Eddie Durham was one of the primary architects of both the Kansas City sound as well as big band swing.
He’s primarily known as a trombonist and composer/arranger but he was also a pioneer of the amplified electric guitar.
He was born in San Marcos Texas and began playing at a very early age, first for local dances and later bigger celebrations.
As soon as he was old enough he traveled with a theater group then joined the band of a wild wild west show that toured the country. During a stop in Chicago he heard Louis Armstrong which had a big impact on him.
After the Wild West Show he went through a series of Midwestern territory bands including Gene Coy,
Chauncey Downs, T. Holder and others. In 1928 he joined the Oklahoma City Blue Devils. He stayed with the Devils about a year then moved to Bennie Moten’s band in Kansas City. He began writing arrangements for Moten which started to advance the band significantly. At the time, his buddy from the Blue Devils, Bill Basie, desperately wanted to join Moten but Moten didn’t need a third piano player. Basie had ideas for arrangements but wasn’t able to write them down. Durham helped get Basie’s ideas on paper and Moten was impressed enough to bring Basie into the band.
The Durham-Basie arrangements for Moten had a major impact and transformed the direction of the band. That impact is in full effect with the final Moten recordings made in 1932 that include the classics Moten Swing and Prince of Wails. Not long before Moten’s death in 1935, Durham left Kansas City and moved to New York, immediately becoming a major arranger for Jimmie Lunceford’s Harlem Express. In addition to writing arrangements, Durham had a flair for choreography and was responsible for certain horn moves that Lunceford was known for.
In 1937 Basie had taken his band out of Kansas City into New York and convinced Durham to join him. Durham’s impact on the Basie band was similar to what it had been with Moten. He wrote a number of important arrangements for Basie and helped to create the band’s identity. Durham’s arrangements include "Jumpin at the Woodside," "Swingin the Blues" and "Topsy" among many others. Also at this time, Durham built his own amplified electric guitar and began to record with it. While with Basie he was part of the classic Kansas City Six session for Commodore that featured the electric guitar throughout. It was the first time that instrument was recorded in a jazz setting.
The young guitarist from Oklahoma, Charlie Christian, sought him out to find out how he made the guitar sound like a saxophone. Durham worked with him in a local pool hall for several nights. Soon after Christian emerged with Benny Goodman as one of the giants of the instrument.
Durham left the Basie band in 1938 and went back to New York where he was much sought after by many leaders. He wrote important works for Artie Shaw and Tommy Dorsey as well as the major hit song “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire.” He was also involved in writing one of the most well-known swing era anthems; “In the Mood” for Glenn Miller. He also choreographed many of the Miller horn section moves as well.
During World War II he took over the all-female International Sweethearts of Rhythm then formed his own Eddie Durham and His All-Girl Orchestra. Throughout the fifties and beyond he continued to play and lead various groups until his death in the 1980s.
He was a humble genius that played a much more important role in big band swing than he’s been given credit for. Eddie Durham, architect of the Kansas City sound.