“Countless Blues” and “I Want a Little Girl” (1938) Lester Young with Eddie Durham and Buck Clayton

“Countless Blues”

Composed by Milt Gabler; arranged by Eddie Durham.

Recorded by The Kansas City Six for Commodore Records on September 8,(*) 1938 in New York.

Eddie Durham, electric guitar, directing: Lester Young, clarinet; Wilbur “Buck” Clayton, trumpet; Freddie Green, acoustic guitar; Walter Page, bass; Jo Jones, drums.

The story:

A seminal figure in the development of swing was the composer/arranger/guitarist/trombonist Eddie Durham (1906-1987). Although Durham was very active in the decade of the 1930s, possibly the apogee of the swing era, and was influential then, it seems that he became increasingly obscure starting in the years of World War II, and beyond, despite the fact that he remained quite active in music. It is my opinion that the serendipity that brought Durham into the musical world of the young saxophonist and pianist Loren Schoenberg in the 1970s has, due to Mr. Schoenberg’s advocacy on Durham’s behalf throughout his long and productive career as a historian and teacher, had the effect of helping to place Durham into his rightful position as an early avatar in the worlds of jazz and swing.(1) (At right: the pioneering and multi-talented Eddie Durham.)

The story of Eddie Durham’s early career in music provides the outlines of how jazz and swing were developing in the southwest and midwest territory bands of young Afro-American men in the 1920s. Durham, who was born in San Marcos, Texas, began working as a boy with a band comprised of six of Durham’s brothers. In this band, he started by playing guitar, then gradually developed his ability to double on trombone. His cousin, Herschel Evans, was also learning to be a professional musician in that band in the mid-1920s, playing alto saxophone. Durham then moved through a series of territory bands including the 101 Ranch Circus band (until 1926), then Edgar Battle’s Dixie Ramblers. During the next few years, Durham worked and toured with bands led by Eugene Coy, Jesse Stone, and Terrence Holder. Durham named Jesse Stone as one of his earliest mentors as an arranger. In Stone’s band, Durham met trumpeters Eddie Tompkins and Paul Webster, who later (early 1935) facilitated his entry into Jimmie Lunceford’s band. His employment with bassist Walter Page’s Blue Devils, starting in late 1929, was a pivotal early job in that it brought him into close contact with many of the musicians who would later be members of Count Basie’s first band, including trombonist Dan Minor, saxophonist Buster Smith, vocalist Jimmy Rushing, and of course Walter Page himself. Basie had been a member of the Blue Devils in 1928-1929, but apparently had left to join Bennie Moten’s band in Kansas City before Durham joined Page.

Basie became a conduit between the Page band and Bennie Moten’s band. For a host of reasons, Moten’s band was in a good place to benefit from the organized vice and corrupt politics that were quite entrenched in Kansas City in the early 1930s. The nub of it is that Moten’s band flourished in Kansas City during the early 1930s, despite the ever-deepening economic depression that was gripping the United States then. By late 1929, Eddie Durham was a member of Bennie Moten’s band. He would remain a member into 1933. Within the next couple of years, many of the members of Walter Page’s Blue Devils gradually joined Moten’s band. Indeed, by 1932, Walter Page was a member of Moten’s band.

Bennie Moten and His Orchestra at the Pearl Theater in Philadelphia in early 1931. L-R: Oran “Hot Lips” Page, Willie McWashington, Ed Lewis, Thamon Hayes, Woodie Walder, Eddie Durham, Count Basie, Jimmy Rushing, Leroy “Buster” Berry, Harlan Leonard, Bennie Moten, Vernon Page, Booker Washington, Ronald “Jack” Washington, Ira “Buster” Moten.

By 1933, Eddie Durham wanted to expand his musical horizons. After he left Moten, he worked very briefly with Cab Calloway, then with Andy Kirk. He settled in for a spell with Willie Bryant, acting as Bryant’s chief arranger. In early 1935, Durham joined Jimmie Lunceford’s band as a trombonist and arranger. “Pigeon Walk,” “Lunceford Special,” and “Blues in the Groove” were among the compositions Durham contributed to the Lunceford book. It was also during his time with Lunceford that he began experimenting more with using electrification to amplify the sound of his guitar. The Lunceford recordings of “Avalon,” “Hittin’ the Bottle,” and “Honey, Keep Your Mind on Me” offer glimpses into what Durham was doing then with his electric guitar.

Durham returned to his roots in a manner of speaking when he joined Count Basie’s relatively new big band in July of 1937. It appears that Basie, very much in need of an arranger who understood his band’s approach to swing at that time, signed Durham to a one-year contract. Shortly after joining Basie’s band, he began working on a couple of arrangements that Basie soon recorded: “One O’Clock Jump,”(2) which of course became Basie’s theme song, and “John’s Idea,” which utilized the contrasting approaches to the tenor saxophone taken by Basie’s two tenor saxophonists, Lester Young and Herschel Evans.

The early Count Basie band at the Meadowbrook in Cedar Grove, New Jersey – November 1937. L- R: Herschel Evans, Eddie Durham, Buck Clayton, Earl Warren, Bobby Moore, Dan Minor, Jack Washington, Ed Lewis, Benny Morton, Lester Young, Jo Jones, Freddie Green, Walter Page, Count Basie.

The flow of Durham arrangements and compositions into the repertoire of the Basie band began immediately. Among his works that were recorded: “Good Morning Blues,” with a Jimmy Rushing vocal; “Time Out,” “Topsy,” (Durham’s most famous composition); “Out the Window,” “John’s Idea,” “Every Tub,” “Swingin’ the Blues” and “Blue and Sentimental.” It is clear from this list that Eddie Durham’s musical impact on the early Count Basie band was great. In July of 1938, he left Basie, being replaced by trombonist Dicky Wells.

As a result of the work Durham did for Basie, his reputation as an arranger soared. He began working as a free-lance arranger, and soon placed many of his works in the mainstream (white) bands of Ina Ray Hutton, Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw and Jan Savitt. But all of that was just beginning when Durham was tapped to lead a group of Basie musicians on a jazz recording session for the Commodore label.

The music: 

There are three solos in this classic recording of “Countless Blues”: first by Eddie Durham on his electric guitar, then by Lester Young on clarinet, and finally by Buck Clayton on his cup-muted trumpet. The playing of these three musicians, but especially Young, exemplifies what the music historian and musician Gunther Schuller very perceptively wrote about in his book The Swing Era …The Development of Jazz – 1930-1945, when discussing Lester Young’s approach to jazz and swing. “My point is not that Lester Young was such a great blues player – at true as that may be – but rather that his blues-permeated musical aesthetic, an aesthetic nurtured in the musical traditions of the Southwest, not the East, shaped Lester’s music in special and original ways. For the blues, unlike ragtime, is fundamentally a linear concept of playing and singing. It had to be because it was a narrative form of expression. It is essentially a vocal tradition; it tells a story. And it does so in simple concentrated form in its original manifestations as sung and played by folk, not by professional musicians. As a consequence, blues in its pure forms has little to do with formal training, with technique (vocal or instrumental), with such matters as virtuosity, developing a wide vocal range, with ‘proper’ harmonies, or even with perfect intonation – attributes most essential, say, to ragtime and various Eastern seaboard antecedents of jazz. In these latter forms, primarily instrumental, the vertical demarcation of the music – into beats, into meters, into simple, regular and usually symmetrical phrase structures – was primary. It was its raison d’etre. In Southwestern music, and particularly in the blues, the emphasis is on line, on flow, on phrases and sentences, and to some extent even the acceptance of asymmetry – in short, projecting a horizontal form.” (3)

This performance starts with Eddie Durham creating a funky introduction on his electric guitar. What he plays and how he plays it is redolent of the blues he grew up with in the Southwest. A chorus of riffs follows. The Basie-less rhythm section of Freddie Green on acoustic rhythm guitar, Walter Page on bass and Jo Jones whispers behind the two-voice ensemble of Lester Young on clarinet and Buck Clayton on cup-muted trumpet. Notice how Durham fills in the openings on his electric guitar in this chorus. Durham then steps forward with two down-home blues choruses. Lester Young plays next, with his clarinet sound and conception strongly evoking how he played the tenor saxophone, which is to say with immense personality, and of course great jazz ideas. Buck Clayton takes his turn on cup-muted trumpet, swinging the blues subtly and persuasively through his two choruses. Notice that he starts his solo by referring obliquely to the riffy blues “Sent For You Yesterday,” which had been evolving along the Durham-Basie-Rushing axis since late 1930, when they recorded “That Too, Doo,” with Bennie Moten’s Kansas City Orchestra, which later morphed into “Good Morning Blues,” and finally into “Sent For You Yesterday.”(4)

“I Want a Little Girl”

Composed by Murray Mencher (music); Billy Moll (lyric).

Recorded by The Kansas City Six for Commodore Records on September 8,(*) 1938 in New York.

Eddie Durham, electric guitar, directing: Lester Young, clarinet; Wilbur “Buck” Clayton, trumpet; Freddie Green, acoustic guitar; Walter Page, bass; Jo Jones, drums.

The story: Here is the background of how the Kansas City Six recording session that produced the two recordings presented in this post, and three others, “Them There Eyes,” “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans,” and “Pagin’ the Devil” came to pass. “On March 18, 1938, John Hammond had produced for the American Record Company a recording session that featured Eddie Durham, backed by Buck Clayton, Freddie Green, Walter Page and Jo Jones. When ARC showed no interest in releasing these recordings, Hammond approached Milt Gabler with an eye to having them released on Gabler’s fledgling Commodore label. Gabler agreed – provided he could supplement the titles with five more, to be performed by the same group, but with Lester Young added on clarinet and tenor saxophone. Gabler had admired Young’s clarinet playing in the Basie band, and he wanted to record Young playing clarinet in the most congenial of settings.”(5) The recordings produced at the September 28, 1938 Commodore session became a sensation among jazz cognoscenti because of great performances by everyone involved, but particularly because of Lester Young’s clarinet playing.

Another interesting sidelight about this recording session was that Billie Holiday was present in the studio for at least a part of the time the musicians worked to produce the five issued sides and five alternates. She and Freddie Green were involved romantically at that time, and Billie coached Green on his vocal outing on “Them There Eyes,” by silently mouthing the lyric for it to Green as he sang.(6)

Yet another fascinating detail is that after Hammond established this “back channel” to get recordings he produced (or wanted to produce) first for ARC, and later for Columbia, made and/or issued when there were obstacles at the major company, he used it again to get Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” recorded by and issued on the Commodore label.(7)

The music:

“I Want a Little Girl” was first recorded in 1930 by McKinney’s Cotton Pickers. Not much more happened with the tune until this recording of it was made, followed by one made in 1940 by Count Basie with Jimmy Rushing singing. After that, it became a semi-standard, at least among jazz musicians.

Although Buck Clayton’s trumpet-playing on this recording is superb, it is Lester Young on clarinet who once again stops the show. Historians, music critics and fans have struggled to convey in words what they hear and feel when listening to Lester’s oblique solo on this recording. Here are a couple of fairly successful attempts: “Young’s solo…seems to have been blown, mist-like, into the air.” (Loren Schoenberg)  “Young’s weightlessly ethereal clarinet sound suited the (musical) texture of (this recording) perfectly.” (Richard M. Sudhalter).

Various commentators over the years have stated, incorrectly in my view, that Lester played a metal clarinet on these recordings. I disagree, and so does Loren Schoenberg, the ranking Young expert these days. Benny Goodman had given Lester one of his (wooden) clarinets earlier in 1938, and Lester loved playing it, and did so for a period of time, until it was stolen. Also, there are photos of Lester with the Basie band at the Famous Door jazz club through the summer and early autumn of 1938, when this recording was made, playing a wooden, not metal, clarinet. (One of those photos appears at left.)

The recordings presented with this post were digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.

Notes and links:

(*) The date Wednesday September 28, 1938, which is erroneous, has been given for this recording session in some sources. The date Tuesday September 27, 1938 has also been given. Based on the information set forth below provided by historian Joe Knox, the recording date of Thursday September 8, 1938 has been verified by primary historical source evidence. (See comments of Joe Knox below.)

(1) A compendium of materials related to Eddie Durham’s life and career entitled: Swingin’ the Blues …The Virtuosity of Eddie Durham, was published in 2018. It was assembled, written and edited by Mr. Durham’s daughter, Topsy M. Durham. The book contains much precious original information and many photographs of and about Eddie Durham. It also contains many reminiscences by Mr. Durham himself, and others who were a part of his life. This book is a point of departure for scholars and historians who are interested in the life and work of Eddie Durham.

(2) “One O’Clock Jump” was a blues that, like much other music in the repertoire of the Basie band, started out as a series of riffs. Alto saxophonist Buster Smith was probably the first arranger to formalize, at least to some extent, that tune as an arrangement. Eddie Durham further modified what Smith had begun.

(3) The Swing Era …The Development of Jazz – 1930-1945, by Gunther Schuller (1989), 548.

(4) Count Basie …A Bio-discography, by Chris Sheridan (1986), 9.

(5) Giants of Jazz … Lester Young, notes on the music by Richard M. Sudhalter (1980), 36.

(6) Liner notes for Lester Young and the Kansas City Sessions, by Loren Schoenberg, Commodore Vault/GRP CMD-402 (1997), 7.

(7) Here is a link to Billie Holiday’s classic recording of “Strange Fruit”: https://swingandbeyond.com/2018/04/29/strange-fruit-1939-billie-holiday/

Here are links to other great recordings by Count Basie’s band of Eddie Durham’s music:

https://swingandbeyond.com/2020/10/03/every-tub-1938-count-basie-with-lester-young-and-sweets-edison/

https://swingandbeyond.com/2020/01/04/blue-and-sentimental-1938-count-basie-with-herschel-evans-and-lester-young-and-1969/

https://swingandbeyond.com/2018/06/30/sent-for-you-yesterday-live-1939-count-basie-with-jimmy-rushing/

Here is a link to Durham’s most popular tune, “Topsy,” in a great performance by Benny Goodman:

https://swingandbeyond.com/2016/09/28/bud-benny-and-the-high-holidays/

And here is a link to a great swing era anthem, “In the Mood,” with the story of its creation, including Eddie Durham’s involvement in Glenn Miller’s classic recording of it: https://swingandbeyond.com/2018/07/07/in-the-mood-1938-edgar-hayes-and-1939-glenn-miller/

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6 Comments

  1. Hi Mike — Greetings from RojoLand!

    I’m curious as to how the recording date was determined to be 28 September. The session encompasses ARC matrices 23421/5 inclusive, which do fit neatly between 23415/8 inclusive (Leighton Noble, 7 Sep 1938) and 23428/33 inclusive (Al Donahue, 9 Sep 1938), so the 8 Sep 1938 date seems logical. [I have no listings for 23419/20 and 23426; 23427 is a dub of Rev. J. M. Gates’ “Dead Cat On The Line”, OKeh mx W 402358.] Commodore 509, at least my copy of it, does not bear recording or issue dates (but matrix numbers are on the labels as well as in the wax).

    Take care,

    J. E. Knox “The Victor Freak”

    • Joe, if your information indicates that these five sides were in fact recorded by ARC on September 8, 1938, then that should settle the matter, as you cite a primary source, the ARC matrix numbers. The information I used were two secondary sources which were published many years after the source I referred to which stated that the recordings were made on September 8, 1938. My assumption was that the later sources were using more accurate or more recent information. That assumption is not correct based on your ARC matrix numbers. Also, I am curious as to the place these recordings were made. Was it the ARC studio on Seventh Avenue, or the one Commodore used on Fifth Avenue?

      • Hi Mike — Greetings from RojoLand!

        I would place the venue as 1776 Broadway, the ARC studio at the time. Not sure exactly when the move to 799 Seventh Avenue was done but I think it was sometime in 1939, after CBS had purchased ARC. (799 Seventh Avenue was the former Brunswick studio, taken over by Decca for a time from its onset in 1934 until they moved to 50 W. 57th St. a few years later.)

        The matrices for this session are prefixed ‘P’ indicating a private, or personal, recording (in this case, made for Commodore Music Shop). I’m not up on Commodore’s use of a Fifth Avenue studio — could that be 711 Fifth Avenue, home of World Studios? Will have to look at my Commodore 78s; some could certainly have ‘WP’ matrix prefixes which would have been made at World. [That ‘W’ is not to be confused with the ‘W’ used on Columbia and OKeh electrics of the 1920s-’30s to indicate a Western Electric recording.] Later Commodores were made at Reeves (R- mx prefix), and another studio unknown to me (A- mx prefix).

        Take care,

        J. E. Knox “The Victor Freak”

        • Thanks Joe. Your research and the evidence you have provided have clarified the historical record on these issues. I have changed the blog post accordingly. Indeed, the Fifth Avenue studio Commodore often used was the World studios, formerly the NBC studios, later Fine Sound, at 711 Fifth Avenue, near 55th.

  2. Making the point that musical expression is more important than virtuosity, Artie Shaw said of Lester Young, “he played better clarinet than many people who played clarinet better than him.” Young’s clarinet playing strongly influenced many younger saxophone players who also played clarinet, including Jimmy Giuffre, Art Pepper, Gerry Mulligan, and Phil Woods.

  3. Being a guitar player myself, I’ve long been a fascinated admirer of Eddie Durham’s very personal — indeed seminal — approach to what would eventually become a highly prominent instrument in jazz. He had a sound all his own, as the classic Kansas City Five & Six sides, some of my all-time favorite small group recordings, attest. It was Eddie’s arresting solos on a handful of Lunceford records, however, through which I became aware of of his unique sound in this particular role (among several!) of guitarist. Though obviously the KC Five & Six sides weren’t the first instance in which a guitar was part of the front line, I think the fact that Eddie was playing electric makes these performances especially important and anticipatory of the soon-to-be Charlie Christian Revolution.

    I remember being very impressed when I first read that BG had given Pres one of his own clarinets — I can think of no greater compliment that Benny could have paid Lester’s playing than making a present of one of his own instruments. I’ve always rated Pres my favorite tenor, but I love his clarinet work, too, which displays a very similar voice. The delicacy of his sound seems so representative of his gentle, sensitive personality. It seems a pity to me that he largely abandoned the instrument, on which he had such a personal and haunting tone, as distinctive as those of Goodman, Shaw, Bigard, Fazola, Ed Hall, Johnny Mince — as distinctive, in fact, as his own tenor, which emerged as the antithesis of Hawk’s robust, baroque style. Pres always swung, but he always told a story, to borrow his own phrase — as exemplified on this session’s ballad.

    Ol’ “Cup-Mute Clayton,” as he was later immortalized on the ’45 Ike Quebec record, plays thoughtfully on both of these sides. I always associate “I Want a Little Girl” most closely with him, as it appears to have been a favorite of his. He’s glorious, both muted and open, on this KC Six version.

    Finally, we can appreciate here, as always, the litheness of the Basie rhythm — or the three-quarters present on these sides. The rapport among these brilliant artists is so apparent, and has of course become a model for countless (no pun intended) rhythm sections.

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