BOBBY DURHAM: 1937-2008
Drummer Bobby Durham, one most versatile and technically able players in the world of jazz percussion, died at the age of 71.
Durham, who never really received the attention he deserved, was a rarity in jazz: He was equally at home driving a big band (his five years with Duke Ellington being a great example), in a trio setting (his work with the Oscar Peterson Trio was legendary), and backing a jazz singer, via his 10-year tenure with Ella Fitzgerald.
He was born in Philadelphia, learning drums there at a young age. At 16, he was good enough to be a part of the band backing R & B pioneers, The Orioles. When discharged from the Army in 1959, after three years in the Army band, he continued his work in the R & B area, most notably with King James and later with Lloyd Price. He ultimately joined Lionel Hampton’s band, which was a natural extension of his R & B roots, before moving over totally to jazz with players like Basie, Ellington, Harry “Sweets” Edison, Grant Green, Shirley Scott and many others.
In the mid-1970s, he formed an alliance with trombonist Al Grey, whom he met on the Basie band. For several years, they both headquartered in Philadelphia, performing frequently at a club fronted by Grey called “Just Jazz.”
The club was actually owned by a veteran tap room owner named Jack Manoff, who was a distant cousin of mine. That, coupled with the fact that I was reasonably active on the Philadelphia jazz scene at the time, meant that I was given virtual run of the place. Guitarist Jimmy Bruno and I often sat in with the Just Jazz house band that featured Grey and Durham. On one fateful night, reedman Sonny Stitt was the headliner, and the fearless Bruno and Klauber ended up on the bandstand playing “Cherokee” at a ridiculous tempo and in a ridiculous key (Sonny could be that way with those he perceived as amateurs).
We got through it somehow.
I spent much good time with Bobby Durham that night and on other evenings at “Just Jazz.” He was especially proud of being one of the first endorsers of Fibes drums, and loved to show off his shiny, fiberglass-covered-with-chrome kit (I got my first Fibes set because Bob got one!). New drums aside, I was specifically interested in how he was able to keep those mile-a-minute tempos going without rushing, without dragging but always swinging.
He always maintained that relaxation was the key, and that problems will only present themselves when a player would push or tense up. I remember saying, “Yeah…that’s because you can do it.” He could only say, “You can do it, too.”
In terms of his solos, he was more influenced by Buddy and Louie than anyone realized, and while he enjoyed the spotlight, he insisted that soloing was just something he was asked to do.
He never led a record date of his own and as time went on, he more or less accepted the fact that he wasn’t going to become a household name. That’s a shame. He should have been.
Still, he played and swung with the best of them. Up until yesterday, only three living drummers could say they played with Basie, Ellington, Ella and Oscar. They were Ed Shaughnessy, Louie Bellson and Bobby Durham. Now there are two.
God bless them all.
Dr. Bruce H. Klauber