Mike Durham died this morning, peaceably, his family at his bedside. He had been diagnosed with incurable brain cancer six or seven weeks ago.
Some of you might not know Mike Durham — from Newcastle, England. He played trumpet, cornet, and kazoo; he sang; he told stories and jokes; he ran a large-scale jazz party (the Whitley Bay International Jazz Festival or the Classic Jazz Party) for over two decades.
But all that is not as important as the feeling Mike inspired in people. When I heard of his death this morning, the words that leaped into my head were Eddie Condon’s — when Eddie was asked to comment on the death of Edmond Hall. And those words are my title. Mike would be happy to be mentioned in the same paragraph with Eddie and Edmond, for they made his kind of music. And the reverse was also true.
Mike had so many aspects or facets that it is hard to know where to start — should I begin with the trumpeter, jazz scholar, festival creator, charming man?
He had a deep sense of humor, so perhaps I will begin this post with an example of Mike in action (in front of my video camera, no less) — essaying a Ted Lewis favorite. Mike would have been amused by the juxtaposition of that title and this occasion, I assure you:
You see there a sly singer, a terse but effective trumpeter (when I first began to hear Mike, I knew he was no exhibitionist, but a subtle creator of epigrams, some sweet, some naughty). But I first came to know him as the indefatigable organizer of the annual Whitley Bay extravaganzas. He was gracious and kind, but efficient — and often just a touch exasperated — because he was someone for whom the difference between EXACTLY RIGHT and ALMOST THERE was clear. So I regret that I rarely had the time to see him when he was not in motion. I knew, however, that he was a man with depths.
In the four years I knew him (those weekends plus emails) when we could stop talking about the music that was swirling all around us, Mike would speak about something that always surprised me: his experiences in America while working for Proctor and Gamble (or, if I misremember, the large ad agency that handled P&G); his experiences with race relations in the American Midwest; his memories of his father; his serious love of American poetry — ranging from Emily Dickinson to the moderns, all of which he could recite at will. Right now the Mike I miss is not simply the trumpet player or singer, but the serious man whose utterances, never pompous, seemed deeply felt and deeply observed — I always went away from a conversation with Mike with his gently vehement words ringing in my head. (By “gently vehement” I mean that he was soft-spoken but emphatic, and his conversation gave one the sense that he had a clear sense of where he was going when he began . . . he didn’t ramble, meander, or repeat himself.) We had discussed plans to have dinner sometime and actually speak of things . . . but it never came to pass, so the half-dozen hallway conversations were all I ever got to savor.
But I knew him through the music. Mike loved and understood the hot jazz that shone and blossomed between the wars, and he and his friends took great pleasure in exploring those pathways on their own. He loved it when a band “got hot” and made the patrons and the room rock. And you could feel and see his pleasure whether he was leading the band or standing off to one side, tuxedo-clad, ready to introduce the next song.
His pleasure in the music was more serious, his belief in the purity of Hot was deeper than most people’s, and it resulted in his more than two decades’ of nearly religious devotion to its ideals. Mike didn’t think that simply playing his cornet (he was a great collector of brass instruments) with the West Jesmond Rhythm Kings or playing his records for friends was enough — the music deserved better. So his Whitley Bay parties were the most vivid, lively, and entertaining jazz “museums” I have ever encountered. With a cast of international jazz characters — male and female, European, Asian, and South American as well as the usual types — he strove to make the music come alive in front of our eyes and ears. He didn’t mind an ad hoc group of fellows and gals romping through LESTER LEAPS IN, but that was for the after-hours jam session in the Victory Pub. Mike’s idea of honoring jazz was serious, and it required much work: to have bands playing the music of particularly notable ensembles and soloists — playing it well, playing it accurately with fervor. I will offer a video example at the end of this blogpost so that you may understand what Mike did — working all year with his beloved wife Patti — so that we should know what the past REALLY must have sounded like. And the Rhythmakers, Bix and his Gang, the 1937 Goodman band, Louis and Lillie Delk Christian, and more. In 2012, he was recovering from an operation and was unable to play the trumpet, but he was a marvel of intense focus and energy — jazz listeners will understand so well that it is not only the musicians on the stand that make the music happen, but the festival organizer who has planned everything twelve months in advance.
A good deal of Mike’s catch-his-breath conversation was based on jokes . . . most of which were new to me, and he never got offended when I held up my hand and said, “Let me save your energy. Is the punchline ‘And she won’t either?’” He would move on to one that was even better.
Here I turn to my friend Bob (Sir Robert) Cox, who tells a story: “I knew Mike for 5 years, he always had ready wit and a story or joke to tell.
He was a great fan of Humphrey Lyttelton and his ‘Antidote to panel games’ I’m Sorry I haven’t a Clue‘. Four years ago Mike did a tribute to Humph to include his music and wit. Unfortunately, Mike left all his notes at home but managed to deliver a side splitting 50 minutes using quotes from a book of Humph’s I just happened to have with me and hastily scribbled notes I handed him from my memory about Samantha, Humph’s scorer on the programme.
Samantha has to go now as she’s off to meet her Italian gentleman friend who’s taking her out for an ice cream. She says she likes nothing better than to spend the evening licking the nuts off a large Neapolitan.
I will miss Mike as a friend and generous jazz patron.”
Patti Durham very kindly emailed me the news of Mike’s death; it was one of the first things I read this morning. Later today, at work, I encountered a colleague who told me of the death of her beloved partner — they had been together for four decades — and we both had a hard time not breaking down in the corridor. With a lump in my throat, I said to her, “The dead know when we weep over them,” something I deeply believe to be true.
But Mike was so impish that I think the tears I shed over him should be in the form of hot jazz. He was so open-handed in the music he gave us, the music he made possible, that I will close with this video — a small group led by Michel Bastide performing WA WA WA. “Why is that appropriate for memorial?” some of you might ask. Oliver, you might know, was a genius at making human sounds with his cornet and a variety of mutes; one of his specialties was imitating a baby crying (he and Bill Johnson had worked up an act that satirized how Caucasian and African-American babies cried). So my tears, our tears for Mike, will be expressed in JAZZ LIVES through a song whose title reminds me of weeping:
Yes, the 2013 Whitley Bay Classic Jazz Party will go on — as a living, energized memorial to Mike, run by several of the musicians and his young acolytes Julio and Jonathan. I am certain of this, and have booked a hotel room for that weekend.
I know, however, that I will be shocked a dozen or more times during the long jazz weekend because I will be looking for Mike — well-groomed, tall and slender, running his hand through his white hair in polite exasperation at something . . . the fact that I can’t sit him down and say, “Tell me more!” will make me sad whenever I think of him.
We lost a champion. We really did.
I send love and sorrow to Patti, Cassie, Chris, and the extended family. And now I can write no more.
P.S. For details of Mike’s funeral (March 21, 2013) please click here.
May your happiness increase.