HARLEM--SAVORING THAT SWING
The Harlem Blues & Jazz Band is doing for the golden age of swing roughly what the Preservation Hall Jazz Band has done for New Orleans music. The reason? It is composed of musicians who lived through the big-band era, playing with the likes of Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw, Ina Ray Hutton and Louis Jordan.
Founded by Dr. Al Vollmer, an orthodontist in Westchester, N.Y., the 13-year-old band will be giving its first West Coast tour this week, playing at Pepperdine University tonight, Downey Theatre in Downey on Wednesday, Fellowship Hall in Pasadena on Thursday and the Forum in Yorba Linda on Friday.
Vollmer himself plays soprano sax; there are eight members, of whom the most distinguished are trombonist Eddie Durham and vocalist Laurel Watson, whose talent deserves broader recognition.
Durham and Watson were in town last week, scouting out the territory and talking about their collective credits, which are astonishing.
Durham has always led a multiple life. One of five musical brothers who had their own band in San Marcos, Tex., he played guitar and trombone from the start, and has kept up that unusual double throughout a 60-year-plus career (“I think I was born in 1906, but all the birth records were destroyed”). Along the way he made a name for himself as a composer and arranger. After playing from 1929-33 in the Benny Moten band that included Count Basie as second pianist, he was with Jimmie Lunceford, Count Basie and dozens of other bands, most often as arranger rather than performer: Glenn Miller, Jan Savitt, Artie Shaw, Ina Ray Hutton, the Sweethearts of Rhythm. For a while he led an all-female band of his own.
Most notably, he was the first jazz musician to play and record on electric guitar.
“I was fooling around with amplifiers back in the Moten days,” he says. “I switched back and forth between electric and acoustic. With Lunceford I used a resonator to enhance the sound. With Basie I recorded an electric guitar solo in 1937, and in ’38 I played it on two small-group dates alongside several guys out of the band.”
It was not until 1939 that New York welcomed Charlie Christian (whom Durham had met in Oklahoma City: “I heard him playing acoustic, when he was still trying to figure out how to make the guitar sound like a horn”). Christian’s electric recordings with the Benny Goodman sextet brought the instrument permanently out of the shadows.
Durham has more than 1,500 credits as composer or co-writer of such works as “Topper,” “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire,” “Time Out,” “Out the Window,” “Every Tub,” “Lunceford Special,” “Blues in the Groove,” “Harlem Shout” and, for Glenn Miller, “Glen Island Special” and “Sliphorn Jive.”
“Glenn Miller was 100% with me--literally. He didn’t take a share of the composer royalties. So many of the bandleaders I worked with put their names on my songs and collected half the money.
“I played with Glenn only on a record. He had a complex about his playing, so I told him, ‘Get your mind off Tommy Dorsey! Let me bring my trombone to the session and we’ll make two takes on “Sliphorn Jive,” one with me and one with you.’ When they played them back to us, Glenn listened to one and said ‘That’s you.’ But it was Glenn! So we straightened him out on that. I never did know which take they released.”
Watson’s credits are hardly less impressive than Durham’s. Born in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., she started with a band led by the legendary saxophonist and composer Don Redman before moving on to Roy Eldridge, Lucky Millinder, Cootie Williams, Count Basie (“I was with Basie for over a year, but never got to record with him”), Tommy Reynolds, Louis Jordan, Buddy Tate and Duke Ellington.
“I didn’t record with Duke either--I was supposed to sing on his record of ‘Love You Madly,’ but one night Johnny Hodges insulted me onstage and I quit. I went to a club in Milwaukee and stayed seven months. Duke finally tracked me down and called up. ‘Why did you leave me, baby?’ He sweet-talked me into taking time off just to fly to Chicago and do one night with him at the Blue Note,” she says.
That was in 1951. Since then Watson has managed to make a living, possessing a major talent but always remaining on the fringe of the big time, sometimes leading her own trio or working alone. She joined the Harlem Blues & Jazz Band three years ago. “I never stopped working, never got married; I’ve always been independent.”
Watson and Durham enjoy the company they keep in the Harlem band. It includes Al Casey, the guitarist whose years with Fats Waller led to two Esquire All Stars awards; Eddie Chamblee, the tenor saxophonist who was among Dinah Washington’s half-dozen husbands; Bobby Williams, the trumpeter and nominal leader; Charles Bateman, piano; and John Williams, bass.
How much of Durham’s music will they play? Smiling wryly, he says, “Only head arrangements--if I wrote for them they wouldn’t rehearse. This band just likes to have fun.”