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Solar-Powered Jazz

When Dick Durham played Beethoven’s “Pathetique” for his senior recital in the Chapel in 1964, Professor of Chemistry Paul McKinney ’52 turned the music pages for him.

“And if not for Paul McKinney, I wouldn’t have passed phys-chem and graduated,” the jazz pianist and thermal engineer recalls from his home in rural Maryland.

The quintessential Wabash Renaissance man, McKinney was a gifted scientist, actor, classical pianist, master of several languages, lover of literature, scholar of Nietzsche. He’d no doubt smile had he lived to walk around Durham’s Blue Note Farm, with its beautiful gardens and solar collectors on the grounds and all sorts of energy-saving devices throughout the house, where a new B¨osendorfer grand piano takes up one quarter of the living room.

“Professor McKinney also said I played ‘Pathetique’ faster than it had ever been played in the history of music,” Durham laughs as he lists the some of the other Wabash mentors who gave him “the ability to learn anything.”

“It’s a way of looking at things—nothing is insurmountable. I don’t know how I learned how to learn, but I know that the people at Wabash taught me.”

Men like English professors Bert Stern, Walter Fertig, and Owen Duston.

“They were not about pumping you full of knowledge; they were about giving you wisdom. The depth of these people was incredible.”

Wabash theater director Charlie Scott let Durham—who had just begun playing piano at Wabash—write the score for the Scarlet Masque production of She Stoops to Conquer. But it was Glee Club Director and music Professor Bob Mitchum H’59 who affirmed Durham’s desire to veer from the pre-med path his cardiologist father and playwright mother anticipated.

“Charlie thought the themes I wrote for different characters in the play were pretty cool, and he said, ‘You should keep doing this,’” Durham recalls. “But Mitch was the one who told me, ‘Pre-med is fine, but you’re not really that interested in it. I think you should be
a pianist, Durham.’ I said okay.

“The worst thing for me would have been to go to medical school like my father, grandfather, uncle, and brother. There was nothing wrong with that for them, but I wanted to be an itinerant musician, and my father said, ‘That’s fine—just be the best musician you can be.’”

(Hear a cut from Dick’s first album in the video below)

With his Wabash degree and his parents’ blessing he went on the road, playing clubs around Wilmington, DE, until he was drafted in 1967.

“I went through half of airborne training till they found out I was half blind and couldn’t jump out of an airplane.”

Sent to Fort Dix to do clerical work (jazz pianist=120 wpm typist!), Durham went AWOL one night to sit in with a band at a club, where an officer heard him play. The very day he was to begin serving guard duty for the infraction, he was transferred to the Army band, where he played out his time in the service.

“I was in the same group with Grover Washington, Jr., Billy Cobham, and a lot of fine musicians and fine people.”

After his discharge Durham brought his old trio back together and hit the road again, playing clubs and, most memorably, opening for the Count Basie Orchestra.

“We were the lead-in for Count Basie, walking into these smoky, funky rooms, drinking ripple wine, and watching this incredible group of musicians known as the Basie Band have fun.”

Radio host and New York Times jazz critic John Wilson wrote, “Durham has managed to expand the usual concept of jazz pianist…to draw on a wide variety of sound colors and textures.”

Durham earned his master’s degree in music from the University of Florida in 1971, but eventually the road became a grind. In the mid-1970s he found work he believed in and could also support him while he played jazz. He earned a certification in thermal engineering and in 1978 began installing passive solar collectors and promoting energy conservation through his company, Solar Energy Systems & Home Energy Service. He was a proponent and user of compact fluorescent lights, window insulation, and super insulation long before they became fashionable.

In a 1989 note to the College, Durham described his vocation as “still keeping alive the jazz music tradition while trying to save the world with solar energy and conservation product installations.”

He credits Wabash—and the need to finish college in three years because of a “faux- paus” his freshman year—with shaping the intellectual agility to simultaneously follow two such different career paths.

“I had to take 28-30 credit hours each semester and I found that I enjoyed occupying as many lobes of my brain as possible,” says Durham, who is blessed with what he calls an eidetic memory. “It was that learning to learn that was most important, especially when I began doing the solar work. It was an attitude Wabash ingrained in me—in the army if a furnace was broken, I fixed it; if someone’s car broke down, I fixed it.”

Durham ran his company for 25 years and continues to encourage conservation and sustainability practices while volunteering with the local town council, which recently dedicated a 14,000-panel solar array. In 2012 he celebrated his 70th birthday with a concert at The Mainstay, the Rock Hall, MD club he often plays and whose past performers include Charlie Byrd. He has twice received the Maryland governor’s Citation of Merit for his original musicals and has released two CDs in the past three years.

Durham says it takes two hours of practice daily just to maintain his skills, but that time is still the heart of his day. If being a jazz pianist hasn’t been lucrative, it’s been lifegiving, inspiring a way of seeing that Durham sums up as “open.”

“I think if you leave everything open, learn as much as you can, then still leave the doors open, something will happen for you. Don’t shut anything out.

“As William Blake said, ‘He who never alters his opinion is like standing water, and breeds reptiles of the mind.’”

Yeah, Paul McKinney would be smiling.