Bobby Durham: Drummer at the heart of jazz

Steve Voce
Saturday 12 July 2008 00:00 BST

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.

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