Drummer from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, who could tap-dance practically by the time he could walk, and tried out the bass, trombone and vibes before settling on the drums in junior-high school.
He played in the school band, but professional work beckoned, and he joined The Orioles at the age of sixteen. Purportedly, he appeared on their big hit, “Crying in the Chapel”, in 1953.
He enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1956 and played in the Marine band until 1959. Upon completion of his duty to Uncle Sam, he soon found work with Cat Anderson, Stan Hunter, Bull Moose Jackson and King James. He moved to the Big Apple in 1960, and played with a litany of jazz stars such as Benny Carter, Roy Eldridge, Tommy Flanagan, Dizzy Gillespie and Joe Pass .
In 1963, he laid down his first jazz track, “The Burner”, with Red Holloway. He also worked with Bill Davis and Johnny Hodges, who played saxophone for Duke Ellington. In 1967, he joined The Duke Ellington Orchestra, but it was a short-lived and tension-filled tenure. The chronology is fuzzy, but apparently Duke rode Bobby pretty hard and eventually fired him, perhaps after a concert which Oscar Peterson attended. It is believed that Peterson plucked him on the spot for his own trio.
The Oscar Peterson Trio was a better fit for him, as it turned out, at least when Ray Brown was playing bass. Bobby did not get along so well with Ray’s replacement, Sam Jones, and the two nearly came to blows on a train trip until Oscar , a giant of a man, intervened. It is probably just as well for Bobby. Although he boxed in his youth, he gave away four inches in height to the normally mild-mannered Jones.
In 1971, he quit the band and hooked up with another trio, this one led by Monty Alexander. However, he spent the better part of the ’70s performing with Ella Fitzgerald. This partnership began in 1973 or 1974 and lasted until the end of the decade. In 1983, he joined Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic for a tour of Japan.
He reunited with The Oscar Peterson Trio in the ’90s, this time with the famous line-up of Ray Brown and Herb Ellis intact. They recorded a series of live performances at the Blue Note and two of these won Grammy Awards. In the new millennium, he spent more and more time overseas, splitting time between the States and his homes in Basel, Switzerland, and Genoa, Italy. A well-traveled musician, according to his own account, Bobby played everywhere except Alaska, Arabia and Russia.
He started the perennial Bobby Durham Jazz Festival in 2004 on Cantone, an island near his home in Genoa. On 6th July 2008, he died of emphysema and lung cancer in Genoa, Italy.
For a good example of Bobby’s handiwork, check out the 1991 boxed set, Oscar Peterson Live at the Blue Note.
Here he is drumming in a live performance of J. Klemmer’s “Just Friends”…