Durham, who was named for one of his best-known tunes, which he published in multiple variations. She is successfully recovering legacy copyrights for the Durham family.
She builds a persuasive case for Eddie’s fundamental role in the development of Kansas City Jazz, the Count Basie Orchestra and danceable Swing music while offering colorful stories of her father, his peers and the extended Durham clan. Numerous interview quotes drive the narrative, reinforced by conventional research. Footnotes document almost every page. Concluding in the year 1949, this is the first in a projected multi-volume history of the Durham family.
Eddie’s father, Joseph Durham, Sr. was the town fiddler in their native San Marcos, Texas, appraising Eddie to be the most musically talented of his seven offspring. Surprisingly, after about 1920 cousin Herschel Evans (tenor and alto saxophones, 1909-39) and jazz trumpeter Edgar Battle were both part of the greater Durham tribe, major players in early Territorial Swing and longtime associates of Eddie.
Like most of his extended family, Durham grew up speaking Spanish and was joined by his mostly-younger siblings in the music profession. From about 1915 to 1930, he and other Durham brothers advanced through minstrelsy, circuses and the pivotal early Jazz bands of the Midwest.
Playing in the Circus
Most intriguing to me are the chapters tracing Durham’s dozen or so years touring in circuses, emphasizing the profound impression these irregular ensembles had on Eddie. The American circus brought momentary invasion of splendor, colorful hoopla, exoticism and excitement to small-town, rural America. Writes Ms. Durham:
In perhaps no other setting during segregation could ‘negroes’ insulate themselves within a national tour with performers of many races . . . Ragtime and Blues music were popularized by the circus a generation before the Harlem Renaissance . . . This is where his professional career began. The choreography, discipline, perfection, and professionalism Eddie embraced as a teenager.
For African American musicians, working in the circus was often a first glimpse of the wider world and, as the author elegantly states it, “exposure to show business in its enormity.” Eddie vividly recalled these peculiar assemblages:
Edgar Battle, Joe Jr. and myself toured the United States by train, with [circuses] . . . There were always two bands. There was a 30-piece white band to parade all day, a black band for the minstrel show at night . . .
But the circus is where I first began to arrange . . . So, at night I’d give a dance – and then I’d also play guitar . . . And that’s how I learned quite a bit of harmony because it wasn’t in the books. The band would play any music I wrote . . . some of the white musician too. Ragtime type stuff.
The Circus paid about $20/week plus room and board, but at night, we’d split up the extra money. We’d play ‘till 11:00 pm and I’d be experimenting with voicing four French horns, trumpets and four trombones, obbligato, and tailgate the horns with a bass drummer, one playing after the beat, piano, French horns hitting the backbeat . . . then later on reed work by the clarinets. So, I always experimented, and I learned four- and five-part harmony.
Working for the Circuses
Circus work took Eddie to Chicago, where he followed the advice of his much older brother Joe Jr., acquiring a good musical education at the Chicago Conservatory, though in truth he already knew much of the curriculum. And he was deeply impacted by hearing King Oliver’s Creole Jazz band at the Lincoln Gardens.
Durham’s circus career lasted into the mid-1920s, imparting discipline and providing him further opportunities for experimenting with five- and six-part harmonies. He spoke with special pride of working for the J. Doug Morgan Show, a huge enterprise deploying 100 troupes touring the Midwest and Texas:
It was a white Circus, but the Band was black. Morgan bought me my first real guitar, a four-string, so I wouldn’t have to borrow one in each town . . . it was a process of learning what came before me, in order to develop my own style. Edgar Battle played 1st trumpet and my brother Joe played 2nd trumpet.
The author relates that after 1921, Edgar “Puddinghead” Battle (1907-1977) was integral to the Durham clan. A multi-instrumentalist, trumpeter and arranger, Battle went on to serve key roles with Blanche Calloway, Cab Calloway, Andy Kirk, Paul Whiteman, Count Basie, Fats Waller, Earl Hines and Jack Teagarden. He had a regular NBC radio broadcast, set up a publishing company and was co-composer of “Topsy.”
In the 1920s, Eddie toured for a couple years with Edgar’s Dixie Ramblers band. His passion for introducing complex harmony surfaces repeatedly in this chronicle: “Battle could sure execute on trumpet and he wrote a lot more than I did . . . I wrote one for Battle with his six saxes, top to bottom all six-part harmony, commercial melody. But the bands weren’t ready for this, they couldn’t read it and they couldn’t hear above a triad.”
Eddie and the other ‘Durham brothers’ played in several groups that are now seen as precursors of the Count Basie Orchestra, such as the legendary Blue Devils of Walter Page. Foremost was Bennie Moten and his Orchestra, the chrysalis from which the Basie band emerged. Eddie said: “They played an old style. Bennie and Buster [Moten] brought me into the band to write and to play . . . nobody else arranged after I came in.” He described their rudimentary Midwestern venues:
This band would promote their own dances, rent a big Hall or auditorium, write and promote, put some men on the door, and split the money after expenses. Moten got no more than the next guy because he thought that a sideman was worth just the same thing as the Leader, even though he played piano and handled the business.
Durham and Bill Basie completely rewrote the Moten band book between 1929 and ’33. Eddie weeded out the stomps, switched from tuba to string bass and from banjo to guitar, setting the orchestra on a new rhythmic footing. He took ensemble scoring in expansive new directions and facilitated their landmark recordings at the dawn of Swing:
Banjo went out. I played guitar and they got Freddie Green right away. Lips [Page] playing the chord or tonic third and the fifth, I added the sixth. But the band thought it was out of tune and that I was crazy . . . because they only knew limited notes.
Now I still had to put my note in, mostly on valve trombone, and this made five brass. I used valve trombone for trumpet notes, which came from the Circus . . . but when I added in the fifth, which was the ninth chord, that sounded pretty to them.
Durham’s composition “Moten’s Swing” best summarizes his advances in those years (despite the spurious Moten co-credit). A sly Swing anthem, it epitomized the novel sounds that were emerging from Kansas City and soon to catch the nation’s ear. But Eddie’s radicalism also provoked resistance in the band. And he alienated Moten’s established audience who preferred the old stomps, hastening its decline and the birth of Basie’s orchestra.
‘Lazy’ Count Basie
Durham says William Count Basie (1904-1984) was “a lazy pianist,” arranger and composer. His frustration with the gnomic bandleader was low-key but unmistakable. In this narrative Count Basie didn’t quite appreciate that Eddie was bending the course of music to his will. And he complained about Basie’s preoccupation with the dual-tenor format (Lester Young and Herschel Evans) to the exclusion of other combinations, calling him “tenor crazy.” Eddie tried to get Bill to buckle down and write with him, but he just wanted to party and even offered to hire someone else for the arranging chores.
Topsy Durham has effectively reset the historic record regarding her father’s central role in the Basie band and she’s making valid intellectual property claims, regaining copyrights for the Durham legacy. A good deal of the musical revolution and revelation that was Count Basie and his Orchestra may be credited to Eddie, and few today would dispute that proposition.
Evidence offered here fortifies that argument and may be a primary motivation for this self-published title. For instance, the author contends that when Durham first joined Basie, the band was already using his scores without permission. According to music producer, educator and commentator Phil Schaap:
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” . . . Eddie joined Basie to protect his intellectual property, most of which was not copyrighted.
In his defense, Basie didn’t really run his orchestra in those years. Promoter and producer John Hammond (1910-1987) was the de-facto manager, having elevated them from Midwestern obscurity to network radio and Carnegie Hall. Perhaps the fact that Hammond did the hiring, the firing and controlled the finances helps explain Basie’s lack of engagement according to Durham.
In fact, she writes, it was Hammond who “petitions to Eddie to leave Lunceford and return to Basie for one year with the lure of doubling his pay.” The producer needed him “to make it all cohesive. It is because Basie knowns of Eddie’s ability to score ‘proof-perfect’ charts with no mistakes. . . In that one year, distinctly, it’s Eddie who is responsible for the hits . . .”
But then Ms. Durham goes a little too far, broadly crediting Eddie with thereby “. . . creating the archetype for danceable swing-music.” Yes, and others too had been simultaneously developing and refining the dance band format for years: Don Redman, Fletcher Henderson, Gene Gifford, Bill Challis, Jimmy Mundy, Benny Carter, Spud Murphy and some guy named Ellington.
That said, there is no shortage of informed commentary confirming Eddie’s dynamic role in the Basie organization. In particular, his arranging was a brilliant solution for their transition from riff-based head arrangements to fully structured scores that sounded loose and elastic like combos.
The Kansas City Combos and Doubling
Further evidence of Durham’s catalytic potency is found in his initiating the novel combos that came to be known as the Kansas City Five and Six. Legendary for capturing the spontaneity and intimacy of KC Jazz, the sessions were originally booked and made as Eddie Durham and his Base Four. Participant Freddie Green recalled:
The truth is that anybody who knows their records and the KC5 recordings, knows that these were originally Eddie Durham record dates. He wrote the arrangements, he played trombone and guitar . . . It’s his vibration.
They lost one of the records but Hammond knew they were great, great records and so he took them to an independent record label . . . Commodore. So, they recorded the rest of the tunes in late 1938 and added Lester Young.
In the Basie orchestra Durham usually doubled on guitar and horn — live and on records. Yet, even blowing valve trombone he played multiple parts, building five- and six-part harmonies: “I used valve trombone for trumpet notes, which came from the circus.”
As represented by the author, Basie was the show horse and Durham the work horse who complained “he wanted to have a good time with me, not to write.” The unannounced arrival of a new star trombone player, Dickie Wells, was probably the last straw for Eddie who returned to Lunceford.
The Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra
Durham first joined Lunceford in 1935, expressing a greater ease with Jimmie and his crew, referring to them as ‘college men,’ saying “I never heard a word of profane language with them.” Because of its forceful rhythmic drive and unity, the ensemble was sometimes called the Lunceford Express.
Eddie wrote and arranged numerous hits for them including “WHAM Rebop, Boom, Bam,” “Avalon,” “Harlem Shout,” “Lunceford Special” and “Hittin’ the Bottle,” a teetotaler, he disliked the title. For the recordings he arranged at least two dozen sides and doubled, though most of his solos were made with amplified guitar.
Durham was on the 1937 tour of Sweden and Norway when they drew concert audiences up to 10,000. One ecstatic Swedish writer gushed (apparently somewhat garbled in translation): “The brass section with the thick coloring of the violently screwed muted trumpets and trombones sounded almost unreal.”
Perhaps the reviewer was referring to the crowd-pleasing synchronized horn, hat and mute-waving techniques introduced by Eddie: “I choreographed so that the trombones picked up their trombones and we breathed in unison.”
Lunceford and his troupe presented an elaborate stage show much like a theatrical revue, presenting a variety of charming production numbers: harmony singing and a glee club; musicians who tap-danced both singly and in groups; novelty songs and vaudeville skits, which may be viewed on Youtube. Eddie perfected his ballet of the horns and contributed comedy bits dating back to the circus.
With band pianist and arranger Eddie Wilcox, Durham brilliantly scored Ellington’s “Bird of Paradise.” Duke never waxed it; the 1935 Lunceford disc is the only recording made back in the day. The chart was part of Eddie’s campaign to bump Lunceford up to five saxophones and introduce six-part harmony. It displays his panache as an arranger and restrained eloquence as a guitarist. Though some have mistaken his break for an early recording of electric guitar, the volume and sound projection are more likely the result of a mechanical resonator which he used to augment his acoustic guitars.
As early as 1929 Durham was adding resonators to his acoustic guitars for greater volume (his version of Dobro or National Steel technology). Curiously, he had a downstroke-only strumming technique. A tinkerer, he modified guitars, experimented with electronics, building and using some of the earliest amplifiers for guitar. In 1938, he was the first to play electric guitar on record in a purely Jazz setting. Rhythm guitarist Freddie Greene said, “Durham was at the forefront of a revolution that established the guitar as a major ensemble instrument for melodies, soloing and chords.”
His role as a one-time mentor to Charlie Christian is significant, and more than one manufacturer built guitars from his designs. In Eddie Durham: Genius in the Shadows (All About Jazz, 2012), Jim Gerrard makes similar claims for Durham’s profound originality and impact. He asserts that Eddie 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.”
The All-Women Orchestras of WWII
America’s entry into the Second World War sharply limited the supply of male Swing musicians and the resources supporting their touring business model: fuel and vehicles. Eddie worked with several of the all-women bands that filled the sustained demand for danceable music. When his Durhamettes Orchestra opened a show for Fats Waller in 1942, the personnel included an outstanding trumpeter named Ersa Bell Hiller who became Eddie’s second wife.
Beginning around 1941, Durham was deeply involved with the multi-ethnic International Sweethearts of Rhythm, newly reorganized on a professional basis. He imparted skilled arranging, personal mentoring, polish and choreography but quit, complaining that the women were being shortchanged, paid only half of union scale.
Relaunched in 1944 under his direction, the International Sweethearts of Rhythm appeared at numerous high-profile venues in and around New York City, Madison Square Gardens and The Apollo Theater, then headed West on a celebrated dance date tour performing for crowds that exceeded 11,000. Said Eddie, “Not only did the Sweethearts play good music, they also had fabulous gowns, spectacular lighting and great effects.” Vintage film clips on Youtube display their remarkable stage charisma, Kansas City sound and band choreography.
Eddie Durham’s All-Star Girl Band broadcast on the NBC radio network and toured 72 Army camps and USO Clubs in Canada. These touring “All-Girl” orchestras were a strategic reserve of morale building, exempt from the wartime fuel restrictions and ban on privately operated buses. Brother Earl Durham too ran an all-female band. Eddie recalled those days fondly:
The money was flowin’ like water. The All-Star band was in the money. Could draw and play. We played opposite Louis Jordan right there [in Oakland. Lionel Hampton] come one night. You couldn’t wash those girls away though. They knew all the novelties too. That was some band.
Durham managed the subsequent Darlings of Rhythm, described as being “darker and didn’t get the publicity that the Sweethearts did.” The previously mentioned Gerard profile notes Eddie’s expressions of respect for his female associates. Incidentally, Gerard draws conclusions that are generally consonant with the author’s boldest claims.
The Long View
Extending our portrait beyond this volume and the year 1949, Jim Gerard’s article describes Durham’s semi-retirement from professional music, calling him a “circumspect” man who never smoked or drank. Though he married several times. Eddie eventually settled into a warm and stable family life with a younger woman, siring five children including the author of this worthy biography.
Eddie Durham’s contribution to Glenn Miller’s smash hit “In the Mood” was recognized in 1983 upon its inclusion in the Grammy Hall of Fame (NARAS) and among NPR’s One Hundred Most Important Songs of the 20th Century in 2000. Yet he never ceased to protest that Miller’s ‘fade out’ ending and repeat was NOT part of his original arrangement.
A few rough edges may be disregarded in a self-published book. Nevertheless, this volume and its projected sequels deserve the polish and marketing heft of a publishing house or university press. This is an ‘authorized biography,’ a category which often suggests aspirations to journalistic integrity and scholarly accuracy, but may also imply perspectives sanctioned by a family legacy.
Author Topsy M. Durham has deftly balanced these responsibilities while persuasively arguing her theory of the case. Namely that her father, Eddie Durham, was a seminal Swing-era Jazz innovator who excelled on multiple vectors of virtuosity, performance, composing, arranging, leadership, mentorship and show business savvy. Bravo! for job well done.
Swingin’ the Blues: The Virtuosity of Eddie Durham, Volume 1, 1900-1949
By Topsy M. Durham
11” x 8.5,” 254 pages, photos, appendix, discography, footnotes and index
Published independently, January 2021
The Music of Eddie Durham:
Bennie Moten Orchestra, 1932:
Count Basie Orchestra 1937-38:
The Kansas City Six, 1938:
The Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra, 1935, 1939:
Glenn Miller and his Orchestra, 1939:
Eddie Durham miscellany:
Eddie Durham: Genius in the Shadows, Jim Gerard, All About Jazz 11.12.2012
Eddie Durham – A Pictorial Discography [slideshow]
Phil Schaap Interview, Hot Club on the Air 8.19.19
Jazz Records: 1897-1942 [discography], Brian Rust (Arlington House, 1978)
Swing Shift: “All Girl” Bands of the 1940s, Sherrie Tucker (Duke University Press, 2000)