Wham Re-Bop-Boom-Bam: The Swing Jazz of Eddie Durham

Arranging is an underrated element in jazz and arrangers have not been given the credit they deserve. Arranging has almost always been considered piecework, paid at so much per arrangement. Bandleaders (and agents and performers) often took credit for tunes—and arrangements. And, except for staff writers working up stock arrangements (“stocks”) for publishers, the paper trail is incomplete.

Arranger/composer/musician Eddie Durham is among the most important of that unsung group and this documentary might help remedy that.

Hot Jazz Jubile

Durham grew up in rural Texas, the son of a sharecropper/cowboy/fiddler and quickly acquired the skills to thrive in a competitive musical environment. He toured with circus and minstrel troupes (black and white acts travelled and lived together) and with his own family in the Durham Brothers Orchestra.

In the late 1920s, he landed in Kansas City—not a bad place for a musician and was hired to play trombone and guitar and write arrangements for the top bands in that town—Walter Page’s Blue Devils and the Bennie Moten Orchestra. He modernized Moten’s sound. Then, when Count Basie took over Moten’s group, Durham’s work was fundamental to Basie’s sound. Basie’s “book” was composed largely of head arrangements—riffs and melodies made up at rehearsals or on the gig—and Durham took those arrangements and created music that was flexible but solidly structured. I’m not certain that I’d go as far as the film does and give Durham sole credit for creating the “Kansas City sound,” which emphasized call-and-response between sections and creative use of riffing. Arrangers like Jesse Stone and Joe Garland were also active and influential. Durham himself takes a more measured approach, saying in later years that he “was helping to stabilize some things that were all mixed up.”

The picture of jazz arranging in the 1920s-’30s was complicated, and it may have been beyond the scope of this film to try and clarify it. However, it would have helped the viewer understand Durham’s arranging niche if the film had at least tried to put Durham’s work in the context of arrangers like Fud Livingston, Don Redman, Bill Challis, Benny Carter, and Fletcher and Horace Henderson. No doubt, however, Durham was a key figure.

Evergreen

When he moved to Jimmy Lunceford’s band in the mid-1930s, Durham wrote and arranged hits for the group including “WHAM Rebop, Boom, Bam,” “Avalon,” “Lunceford Special” and “Hittin’ the Bottle. He was also partially responsible for the dazzling choreography of the band. Again, there may also have been some exaggeration in the film about Durham’s contribution to Lunceford’s sound, which was also shaped by the work of Sy Oliver and Eddie Wilcox.

Like most arrangers, Durham freelanced with other bands, including those of Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, and Glenn Miller. He contributed to the arrangement of Miller’s biggest swing hit “In the Mood” and had a hit in 1941 with an arrangement of “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire” for the Ink Spots.

Apart from his writing skills, Durham was an excellent trombonist and was in the vanguard of electric guitar use in jazz—a mentor to Charlie Christian. He was a bit of an inventor and came up with early versions of electric guitars. Durham showed how the instrument could be used in a jazz context as a member of a rhythm section as well as a solo instrument. He showcased his skills in some well-known sessions he put together called the Kansas City Five and Six using members of the Basie band in 1938.

There was a second and a third act for Durham, In the 1940s, when many male musicians were in the armed services, Durham became associated with several female bands on the rise, including the International Sweethearts of Rhythm. In the 1950s-’60s, he continued to arrange for various bands. Then in the 1970s, he formed the Harlem Blues and Jazz Band with Albert Vollmer and, in his seventies and eighties, he toured with the band all over the US and Europe.

There are a number of talking heads in the film, including several of Durham’s children and musicians like Vincent Gardner of Jazz at Lincoln Center and musician-educator Loren Schoenberg, who spent time playing with Durham. We see Schoenberg conduct a class at Juilliard playing Durham charts and it’s satisfying to see young performers recognize the value of his music.

Nauck

This is a sweet movie; one that seems to reflect the personality of its subject. Durham didn’t drink or smoke and was clearly a pretty unflappable guy; highly creative, but not plagued by the “artistic temperament.” I may not agree with some of the film’s spin, but it gives the viewer a clear and entertaining picture of Eddie Durham’s long and important musical career. As a kind of coda in the film, we see a park and a festival being dedicated to Durham in his hometown; honors well deserved.

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Steve Provizer is a brass player, arranger and writer. He has written about jazz for a number of print and online publications and has blogged for a number of years at: brilliantcornersabostonjazzblog.blogspot.com. He is also a proud member of the Screen Actors Guild.

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