Bobby Durham: Drummer at the heart of jazz

Although his drumming was at the heart of jazz, Bobby Durham will perhaps best be remembered as one of the very few musicians that Duke Ellington actually fired (Charlie Mingus was another). Continuously in demand throughout his career, Durham appeared on more recordings than almost any other drummer, and was at his most eminent in his time with the Oscar Peterson Trio.

"Duke used to ride Bobby," Duke's son Mercer said, explaining the Ellington incident:

I don't know what it was about Bobby, he was determined to really get this man to bend to his will or change his mind or something. Maybe Bobby was arrogant, but he knew his work. There was nothing about him that was not great and really right for the band.

Finally he fired Bobby. He just gave him two weeks' notice. Bobby didn't give a damn. He stopped trying to impress Duke and relaxed and played what he played and that was it. And Duke said "How come he never played like that before?" And then he told me to get him back. He hadn't been out of that band for 10 minutes before he was hired by Oscar Peterson.

Ellington's alto sax star Johnny Hodges had a high opinion of Durham's work, too. "It's a long time since I heard a beat like that," he said.

Although he spent long periods in Europe, Durham never broke the ties with his home town of Philadelphia. He began his career in the city, playing trombone, vibraphone and double bass before taking up drums. At first he worked in rhythm and blues bands, and on completing his service in the US Marines in 1959 he worked in the bands of the trumpeter Cat Anderson and of Bull Moose Jackson. He soon moved amongst the élite of the jazz mainstream and showed himself to be a subtle and instinctive trio player with such names as Tommy Flanagan and Jimmy Rowles.

He was robust enough to power the bands of Lionel Hampton and Count Basie and formed musical relationships with some of their sidemen, such as Al Grey and Harry Edison, that were to last over the years. The organists Shirley Scott and Charles Earland found him ideal for their trios, too. In the Sixties he played and recorded with such luminaries as Frank Sinatra, James Brown, Ray Charles and Marvin Gaye.

Durham joined the Ellington band in March 1967 and at the end of the year joined Oscar Peterson for the first time, staying for three years "I first heard Bobby with Duke Ellington and was immediately impressed with the ease and flair with the big band, especially considering the intricacy of the library," said Peterson:

When Bobby came into our group it was as if he had been in it for years; he was able to anticipate things that we practically had to write out for other players.

I nicknamed Bobby "Thug", simply because he came from the toughest neighbourhoods in Philadelphia, added to the fact that he had done some boxing in earlier days, and was quite a tough cookie.

A short man, Durham became friendly with Peterson's very tall bassist Sam Jones. But the two fell out on a train journey through Switzerland. "Fell out in no uncertain fashion, exchanging harsher and ever-uglier words," Peterson recalled. "Bobby even threatened Sam physically."

Durham later demonstrated to Peterson how he would have worked on Jones's middle, which was at Durham's eye level. "Once you work on all this stuff here hard enough, all that other stuff up above that I couldn't reach before has got to finally come down here where I can deal with it!"

In 1971 Durham moved on to the trio of the pianist Monty Alexander before joining Ella Fitzgerald for four years in 1974. In 1975 he was in the quintet led by Al Grey and Jimmy Forrest, leaving them to freelance from 1978 onwards. In 1983 he toured Japan with the Jazz at the Philharmonic unit. He rejoined Peterson in 1988.

Durham's contact with Norman Granz went back to the Sixties, and Granz called on him for many of his European festivals, notably the one at Montreux where he appeared again with Count Basie. Durham developed a pleasing singing style, and this broadened his appeal to continental audiences still further.

He spent long periods in Europe, mostly in Italy and Scandinavia in his later years, and latterly led trios in Italy which included the musicians Aldo Zunino, Andrea Zonzaterra and Massimo Farao. In 2004 he began an annual Bobby Durham Jazz Festival on the island of Cantone, near Genoa.

Steve Voce

Bobby Durham, drummer, vocalist and bandleader: born Philadelphia 3 February 1937; married Betsy Perkins (died 1996; two daughters, and one son deceased and one daughter deceased); died Genoa, Italy 6 July 2008.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
News
people
News
Campbell: ‘Sometimes you have to be economical with the truth’
newsFormer spin doctor says MPs should study tactics of leading sports figures like José Mourinho
News
news
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Voices
Lance Corporal Joshua Leakey VC
voicesBeware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Life and Style
Alexander McQueen's AW 2009/10 collection during Paris Fashion Week
fashionMeet the collaborators who helped create the late designer’s notorious spectacles
Sport
football
News
i100
News
Perry says: 'Psychiatrists give help because they need help. You would not be working in mental health if you didn't have a curiosity about how the mind works.'
people
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

£46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

Dinner through the decades

A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

Philippa Perry interview

The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?