“Ain’t None of Them Play Like Him Yet” The Great Harry James on Trumpet

I have anticipated writing this post for a long time, and this is the time. I choose my blog topics using the same rationale that motivates the author, David McCullough. “I write the things I would like to read,” to paraphrase Mr. McCullough. The most pleasurable and rewarding post themes inevitably reflect both the writer’s knowledge of and an enthusiasm for the subject at hand. While my knowledge concerning the great trumpet player and jazz/swing pioneer Harry James may be less than complete, my appreciation of his musical talent and his ascent to the top of our popular music culture knows no bounds.

My great interest in and enthusiasm for the Harry James story stems from the fact that I have long been an amateur trumpet player who loves the instrument and who finally recognized, later in life, the unsurpassed talent of Harry James. I am always fascinated by greatness and its root-sources, no matter what the venue: science, music, whatever. And the life of Harry James has all the lure of a rags-to-riches story, including life-lessons on handling overwhelming fame and fortune.

The Greatest Trumpet Player of All Time?

The life of Louis Armstrong is another trumpet player’s rag-to-riches story, even more so. I attach a link to my earlier post on him at the end of this post. Louis appeared on the scene some ten years prior to Harry James. Armstrong, more than anyone else, pioneered the music and the style of playing that led to the popular groundswell called swing/jazz that swept depression era America in the early nineteen-thirties. Along with his uncanny innovation, Louis was a decidedly better player than the rest of the competition in his time, and that competition was heavily centered on black musicians who were hearing Armstrong’s musical message early-on. One white cornet player did come along closely riding Armstrong’s innovative coattails. His name: Bix Beiderbecke. He was the first white player whose style not only echoed the avante-garde movement of the best black players but added a unique flavor that was all his own. Armstrong watched with amusement as his peers attempted to copy Beiderbecke’s appealing style…and could not! It led to a famous comment by Armstrong: “Ain’t none of them play like him yet!”

The same is true of Harry James, even after all the years. Unlike Bix Beiderbecke whose short career ended at age 29 when he died alone in a Bronx apartment from rampant alcoholism, James set musical standards for swing and jazz playing for over forty years. And no one combined the technical proficiency and musicality that James possessed. He was not only the best soloist, he also formed and led bands and smaller ensembles for most all his active career – no small feat.

As for Harry James, I maintain that: “Ain’t none of them play like him yet!”

Louis Armstrong and Harry James knew each other well and held great respect for each other as musicians. I believe Louis would agree about Harry’s overall genius.

Fame and Life in the Fast Lane

As much as I am a fan of his trumpet talent and the musical legacy he forged as a pioneering musician in the era of swing and jazz, that regard is not based on any presumption that Mr. James led a thoroughly admirable life. Who does? On the contrary, Harry James seemed bent on squandering his remarkable talent via his penchant for alcohol and women. Even so, his love of vodka and the lure of willing women could not derail his dedication to music nor his remarkable talent for playing the trumpet. Doc Severenson, the well-known trumpet player and band leader for the late Johnny Carson, once remarked about his pal Harry that James was the only trumpet player he ever knew (and he knew a lot of them) whose playing on the bandstand actually got better as his alcohol intake increased over the course of an evening. Harry’s talent on the horn was so great that he neither feared the possible effects of alcohol on his playing nor needed any boost from it while on the bandstand.

As for beautiful women, “beautiful” seems an inadequate description of the many women Harry James bedded as bandleader of the nation’s premier swing/jazz band. A beautiful face and figure were not requirements for Harry, although they certainly helped. Some of his trysts were so plain of face, even homely, that his band joked that a paper bag would be an appropriate sex-aid for their leader. Harry basically loved the attention of women, and he was not always too particular.
At the peak of his popularity, James had his pick of the lovelies who made themselves clearly available in front of the bandstand.

While playing with the Art Hicks band early in his career, Harry fell in love with the band’s fine young vocalist, Louise Tobin. They were married in May of 1935 and experienced a few lean years, initially, as Harry’s career started to gain traction. The marriage ended in 1943.

In 1943, as Harry and his “Harry James Music Makers” were enjoying national attention, he wooed and won Betty Grable, the favorite pin-up girl of GI’s during World War II. Alas, even the union of the country’s most famous swing/jazz musician and Hollywood’s blond bombshell with the gorgeous legs could not consummate, for all time, what initially seemed a fairy-tale romance. Harry never lost his roving eye while on the road with the band traveling between musical gigs. Nonetheless, in 1943, Harry James found himself and his new wife directly in the celebrity spotlight – perhaps the most famous and envied couple in the country. He, the hot new trumpet player/bandleader with the swinging band and a recent million-seller recording of You Made Me Love You, and she, one of the most beautiful and glamorous young stars in Hollywood.

A Circus Background and an Eighth Grade Education

But let us go back in time to the unlikely beginnings and ultimate journey of this young man named Harry Haag James. Haag? What kind of middle name is Haag? James’ middle name was chosen in honor of Ernest Haag the personable owner/promoter of “The Mighty Haag Show,” essentially a traveling circus which toured the south and southeast in the early nineteen-hundreds. Traveling with the Haag Show meant elephants, performers, and circus wagons traveling in the dead of night to reach the next town by daybreak in order to erect the tents for the next night’s performance. There was rain and there was mud and inconvenience galore – a truly hard-scrabble existence with bright but fleeting spots of show-biz glamour at show-time. Prior to radio and the appearance of traveling bands, the circus provided the only excitement outlet for most of rural America, so business was good…until radio made its inroads in the mid-twenties.

Everette James first joined the Haag show in 1906 as circus bandleader. He had come to this position with a reputation as a pretty fair cornet player (the shorter, mellower kissing cousin to the trumpet) as well as a strong connection with music. He met soon-to-be wife, Maybelle, a featured aerialist in the show during those early years when they traveled in true circus fashion from town to town. In 1916, they welcomed a new little son to the family and named him Harry Haag James.

The Essence of the Harry James Musical Legend

In assessing the greatness of any unusually accomplished and successful individual, the source of that greatness is often posed in the form of the question: “nature or nurture?” I believe that Harry James turned out to be the musical icon that he was because he had both nature and nurture thoroughly covered. As for nature: his father was clearly talented musically, which included possessing great physical “chops” for playing the cornet/trumpet – a significant factor when talking about greatness on the instrument. Harry’s facial features were very much like those of his father and very well-suited to the trumpet mouthpiece. Vibration of the upper lip within the trumpet mouthpiece is the source of all sound produced on the instrument. Skill on the trumpet is, at the same time, that simple and that complicated. Even a decent level of proficiency is not easy to attain. I can vouch from first-hand experience that the level of ability attained and maintained by Harry James is almost incomprehensible to us mere mortals who “play.” Harry James’ overall musicality, considered apart from his technique on the trumpet, is even more difficult to describe and quantify. Musicality like his is a neurological amalgam of complex ear/brain connections, with excellent small muscle-memory thrown-in to enable fine technique on the instrument. Human experience suggests that these characteristics/capabilities can be inherited to one degree or another.

Benny Goodman on the Nature of Prodigies and Talent

The role that heredity, or “nature,” plays in overall musical talent was best summed up by the man who first propelled Harry James into the limelight – the great clarinetist/bandleader, Benny Goodman. I vividly recall watching a CBS television interview of Goodman conducted many years ago by a (then) very young Diane Sawyer who asked, “What does it take to be a truly great (swing/jazz) musician like yourself?” Benny Goodman barely hesitated before answering, “You have got to be born with it.” He might also have added that you must want it! Goodman knew because he lived it himself, and he was never given to any sense of false modesty when asked about it. Despite the arduous training and practicing on his own instrument when growing up, he knew from his decades of experience that “nature” ultimately dominates as the final factor in the equation of musical greatness – given that the necessary hard work and persistence are present.

As for “nurture,” the influence of outside experiences, guidance, and inspiration, young Harry had the run of the circus grounds, ultimately spending most of his time around and on his father’s circus bandstand. The musicians saw the young, precocious boy as a mascot of sorts for the band and readily took him in. By the age of ten, Harry was capably leading his father’s circus band through its entire repertoire.

Everette had begun giving young Harry formal cornet/trumpet lessons by the time the youngster was six years of age. The show-biz glitz of circus life as seen from the bandstand not only gave the youngster a taste of the bright lights of the entertainment world, it gave him a solid footing in the challenges and rewards of being a professional musician. The fleeting glamour spotlight of show-business offered by traveling “mud shows” like The Mighty Haag circus and, later, the Christy Brothers Circus were but a dim premonition of the piercing, bright-lights of the big-time that young Harry would experience in his early twenties as he burst upon the big-band swing craze that was then sweeping America in 1936.

Everette James: Trumpet Lessons Always Before Baseball

To summarize: the best of “nature and nurture” were possessed by Harry James given his father’s inherent musical talents (called genes) and the complete grounding in musicianship he absorbed by constantly being on and around the circus bandstand with Everette. But the primary factor that cemented Harry’s future greatness and set him far apart from the rest was the father’s recognition of his son’s musical potential and his determination not to let that underlying talent go to waste. Thus, began the regimen of disciplined trumpet lessons at the age of six. Everette James proved to be a talented and demanding cornet/trumpet teacher as well as a fine player. Wanting something better for his son than the musical position he himself held in a second-tier, hard-scrabble, mud-show circus band/orchestra, he began teaching his son the rudiments and the fine points of playing the cornet/trumpet. His instruction, the discipline and the thoroughness of his method, went far beyond the expected, comfortable father/son relationship. Everette informed Harry that he would settle for no less than an all-out effort from his son. Young Harry quickly advanced to the bible of all trumpet instruction: the Arban Method. Mastering the exercises in this thick manual is Mount Everest for even the most technically advanced classical trumpet players (think first-chair trumpet in the Chicago Symphony, for example). Very few if any famous jazz trumpeters ever mastered Arban let alone worked extensively from it. Harry did. On many a fine afternoon, when young Harry wanted to join his friends playing baseball, Everette told him he could not quit music practice that afternoon until he could play, perfectly for his father, the assigned pages in the Arban book of trumpet exercises. Once he demonstrated his mastery of the lesson by playing without error, he was free to go play his beloved game of baseball.

Young Harry reportedly often chafed at this paternal discipline, but he respected his father and the strict practice regimen Everette insisted upon. Harry recalled in one of his late-in-life television interviews that his dad would say to him, “Some day you will thank me for being this way.” The discipline surely took a toll on Harry’s psyche in one way or another, but his father’s tough love ultimately made Harry the star player he became – there is no doubt about it. His ability to play the most intricate and difficult classical trumpet pieces like “Carnival of Venice” or the most demanding, high-register improvised jazz riffs without sloughing or fluffing a single note along the way set him apart from most every other trumpet player on the planet. After many years of listening to both Harry James and Benny Goodman recordings, it dawned on me that I virtually never heard even a compromised note or passage in the many intricate and difficult pieces they performed, whether recorded or live. That is a most remarkable reflection on their artistry!

But Harry James offered much more than complete technical mastery as a player: many classically trained players in large symphony orchestras can demonstrate a similar ability. Harry James’ playing also displayed an inventive musicality which, along with his complete mastery of the instrument, allowed him to improvise and create marvelous music passages – on the spot. This ability gave rise to the distinctive style of James’ playing, a style which reflected the influence of Louis Armstrong and which, along with his technical excellence, set him still farther apart from the other fine players of the day. He could sight-read and play sheet music perfectly, note-for-note, as written, but he could also concoct and insert fabulous jazz riffs on the fly and make them shimmer. The ability to play like that is what made Harry James so unique. That degree of musical/jazz sensibility is not something that can be taught at Julliard: you must be born with it, as Benny Goodman well understood. A perfect example of the “James treatment” can be heard in his jazzed-up version of the classic Carnival of Venice which was another of his early big recording hits. That piece showcases both his technical prowess and the musical inventiveness so crucial to swing/jazz.

Harry James was a very accomplished trumpet player by his early teens. He was, in fact, the epitome of a child prodigy on the instrument. While at Dick Dowling Junior High School in Beaumont, Texas, Harry was already playing (on advance-loan) in the Beaumont high school band. In 1931, while still in junior high, he entered a prestigious, Texas-wide music competition sponsored by the Texas Band Teacher’s Association to be held in Temple, Texas. For his selection, he played Neptune’s Court, an extremely difficult cornet piece made famous by the great Herbert L. Clarke, pioneering cornet player and an idol to Everette James.

The Start of Something Big

The surviving eyewitness accounts of the Texas music competition finals shed light on just how good a trumpet player Harry James was. The reports speak of a performance that literally blew the socks off older competitors and judges alike. One competitor in the contest recalled James’ performance many years later: “I remember it like it was yesterday because it was so outstanding. To hear a kid that young play so excellently, so perfectly, was just earthshaking. There were a lot of good trumpet players in high school, but none of them like that – so completely above every other musician in that whole state concert. He astounded the judges so much that they wanted to give him 100 per cent but they said they never had been able to do that, so they gave him a 98. I knew Harry was really headed for big things.”

Following his graduation from Dick Dowling Junior High, young James began playing regularly with professional dance bands near his parents’ home in Beaumont, Texas. Graduation from Dowling Junior High marked the end of Harry James’ formal education. At best, even his attendance during those eight years of schooling was spotty, given the demands of circus travel schedules. After winning the Texas state championship so convincingly, word of this trumpet prodigy spread quickly. His first step up to a name band came in 1932 when he joined “The Phillips Flyers” band of Joe Gill. He then graduated to the group headed by Art Hicks and, soon, he received an offer from the well-regarded band of Ben Pollack.

In December of 1936, word reached Benny Goodman, via his brother, Irving Goodman, about this great young player named Harry James. Benny wasted no time in checking out the claim and, very quickly, young Harry James received a solid offer of $150 per week to join Ziggy Elman and Chris Griffin, forming one of the all-time great big-band trumpet sections in swing/jazz history. Soon, Harry James was lead trumpet in the Benny Goodman band – about as high-up on the music ladder as possible short of fronting one’s very own band.

“I Feel Like a Whore in Church”

The 1938 Benny Goodman band, was considered by Goodman himself, and just about everyone else, to be one of the all-time best bands ever assembled. The roster was packed with star musicians, and the driving force behind the band’s great output was the duo of drummer Gene Krupa and lead trumpet, Harry James. The date January 16, 1938 represents a significant milestone in not only classical music history, but in the evolution of swing/jazz as “America’s music.” For the first time in its storied history, staid Carnegie Hall would feature a musical program other than classical. Some classicists were aghast at the prospect. The Benny Goodman band would present a program of the latest swing/jazz music, then taking America by storm. Arranging the concert was difficult in the first place, and there was much anxiety over how the Hall’s black-tie/formal audience would receive the program.

Fifteen minutes before the program was scheduled to begin, Harry James nervously peeked around the stage curtain at the formally attired audience settling into their seats and uttered one of the great comments of the age: “I feel like a whore in church!” The Goodman Orchestra started off the program a bit tentatively. Drummer, Gene Krupa, sensing the situation and throwing caution to the wind began to let go on his drum set. The band’s tempo and the audience reaction responded immediately, and the rest of the program rocked the house. It was a smashing success, all told, establishing for swing/jazz a prominent and prestigious position in the national consciousness. Now the horses were truly out of the barn, and the era of swing had formally arrived in America.

Benny Goodman: Another Legendary Great

The Benny Goodman story and his rise to fame is similar to that of Harry James. Benny made his musical mark several years prior to James’ smash debut. Like Harry, Benny had a very long and very distinguished career in music – another truly legendary musician. In 1938, Goodman was dubbed the “King of Swing” by music critics and adoring fans, alike. Benny, like so many of the great swing bandleaders, was one tough customer, but in a more subtle way than most. One thing for certain: Benny was not known for according accolades to other musicians, but when asked many years later about the early days when Harry James played lead trumpet for him, he stated fondly, but succinctly, “Harry could do it all on the trumpet.” That is about as good as it gets coming from Benny Goodman who could do it all on the clarinet, and his comment could not be more complimentary. He and Harry were very different personalities but alike in some key areas. Like Goodman, a master technician on his instrument and a lover of playing classical music (not on the bandstand), Harry also had a classical vein which ran through his musical tastes. Goodman acquired his classical leanings and his impeccable playing technique from his early boyhood German music teacher, Franz Schoepp, and James from his grounding on the fine points of classical training and playing which came from his father – the only music teacher Harry James ever had. Professor Schoepp reputedly had a tremendous aversion to “that jazz music” that young Benny had begun to discover.

The Irresistible Force of Great Talent and Future Fame

Everette James must have been a man of contradictions, perhaps unwillingly. While recognizing his young son’s unlimited musical potential – and encouraging it – he did not wish for Harry the life of a traveling musician, like his own. That, of course, is precisely the life Harry James lived, only at altitudes well above the mud and inconveniences of circus life. Surprisingly, Everette had visions of his son as a concert musician or even a lawyer or doctor, yet he presumably never encouraged Harry to continue his education beyond junior high! I believe that Everette James could not or would not ignore his son’s great musical talent and potential. After Harry won the Texas State music competition as a junior high-schooler and began playing professionally around the Beaumont area, he came to his father and insisted that it was time for the elderly man and Maybelle to let him take care of them through his earnings as a musician. Undoubtedly, his plan resonated with Everette after he and his wife had traveled for so many years with several circus shows cobbling together a somewhat meager existence. Everette James had also worked for years at non-music jobs in-between circus shows in order to keep food on the table. The inevitable was now happening for Harry James, and it was happening rapidly.

Harry James Discovers Frank Sinatra; Yes, That Is True!

1939 found Harry planning to break away from Benny Goodman and start his own band. Despite the fabulous experience gained playing for Goodman and the numerous musical contacts now available to him, James found the initial months on his own very daunting. When he left Benny, he and Louise had a total of $400 in the bank. Goodman stepped in to help finance Harry, but he did him no favor relative to terms of the financial agreement! Late one evening in June of 1939, while preparing for a train trip to Boston, Harry’s wife Louise was packing a suitcase while Harry napped. The radio was tuned to station WNEW’s Dance Parade, a remote broadcast scheduled from 11:30 pm until midnight. The live music was coming from a little North Jersey roadside steakhouse called the Rustic Cabin.

The Cabin’s small band was playing dance music, and there was an occasional male vocal. Something about the voice and the musical phrasing in those vocals caught Louise’s attention, and she decided to wake Harry for his opinion. “Honey, you might want to hear this kid on the radio!” Harry’s new band was looking for a male vocalist, so Louise took a chance and woke her husband from his nap.

Harry agreed that the vocals had merit, so the next night after his show at New York’s Paramount Theatre, he drove down to this inauspicious little roadside place in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey to check it out. The Rustic Cabin’s manager explained that they had no singer, just an emcee/waiter who occasionally sang with the little band. James sat back and listened. Afterward, Harry James was introduced to a skinny, young kid named Francis Albert Sinatra, currently employed at the Rustic Cabin, earning fully $15 per week and looking for a way out – a pathway to better things. James later related that, after hearing eight bars of Night and Day from the youngster that evening, he felt the hairs begin to stand up on the back of his neck; Harry was convinced that young Sinatra had a great future. A one-year contract for $75 per week ensued and turned Francis Albert Sinatra’s life around: it was not the money; it was the golden pathway to stardom laid at his feet by another legend-in-the-making, Harry James. Sinatra never, ever, forgot what Harry James did for him that night at the Rustic Cabin. After a sparkling year with the Harry James band, Sinatra was seduced away by Tommy Dorsey and his established and very popular band. It was the combined experiences in the James/Dorsey bands that refined Sinatra’s innate talents sufficiently to ultimately make him a superstar. After less than two years with Dorsey, Sinatra left to become his own main attraction in the great music venues of the day. He became arguably the finest male vocalist of all time. The Rustic Cabin is long gone, but the story that unfolded there one night in June, 1939, brims with magic.

The Harry James Trumpet Method: Everette and Harry Collaborate

As Harry’s fame began to skyrocket in 1941, the Robbins Music Company published a book on trumpet instruction and practice exercises that was a collaborative and substantial effort between father and son. That book provides insight into the disciplined approach to playing handed down from father to son. More accurately, perhaps, I should say “from grandfather to grandson” since the book reveals that Everette’s own father preceded him as a cornet player and circus bandleader! Harry James, indeed, had quite the lineage as a player. I just received my own copy of this very collectible trumpet publication. It has been out of print for many decades, now, so I am happy to have a nice copy.

Harry James and His New Band Hit the Big-Time!

By 1942, the Harry James band had arrived. He had rcorded an all-time hit on Columbia Records,You Made Me Love You, and his band was featured with the Andrews Sisters in the 1942 move release, Private Buckaroo. The recording remains an icon of the big-band era as do many others by James. The movie’s only virtue is as a showpiece for the performer’s talents – the only way for rural fans in America to witness these stars. Any sensible plot or movie screenplay is non-existent, here. There is some fine trumpet playing in the film, but the opening scene visible behind the rolling credits is what justified my outlay of several dollars for a DVD. The film’s opening credits roll down the screen in the forefront of images of an intimate nightclub dance floor with Harry James fronting his band and playing his evocative rendition of You Made Me Love You. After the band’s intro, vocalist Helen Forrest strides onstage to do her part, and she does it well. She does not have a vocal on the actual recording of that number, so it is wonderful to see her perform, with Harry and the band, perhaps his greatest hit of them all in this film.

Forging Legends in a Tumultuous Business (Music)

Helen Forrest was, in my opinion and that of many others, the finest of all the many female big-band singers. She recorded many hits with James (and others) – a dynamic instrumental/vocal duo with strong personal overtones. There was a long-term relationship between the two that was far more difficult for Ms. Forrest to deal with than it was for James. It has been written that she was crushed when she learned of Harry’s marriage to Betty Grable in 1943. Ms. Forrest wrote very candidly about her life with Harry and the music business, in general, in her up-front book, I Had the Craziest Dream. The book’s title derived from yet another smash hit she recorded with Harry and the band. When Ms. Forrest walks out on stage in the movie Private Buckaroo to sing You Made Me Love You, the visible body language between the two belies something more than just a music contract between them. Decades later, the two would, on rare occasions, perform together and reminisce for old-times sake. Watching the late-life reunions of iconic performers like these survivors of such an uncertain and impermanent game as the music business, one cannot help but think, “What a lot of water under the bridge, and they are still here and still cooking!”

America’s Music Scene: Constantly “Evolving”

By the late nineteen-forties, the big-band craze which swept the country for slightly over a decade was fast fading. There were three reasons why. First: the economics of traveling bands became untenable. It became increasingly difficult to engage fifteen top musicians for paltry wages like $100 per week given the numerous other opportunities suddenly available to them. Second: in a burgeoning recording market, the best musicians turned to careers as “studio musicians” who worked in and around recording studios. Demand was high and life on the road minimal compared to the traveling band days of extended engagements (if the bands were good enough to get bookings). Third: radio was bigger than ever, and television was just around the corner, so the public had growing entertainment options. The big ballrooms packed with young romantic couples and featuring fifteen-piece bands were headed for oblivion.

There was yet another major factor at play in the music industry: the growing popularity of pop music vocalists, backed by a small ensemble of studio musicians. Guess who started that trend in the early nineteen-forties after leaving Tommy Dorsey’s band to go it alone! None other than Francis Albert Sinatra. In the nineteen-fifties there were names like Eddie Fisher, Patti Page, Rosemary Clooney, Dinah Shore: the list is too long to even attempt. Records were now the profitable game, and publicity venues like fan magazines, radio, and television were suddenly available to popularize individual vocalists and their latest recordings. Even popular hit recordings by vocalists were often woven around the most rudimentary of musical ditties and lyrics – tunes like: How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?. Looking back on the nineteen-fifties (my teen years) and the chart-toppers of those years makes me almost want to cringe when considering the great popular music that was written and performed in the prior two decades. By the late fifties and the decade that followed, rock-and-roll took the country by storm. In the sixties, the pop vocalist music industry was reeling and the trumpet, the iconic lead instrument of the big-band era, had been replaced by the electric guitar.

Harry James responded to these waves of change by spending much of his time in Las Vegas performing with his new band or, often, four or five other musicians playing top lounge dates in the high-priced hotels on the strip. His music was now louder, brassier, and jazzier than in the past, yet his technique on the trumpet still maintained the exacting standards he upheld as a young player. Harry and Betty Grable had divorced in 1963: she died of cancer in 1973. During the marriage, they lived in style, and, together, became heavily involved in horse racing, spending much time at Southern California tracks and much money on a stable of horses. In the end, money was a problem for Harry James, both handling it wisely and having enough of it. After the loss of his ex-wife, Betty, James pushed on, supporting himself primarily via his lounge shows in Vegas and other occasional commitments.

The many years, vodka, and life in the fast lane finally began to take their toll on Harry James in the late nineteen-seventies. He maintained his trumpet playing artistry for many years while fully immersed in the turbulent music business – quite a testimonial for any musician. But Harry was not just any musician. He fell into debt at the end despite his huge lifetime earnings in music and show business. He had been living life in a great big way for a long time, and now the piper had to be paid.

His last professional engagement was to provide trumpet background on an album featuring a young, relatively unknown female singer. Photos taken at the time reveal a man ravaged by a long, productive life in the fast lane, and the onset of the lymphatic cancer which killed him. His playing can be described as rudimentary, at best, with unsteady moments and only an occasional hint of the artistry that was his trademark for decades. I was very saddened when I first saw and heard the reality. Fortunately, he lingered not very long in that musical limbo unlike some who stay around too long performing after they have “lost it.” I always felt that Sinatra should have retired before he began to forget lyrics and sing off-key. Given his own great longevity as America’s finest male vocalist, I suppose he can be forgiven for staying with it too long at the end.

The Final Curtain and a Special Eulogy for Harry James

Harry James died on in Las Vegas on July 5, 1983, precisely forty years to the day of his marriage to Betty Grable in the very same town. The funeral was attended by two hundred people, and the eulogy was delivered by Frank Sinatra who was first in line to request the honor. Present were many long-time friends including Phil Harris who was very close to Harry and who also spoke at the service. Sinatra’s voice wavered at times during the eulogy as he began by saying, “I loved Harry James. I loved him for a long time. He was one of the finest musicians I have ever known. He was a dear friend and a great teacher.” He spoke of the night at the Rustic Cabin back in 1939 when Harry James magically appeared in the audience and ignited Sinatra’s meteoric career. He recalled that James asked him on the spot when he could leave his current employ, to which Sinatra replied, “Right now.” Sinatra also recalled the occasions on the road that year with Harry’s newly formed band when meeting payroll for the group was problematic at times for James. His year traveling with Harry and the band left warm memories which Sinatra never forgot. When he approached Harry to inform him of his significant offer to join Tommy Dorsey, Harry shook his hand and wished him well – no hard feelings and no contractual strings attached. Unlike other bandleaders, Harry was inherently that kind of person. Sinatra closed his eulogy with, “Thanks for everything. So long, ole buddy. Take care of yourself.”

Harry James wrote his own epitaph: “May it simply be said and written of me, ‘He’s gone on the road to do one-nighters with Gabriel.’”

Final Thoughts on Harry James and His Influence

Since this story has ended with Frank Sinatra’s eulogy to Harry James, I wish to add one more memorable anecdote relating to their relationship.

After accepting Tommy Dorsey’s offer to join his well-established and successful musical organization, Sinatra was ready to take a big step in his career. He had learned a lot from Harry in the year performing with his new band, and now he was about to learn still more from Tommy.

Sinatra’s last performance with the Harry James band occurred on a very dark, snowy evening in Buffalo, New York on January 26, 1940. After the performance the band boarded the bus which would take them on to their next engagement. Sinatra recalled: “The bus pulled out with the rest of the guys after midnight. I’d said goodbye to them all, and it was snowing. I remember there was nobody around, and I stood alone with my suitcase in the snow and watched the taillights of the bus disappear. Then the tears started, and I tried to run after the bus. There was such spirit and enthusiasm in that band [that] I hated leaving it.”

Sinatra’s account is so personal, touching, and evocative that images form in my mind’s eye every time I read it.

Harry James was one of a kind. At once immature and insecure, yet supremely confident in his musical ability – and justly so; formally uneducated in every venue but music, yet very street-smart; an admitted loner, yet widely traveled and well connected and respected in the music business; a womanizer, yet remembered fondly by someone like Helen Forrest who knew him well. He once told his first wife, Louise, “I live in my own world. No one gets in.” So many contradictions and complications in one individual, but in the final analysis:

“Ain’t None of Them Play Like Him Yet”

and that will likely remain his great legacy.

Here are direct links to a few previous posts of mine re: music and musicians; click on them to see the post:

From the Slums of New Orleans to the Palaces of Europe: Meet Louis Armstrong – Musician

From Bing to Bix: Beiderbecke, That Is!

Frank Sinatra After 100 Years: The Gold Standard

 

An Evening with Trumpeter Chris Botti

Last Thursday, Linda and I spent an evening with Chris Botti in concert. The venue for this performance was the magnificent outdoor theatre at nearby Villa Montalvo. We were blessed with a magnificent, warm evening and a convincing show of trumpet/musical artistry from this fine performer.

Mr. Botti is no longer new to the musical scene, but he represents something rare today: a popular trumpet player who stands apart, one who reaffirms the beauty, the grace, and the versatility of this magnificent instrument.

From the era of the nineteen-twenties through the nineteen-seventies, the musical scene was peppered with trumpet/cornet icons, memorable players who popularized the instruments to a fantastic degree. I am talking about names such as Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbeck, Harry James, Randy Brooks, Bobby Hackett, Ray Anthony, and Al Hirt. Of course, the wild popularity of the big-bands beginning in the nineteen-thirties provided unparalleled opportunity for the great lead trumpeters and drummers (like Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich) to show their stuff and shine as they “drove” the band, together.

With the great shift away from big-bands and their economic woes that began in the late nineteen-forties, vocalists and small groups came to the fore. The trumpet lost its “home” as the lead instrument in the great bands, and began a slide from public view, excepting the many great modern jazz players like Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis. But modern jazz has never been the popular “cup of tea” that the big-bands represented, and the trumpet virtually disappeared from the public’s view in the nineteen-seventies as rock-and-roll and its electric guitars presided.

So, Chris Botti represents somewhat of a “Lazarus act” for the trumpet, and I am glad to see it. He has a unique style which balances a strong jazz inclination, with a distinctly lyrical sensibility to his playing. Technically, he is a “force” on the trumpet, very much in command of the instrument and all its possibilities. And when Mr. Botti cuts loose on some of the wilder numbers, he blows the roof off, so to speak. He commands the stage and the respect of the other performers in a good way, driving and encouraging them to give their all – and they do!

We enjoyed the evening as did the audience; I left the venue assured that Chris Botti is, indeed, a force on the trumpet and pleased that the instrument has such an able and popular spokesman, once again.

Somewhere, Harry James is smiling.

Doris Day Is Gone; She Was One of a Kind: Never Before and Never Again

Yesterday, Linda and I attended the Sunday Matinee at the Stanford Theatre which featured the film, Pajama Game starring Doris Day. The double bill also featured her in Calamity Jane. We left the theatre last evening totally entertained, musing that we had just seen one of Hollywood’s finest talents, ever, once-again lighting-up the screen with fabulous performances. Not having seen these two films, but well versed in Doris Day, we expected no less. We felt compelled to be there.

This morning, our clock radio came to life at 5:40 am with the news that Doris Day had just left this world after ninety-seven years of a life packed full of living and great accomplishment in the arts!

I have always really liked Doris Day, along with millions of others. Perhaps my favorite performance of hers was a co-starring role with Jimmy Stewart in Alfred Hitchcock’s great film, The Man Who Knew Too Much. In it she plays a young wife to Stewart whose young son is kidnapped in a Marrakesh bazaar while on a trip abroad. Her character in the film is as fresh and natural as sunlight: her acting is superb.

Everyone has their distinct favorites when it comes to movies, the stars, and the scenes they played. Doris Day gets my vote for the best-acted scene in any movie in Hitchcock’s aforementioned film. The scene: Stewart has just learned that their young son, Hank, has disappeared in a Marrakesh bazaar not because he became separated in the milling crowd, but because he has been kidnapped in an international plot of political intrigue. When he breaks the news to his wife, Jo (Doris Day), she breaks down in an hysterical fit of uncontrolled emotions.

Her acting in that scene is as touching and compelling as any I have ever witnessed on the screen. Since I first saw Hitchcock’s film as a teen-ager in the nineteen-fifties, I have respected Doris Day as far more than a pert and pretty Hollywood face. She could act, she could sing, and she could dance. And could she sing! One of her great hit records, Que Sera, Sera, made its film debut in The Man Who Knew Too Much.

Day began her career in the nineteen-forties as a big-band singer for Les Brown and His Band of Reknown. Her greatest post-war recording hit with Brown was the famous tune, Sentimental Journey. Her voice possessed a sweetness and a vocal clarity that was equalled by only one other pop vocalist of the era, Eydie Gorme. Like Gorme, Day’s clear diction while conveying the lyics was superb as well.

Another, lesser known starring role for Doris Day paired her with Kirk Douglas in the 1950 film, Young Man With a Horn. She (convincingly) played a band singer who fell in with a young trumpet player whose attentions were divided between Day and her best friend, portrayed by a young Lauren Bacall. While I enjoyed Doris Day very much in that film, the film’s greatest claim to fame was the featured trumpet playing, all dubbed-in by the great Harry James on a sparkling-clear soundtrack.

Young Man With a Horn featured yet another of my all-time favorite movie scenes. In it, Day and Douglas visit a sophisticated jazz nightclub in which his former trumpet teacher/mentor is performing with a small combo. When the mentor recognizes his former pupil in the audience, he invites Douglas up on the stage to play for the audience. And play he (Harry James) does! James’s rendition of With a Song in My Heart is enough to send chills up and down the spine. The entire scene is mesmerzing, with the audience a-buzz at what they just heard and Day with tears in her eyes back at their table.

For the girl who seemed to have it all, Doris Day reportedly paid a heavy price for her fame and fortune. Married four times, her spousal choices were highly problematic. When third husband Marty Melcher died in 1968, she shockingly discovered that her presumed financial security was an illusion. To her complete shock, she learned that Melcher and his financial associates had mis-managed much of the fortune she had earned while at the peak of her career. She found herself forced to continue working at a time in life when she should have been solidly financially independent.

I have not read her autobiography yet, but I understand it is butally direct and honest. The prevailing message: Doris Day was not about to be defined by such popular illusions as exemplified by: “the girl next door.” Doris Day was apparently not an uncomplicated woman.

What is clearly uncomplicated and easy to digest is the vinyl and celluoloid evidence she left behind that tells us we will not see the likes of her ever again.

The Lawrence Welk Show: Forever Young – “Wunnerful, Wunnerful”

Watching the old Lawrence Welk television shows on PBS is like traveling through a time-machine for those of us who grew up during the era of the nineteen fifties, sixties, and on into the eighties.

Last night, as so often is the case, I went to my DVR and brought up recorded episodes of the Lawrence Welk show which still regularly play on PBS television. Experience has taught me that there is no better way to “wind-down” before bedtime after a hectic day than reliving music from that magical era, courtesy of Mr. Welk and his “Champagne Music Makers.” Sadly, today’s generation, by and large, would find watching and listening to Lawrence Welk quite beyond the pale. It is a shame that the concepts of “music” and “talent” have become so degraded in this day-and-age of uber-amplified sound and slurred, unintelligible lyrics.

I was in my early teens in 1955 when the Lawrence Welk show debuted on that also-adolescent medium called television. For twenty-seven years, the Lawrence Welk show came into our living rooms on Saturday night, sponsored first by Dodge, then Geritol (don’t laugh!), and later, via syndication. Now, in 2017, sixty-two years later, we can still watch the old shows on PBS. How many television shows have lasted that long on network reruns besides “Lucy,” or perhaps Dick Van Dyke/Mary Tyler Moore?

  

Last night, on my selected show from 1974, Mr. Welk proudly exclaimed that the “big-bands” were reportedly staging a comeback, quickly adding that “we never left!” Indeed, Lawrence Welk had been in the big-band game since 1924 when he left the farm in North Dakota to seek success in the music business. In the end, he outlasted all the big names including such luminaries as Benny Goodman, Harry James, Tommy Dorsey, and Artie Shaw – all of whom are among my all-time favorite purveyors of jazz/swing. I love the big-band sound, and aside from periodic doses of schmaltz, Welk’s band could and did deliver. The group was comprised of seriously fine musicians, many of whom were with Mr. Welk for ten, twenty, even thirty years. The band could swing and did swing often on the great numbers made famous by Goodman, James, Dorsey and Shaw. It has always fascinated me to observe the pure joy of Welk’s musicians when the play-list presented them with the opportunity to “cut-loose” from an otherwise scripted, sometimes staid program. No, Welk’s fine musicians were not cut from quite the same cloth as a Benny Goodman or a Harry James, but the group played those great swing/sweet band numbers with virtuosity and enthusiasm.

Welk had many singers and dancers as well with which to front the band. All were excellent and versatile entertainers. As good a female singer as any I have ever heard was Ralna English whose distinctive, effortless vocals soared as she visibly sparkled in the intimate camera close-ups which were hallmarks of Welk telecasts. Although always the gentleman, Lawrence did like the pretty girls! Ms. English and then-husband, Guy Hovis, performed many memorable duets as well – across the full musical spectrum. Gail Farrell, Mary Lou Metzger, and “Champagne Lady” Norma Zimmer sparkled and shone with their wholesome beauty and talent. Several of the musicians were regular soloists: Bob Ralston on piano, Henry Cuesta on clarinet, and Myron Floren on accordion were as good as it gets as musicians. One of my favorites was trumpet man Johnny Zell who combined a showman’s flair with his obvious virtuosity. And finally, the dance duo of ex-Disney Mouseketeer Bobby Burgess and partner Cissy King was always a treat to behold. Their versatile dance routines with the band solidly behind them were, in a significant way, pioneering dance performances on early television.

Even the Great Harry James?

Auditioning and winning a performing spot in the Welk family required tremendous talent…and versatility – even as a musician. The reed section of the band which normally plays saxophone is often seen doubling on clarinet or even flute and piccolo! Harry James who went from lead trumpet with the great Benny Goodman band of 1937/38 to front his very own band for many years once auditioned with Mr. Welk prior to that time. Harry James was a prodigy, a virtuoso trumpet player as a youngster capable of handling lead trumpet with any top jazz/swing band in the early days, yet he did not receive an offer from Mr. Welk – ostensibly because the only instrument he played was trumpet! James went on to become a music legend in the 1940’s and 50’s – in my opinion, the finest, most versatile trumpet player, ever.

Lawrence Welk’s 1903 Birthplace: Strasburg, North Dakota

I suspect there may have been a personality/life-style disconnect between Harry James and Welk who tended to favor musicians with mid-west roots and attitudes – especially those from North Dakota, his home state. Lawrence Welk radiated conservative, middle-of-the-country attitudes, and to some viewers, seemed too “square.” He did have considerable trouble with his accent which produced such parodies as “Turna offa the bubble machine,” in reference to the “champagne music” bubbles which often floated among the musicians as they musically bounced their way through some bubbly, flagship-style musical arrangement. Welk was known for his staple responses to his performers such as, “Wasn’t that just wunnerful?” And then there was, “Wunnerful, wunnerful.” Yes, it seemed somewhat staid and square even back then, but in the harsh glare of today’s attitudes, watching Welk and his shows is a timeless reminder of a simpler time, a time when true talent and professionalism made an impression on audiences. I always liked and respected that about the Welk show.

Make no mistake about it: Lawrence Welk, himself, could really “swing out” on some of the legendary big-band numbers. My favorite images are of him in front of the band playing a swing classic like Woody Herman’s “Woodchopper’s Ball,” baton on the beat and hips and feet moving in sync – just letting it all hang out! The joyous grin on his face completed the picture of a man lost in his music, oblivious to everything else.

Time Stands Still and We Are Forever Young!

Lawrence Welk passed away in 1992, ten years after the last installment of “The Lawrence Welk Show.” Mr. Welk left behind a considerable organization and fan-base which still thrives today, sixty-two years after his television debut in 1955. That is quite a tribute to the man and his impact on America. Then there is the great music he played and the way he and his musical family presented it. Today, watching his shows which replay annually on public television is the only real big-band experience left to us. The music of the great composers and song-writers should never be lost. Nor should the fabulous performances of the big-band era. Thank goodness for the PBS re-runs. It is always my hope that today’s youngsters might push aside cynical attitudes and recognize the quality entertainment that Lawrence Welk provided America for so many years.

Many of the musical stars in the Welk family that we grew up with are now gone. Through the miracle of television, we can still see and hear them perform once again, forty, fifty, or sixty years later, just as they did “live.” The graceful athleticism of dancers Arthur Duncan, Bobby Burgess, Cissy King, and Mary Lou Metzger is undiminished by time. The fresh, wholesome beauty of Welk’s female performers and the musical artistry of accordionist Myron Floren and all the other musicians still shine.

Watching the Welk show after all these years is akin to entering a time-machine tunnel and emerging to once again experience performers forever young…and so are we!

Keep a Song in Your Heart! Good advice.

Frank Sinatra After 100 Years: The Gold Standard

Pal Joey SinatraFrank Sinatra: Possibly the best-known name in the music business, yet under-appreciated by the public in certain respects. The other night, I watched a tribute to Sinatra via PBS broadcast from the Lincoln Center in New York City. The program celebrated the 100th anniversary of Sinatra’s birth in 1915. Being a big fan of Sinatra’s talent and contribution to popular music, I had recorded the broadcast on our DVR, hoping that it would prove to be worthwhile viewing. Often, such tributes are disappointing – even “cheesy.” It was very late last Friday night after a long day for us, but I decided to que up the recording on our DVR merely to catch the flavor of the show – just five or ten minutes of viewing before going off to bed and watching it the next day… if it proved worthwhile. In minutes, I was hooked and watched the entire ninety minutes of the tribute, finally turning off the lights at 1:00 am. More on the program, later.

To fully appreciate Sinatra, is to know his personal history and timeline. Born Francis Albert Sinatra in Hoboken, New Jersey on December 12, 1915 to Italian immigrants, his prospects seemed no better than those of millions of other immigrant children. The mother, Natalina “Dolly” Garaventa Sinatra, apparently was the dominant influence on young Sinatra’s personality and self-confidence. Early in life, he discovered music as well as his idol, Bing Crosby, who was riding the top of the music charts in the early nineteen-thirties as the country’s premier male vocalist and pioneer of the genre. 1938 found young Sinatra menially employed as a singing waiter at a small roadhouse diner named “The Rustic Cabin,” in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, earning $15 per week! When he was not tending tables, he would front the small dance band and perform a few vocals.

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One such evening, fate stepped in and drastically altered young Sinatra’s life trajectory. He happened to be singing with the band that night while a local radio station broadcasted the dance music from The Rustic Cabin to a regional audience (a common occurrence during the infant days of radio). Fatefully, Louise Tobin, the young wife of another about-to-be-legend in the music business was tuned-in to the broadcast. Impressed by what she heard, she awakened her husband, the great jazz trumpet player, Harry James, from his nap and suggested he listen to this young singer on the radio. James’ newly formed band was just getting started and he was looking for a vocalist, so a few nights later, James drove over to New Jersey and The Rustic Cabin, introduced himself to young Sinatra, and not only offered him a job, but set in motion the whole of Frank’s incomparable music career. Suddenly, Sinatra was making a whopping $75 per week with James who, with his new band, was perched on the threshold of music greatness, as well.

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Harry James was the best thing that ever happened to Sinatra, for they soon recorded some fine hits together. Listening to Sinatra and his early live performances with the Harry James Orchestra at New York’s famed Roseland Ballroom in 1939, one hears a soft, immature, somewhat tentative delivery which nevertheless hints at greatness-to-be. The barely audible background noises of the Roseland dance crowd dining, drinking, clinking glasses, laughing, and finally applauding add immeasurably to the great charm of these early recordings.

James Sinatra CD

Others began to notice James and his young vocalist, particularly Tommy Dorsey and his orchestra. Dorsey’s group was well-established by 1939 and rapidly cementing its status as the very best in the history of the big bands. The offer to join Dorsey for $125 per week as featured vocalist could not be denied, although Sinatra had barely been with James for one year of a two year contract. When the young singer apologetically approached James about leaving his band, James very willingly released Sinatra from the remainder of his contract with a sincere handshake and best wishes.

Harry-James[1]Sinatra never forgot James, his gracious gesture, and the wonderful times he had with Harry and his band. They remained lifelong friends, and when James was dying from terminal cancer decades later, Sinatra insisted that he deliver the funeral eulogy for his friend. Sinatra was a tough customer in many ways throughout his life, but he was loyal to friends and he had a decidedly sentimental streak which ran deep but wide through his personality. In addition to discovering the greatest male pop singer, ever, Harry James was the finest jazz trumpet player – ever.

Sinatra’s last performance with the Harry James band occurred on a very dark, snowy evening in Buffalo, New York on January 26, 1940. After the performance the band boarded the bus which would take them on to their next engagement. Sinatra recalled: “The bus pulled out with the rest of the guys after midnight. I’d said goodbye to them all, and it was snowing. I remember there was nobody around, and I stood alone with my suitcase in the snow and watched the taillights of the bus disappear. Then the tears started, and I tried to run after the bus. There was such spirit and enthusiasm in that band [that] I hated leaving it.”

Tommy Dorsey was both a superb musician and a great bandleader. His band and his music exemplified the highest musical standards possible. His musical arrangements and taste were simply beyond those of all the others in terms of beauty and complexity. He insisted upon total excellence not only from members of the band, but from himself as well. Dorsey was known as “the sentimental gentleman of swing,” reflecting his great hit and theme song, “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You” which featured Tommy’s lilting trombone solo. Dorsey was decidedly un-sentimental, though, and undeniably one very tough customer who would come down hard on anyone who stepped out of line – with fists flying, on occasion.

Sinatra & Dorsey CD

It was with Dorsey and his band that Frank Sinatra developed into the great vocalist the public would ultimately recognize. For me, his numerous recordings with Dorsey constitute the finest of musical treasures in my fairly extensive music collection. Sinatra’s voice had now developed, the fine musical phrasing was there, and his dedication to and respect for song lyrics were evident. Much of the learning curve that made Frank Sinatra into history’s finest vocalist resulted from his two years under Dorsey’s tutelage and influence. Sinatra once remarked, “The only two people I’ve ever been afraid of are my mother and Tommy Dorsey.”

When Sinatra quickly exploded as a teenage idol drawing huge crowds for Dorsey, the youngster accurately foresaw the trend-line for popular music. The future did not include big bands; instead, the era of the pop vocalist would predominate…and it did, in several short years. The youngster took a huge gamble in 1942 by informing Dorsey that he wanted to leave the band and hit the performance trail as a solo act. Unlike the gracious Harry James, Dorsey fought back with lawyers making Sinatra’s departure an expensive one. Dorsey’s final farewell to Sinatra: “I hope you fall on your ass.”

I find it fascinating – the implausibility – that so much musical art came from certified tough characters like Sinatra, Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw, and others in the music business. Often their personal lives were chaotic and regrettable, yet deep inside these rough exteriors, lurked a surprising creative sensitivity. Those who see only the rough exterior surely appreciate little of the musical artistry they left behind. Another facet of Sinatra’s considerable talent was his success in film.

When Frank’s musical career was completely stalled in the late nineteen-forties, his movie role in the film,“From Here to Eternity” kick-started his musical comeback. His deft performance in the film surprised everyone earning him the Oscar in 1953 as best supporting actor for his portrayal of “Maggio.” One of my favorite film clips from another film is the song-and-dance duet done with Sinatra’s boyhood idol, Bing Crosby, in the 1955 film, “High Society.” One of my favorite films: “Pal Joey” from 1957 starring Sinatra, Kim Novak, and Rita Hayworth. Joey, Sinatra’s character, is a knock-off of his own entertainer-persona which guaranteed the seamless portrayal he delivers in the film – with irreverent wit and great vocalizing. The musical score of Rodgers and Hart and the supporting female cast make for great entertainment. To see Sinatra staged perfectly and performing at his best, see this film.

5744094758_4fd5c7930c_b[1]By 1953, Sinatra had begun work with crack musical arranger, Nelson Riddle. Their collaboration quickly propelled Sinatra back and into a brighter limelight than ever before. An amazing career: From literally bringing down New York’s Paramount Theatre in the early forties as a young matinee idol, to suffering tiny audiences in that very same house by the late forties, to exploding again in 1953 to become the greatest male vocalist in pop music history!

That brings me full circle back to the PBS Lincoln Center tribute to Sinatra which took viewers through Sinatra’s personal history/timeline – so important to comprehend such a complex personality and career.

The production, hosted by a young fellow named Seth MacFarlane (who?) and anchored throughout by the venerable New York Philharmonic Orchestra, delivered BIG TIME. The entire production was first-class, in all respects. The New York Philharmonic is comprised, for the most part, of mature, seasoned musicians, but that staid-looking orchestra belied its image and delivered real punch and zing to its rendering of the musical arrangements which anchored Sinatra’s vocals during his prime in the nineteen-fifties. Swinging Sinatra favorites like “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” proved also to be ultimate classics of Sinatra’s favorite arrangers – Nelson Riddle, Gordon Jenkins, and Billy May, to name a few. Frank Sinatra insisted upon and got only the best arrangers, producers, and studio musicians for his performances and recording sessions – and it always showed in the finished product. Complex and challenging musical arrangements, these are, but the New York Philharmonic really delivered. I was overjoyed to watch them in action as fabulous camera choreography moved adroitly from trumpets to flutes to violins to trombones and back to vocalists – all right on the beat. So often, television concentrates, up-close, only on vocalists who are performing in front of a large orchestra. The talented musicians in the far background often seem merely like an assemblage of automatons from which music emanates. Not in this telecast with its excellent production values: All aspects of the musical performance come alive, including the orchestra members.

Host Seth MacFarlane provided a deft touch to the whole evening with scattered, light comic touches interspersed among the stories of Sinatra’s life and his music. Most importantly, Mr. MacFarlane can SING – an imperative for this production – and he did it very well, indeed. MacFarlane was ably assisted on stage by six great dancers and several renowned guest vocalists including Bernadette Peters, Christina Aguilera, Fantasia, and Sting, who, despite their diversity, all managed to entertain with the solid support of the peerless Philharmonic. As stated by the host, the whole production was truly a “labor of love” for all concerned in the project, and it showed – truly a fitting tribute to Frank Sinatra, the man and his music.

I Can Do This…and I’m Getting Better!

Is there any better feeling in the world than the realization of a meaningful personal goal or ambition? David McCullough, the noted author/historian expressed it ebulliently in the short video-bio on him called Painting with Words (See my post of July 21, 2013 in the archives, Meet David McCullough). Discussing his love of drawing and painting and the arts in general, he related the joy that results when “learning and doing” brings notable progress and proficiency: “I can do this…and I’m getting better!” Like so many succinct reflections of his, this one struck a real chord with me; I understand exactly how special that feeling is.

It is not that I have so many great life-triumphs to relate, but the joyous feeling he expressed does relate perfectly to one particularly hard-won success in my life that means a lot to me. I hope sharing my story in this post might rekindle in you similar reflections of personal triumphs. If not, perhaps the recounting will at least provide encouragement for those with as-yet unrealized personal ambitions.

My Life-long Passion-for and Battle-with the Trumpet:
 Bitten Early by the “Bug;” Round One

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Yes, I am referring to that shiny, B-flat brass instrument called a trumpet. I first became smitten in 1955, my sophomore year in high school, when the top hit on the pop charts was Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White by Perez Prado and his orchestra. With a mambo rhythm driving a shimmering trumpet solo throughout, the song was a giant hit. It hit me harder than most, for it sparked a life-long passion for the trumpet sound. I could not get enough of the tune, stopping everything to listen when it was played on the radio. Who can explain it, who can wonder why? …as the song lyrics go. My best guess as to why this attraction exists is genetic; I believe I have a hard-wired pre-disposition to the trumpet’s tonal qualities. It is a fantastically versatile instrument which covers the full range of musicality, from regal to jazzy to sexy/seductive. My parents understood my new-found enthusiasm and somehow found enough money to get me started on lessons…with a rented instrument.

Cherry Pink 45 1955

I immediately encountered significant difficulties. Recalling my first lesson with Mr. Cheney, the elderly proprietor of the downtown music store, brings a smile today. I was so nervous that the horn was shaking as I attempted to squawk out a few bleats and blats. It took a while for the nerves to abate and the shaking to stop. I vividly recall him asking if “a nervous disposition runs in the family.” I suppose, in hindsight, the answer to that was yes; my father had what might be called a nervous physiological tendency. To this day, I still experience nervousness, but not nearly as badly as in my youth. Of course, an appearance someday as trumpet soloist in Carnegie Hall or anything similar has always been highly improbable for me, so nerves were not my big problem; playing was.

After several months of lessons, I just could not play the higher register of the instrument with any consistency. Trying harder in the physical sense only made it worse as I “tightened up.” Nor could I gain any feeling whatsoever of confident competence and consistency in any register. Today, I appreciate that the trumpet is a very physically demanding musical instrument. For starters, it requires a lot of lung-power to produce the steady airstream necessary to “buzz” the lips and create that magnificent trumpet sound. By far, the most important aspect of playing is the “embouchure,” the configuration of the lips, jaw, and facial muscles and their relationship to the cupped mouthpiece. Proper and consistent alignment of all these elements as the mouthpiece is placed on the lips is absolutely necessary for success. Additionally, the lower facial muscles involved in the embouchure require considerable strength and conditioning just like the muscles of any athlete. Without the physical conditioning required for “good chops” (trumpeter’s lingo), playing is nearly impossible.

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Granted, there are only three valves to deal with, but so much is going-on at the mouthpiece! And “trying harder” to play upper register notes only makes things worse. Playing the trumpet requires a yoga-like relaxation mentality: Embouchure muscles are simultaneously in a state of relaxed tension! Achieving that takes a degree of mental maturity and much practice.

As a youngster, I had no clue. I did not appreciate any of these fine points, nor was I really informed of them by any of the three teachers whom I eventually went to for lessons in those days. I became very discouraged and gave up on trumpet, assuming that my “natural” embouchure was just not compatible with the instrument’s demands. It was very demoralizing to think, “Here I am, born with this great love of the trumpet, yet totally ill-equipped to play it.” That was my mistaken notion at the time. I switched to the clarinet in junior-year band hoping that it would yield more readily to “time spent practicing.” Alas, I had no passion for the instrument. No passion, no practice, no good! After high school, instrumental music disappeared from my life for twenty-some years.

Not Willing to Say No; Round Two

In mid-life, with a family and a career in engineering to keep me occupied, the trumpet was still on my mind. I bought a Yamaha student horn from a high school kid and gave it another try – with no lessons. After about four months of recurring exasperation, reminiscent of my early years, I put the trumpet away – for another twenty-some years.

Still Not Willing to Say No; Round Three

Five years ago, trumpetitis struck again, at age 68. Out came my Yamaha student horn. The saying that “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result is insanity” has merit! This time, I said to myself, “I am going to stay with this come hell or high-water and not get discouraged. Determined not to repeat past mistakes, I harnessed the power of the now-available internet to Google articles on trumpet playing and bought a number of books on trumpet technique, books that were formerly not available. I also patiently experimented with different aspects of technique – all new approaches for me.

Success! I Can Do This
and I’m Getting Better!

After five years of daily practice, study, and experimentation, I can finally play the  trumpet – high notes too! I am no threat to the first-chair players in our regional symphony orchestras, to be sure, but my tone is good, my endurance solid, and my register capability way beyond what I ever had before.

A series of lessons from an accomplished local jazz professional helped considerably – not only his “instruction,” but my ability to observe first-hand, through careful observation, all aspects of his approach to playing. He reinforced in me what my new books were emphasizing, namely that your capability as a player is best exemplified by your tone quality and your ability to play notes consistently and cleanly. I have arrived at that station and am now ready to move on to the intricacies of playing by learning techniques like double/triple tonguing, etc. With trumpet, there is no sense going beyond the big three – tone, control, and endurance – until proficiency is achieved in those. It is time now to move on to a more advanced level thanks to a new confidence in my foundation. I continue to look forward to playing/practicing, every single day – it is pure joy. I have graduated to a professional model Yamaha horn which makes playing that much more enjoyable. Just as in golf where expensive clubs do not a golfer make, the instrument does not make the musician, but a better horn does help. Over these past five years, learning about the jazz/swing music of the big-bands and the history of that era has been pure pleasure! Playing excerpts from standards of those years – strictly for my own pleasure – is a total joy. I hope to engage with a “late bloomers” jazz band someday and acquire some real playing experience, but that opportunity has not yet materialized.

In Summary and Looking Back on the Whole Saga

Hopefully, this has not been too long and detailed an account, but I wanted to tell the whole story. Although there are many more important things in life such as family, education, career, etc. than learning to play a musical instrument, some matters become very personal and very important. For me, learning to play the trumpet was one of those.

If you have followed my blog, you know that the fascinating process of learning (anything) is a subject near and dear to my heart. My saga with the trumpet has been extremely enlightening for me in that respect. What was it that I ultimately learned… or at least validated once again?

-Great Motivation is the key to great persistence; great persistence leads to great effort; great effort leads, hopefully, to ultimate success.

-Patience is necessary in all things difficult; do not be easily discouraged by the temporary lack of progress.

-Reach out for any and all resources which can help you. Develop a plan of attack.

Experiment and evaluate before committing to a given approach.

-Master fundamentals before moving on.

Lastly, specific to the trumpet: The embouchure is most everything, and an overlooked aspect of the embouchure is the critical importance of a proper and consistent initial placement of the mouthpiece on the lips. The importance of initial placement finally embedded itself in my consciousness not that long ago as I was observing a trumpet player in a jazz combo entertaining at our local Saturday morning farmer’s market. I have worked on that aspect diligently for months, and it was the final piece of the puzzle that finally really unlocked my abilities.

Is it not fascinating – the diversity of elements required to finally piece-together the whole learning puzzle – for any difficult endeavor? That question validates the priceless worth of teachers/instructors in any venue who appreciate the critical insights and can readily communicate them to students. Some individuals seem destined to breeze right-on through the learning curve with its pitfalls and difficulties. Others of us need to work hard to get there.

Great musicians who became virtuoso players at a very young age as was the case with two jazz greats, Harry James on trumpet and Benny Goodman on clarinet, are truly “naturals” in every sense of the word. Those two legends worked very hard at their craft early-on, but Benny Goodman did not hesitate when asked about the basis for great musical talent; he replied matter-of-factly, “You are born with it.” I understand. They are the ones who are physiologically equipped for the task in terms of muscle-memory and body-awareness in addition to being instinctively capable of visualizing the physical techniques required for great proficiency on an instrument. They then take that ability to new creative musical levels. The rest of us have much longer learning curves in the technique phase and often fall victim to “dropping out” for good. When Goodman was fifteen, he was already good enough to be playing in professional dance bands. He had all the confidence he needed at that early age. I imagine his personal revelation that “I can do this” came well before his teen years. Lucky him!

One More Thing!

David McCullough – when asked what he would like to be able to add to the list of his other accomplishments – replied, “Play the piano.” I liked that.

Dancing with the Stars?
Where Does That Enter Into the Discussion?

Yes, my wife and I enjoy watching the program. The process of celebrities with no prior experience in dance realizing at some point that “I can do this…and I’m getting better!” is fun and uplifting. For me, that aspect of the show cuts to the heart of its appeal. Perhaps a future post on DWTS is in order?

To My Readers

If any of this post strikes a chord with you, please tell the rest of us about your personal experience, whether in music, athletics….whatever! It can be very brief or it can be long. Reader-contributions in the form of comments are what truly make any blog “go-round.” To comment, you can click on the “Leave a reply” link just below!

Jazz and the Swing Bands: Four Music Legends

One day several years ago, my wife and I were browsing in the local Border’s bookstore (remember those?). Entering bookstores, we usually head in different directions after first establishing a time to meet back at the registers. Well into our designated half-hour, I stumbled upon a book on the sale rack; it was Ken Burns’ companion book to his ten-DVD documentary titled Jazz. I knew about the series, but I never much fancied jazz given my poor understanding of it at the time; to me, “jazz” was limited to the early fifties/sixties embodiment – which I still do not like much. I picked up the book, anyway, thumbed through it, and proceeded to be astonished at the wide range of music the name “jazz” really encompasses. New Orleans jazz, the big-band sound, and the swing dance bands are all part of the historical evolution, and I have always enjoyed listening to that music. Now, after fully digesting Mr. Burns’ Jazz and acquiring some historical perspective, I am hooked more than ever on New Orleans jazz and the big bands of the thirties and early forties.

Louis Armstrong

Within those genres, there were many great performers, but four in particular stand out in my mind. First, there was Louis (not Louie) – Armstrong, that is. Although Burns dotes perhaps more than he should on Armstrong and his pioneering effect on all of jazz, there can be no question that he was one of the primary forces responsible for shaping the evolution of jazz. In general, the public has been kind to Armstrong over the decades, given his one-of-a-kind persona and such later recording hits as Hello Dolly, Mack the Knife, and It’s a Wonderful World.

LA

But Armstrong is far more laudable and important for his innovative musical phrasing in the early days which set the direction not only for jazz but for much of the popular music that ensued; and then there was his dynamic trumpet. Back in the twenties and thirties, his driving style, high register capability and the overall power of his playing found him pretty much alone in the spotlight. From the forties on, his technique and ability on the horn fell behind that of younger players, but what a storied life he led! From dire poverty in the slums of New Orleans, the fatherless boy from the Colored Waif’s Home learned to play the cornet in the Home’s band and proceeded to ultimately become an international musical celebrity who played command performances for royalty around the globe despite the early and long-lingering obstacles presented by racial prejudice.

Benny Goodman

 Benny Goodman: “The King of Swing” – at least the white version. Many would argue that Chick Webb, holding court in Harlem at the Savoy Ballroom, came sooner and was more deserving of the title, but leading an all-black band had its disadvantages back then, so Benny was anointed with the title in the mid-thirties. His band in the years, 1937-38 was one of the best ever assembled featuring soon-to-be-recognized all-star performers such as Gene Krupa on drums and Harry James on trumpet. Benny was truly a virtuoso on the clarinet; his smooth, effortless style on the lead solos imparted the trademark “swing” for which his band became so famous.

BG

Goodman came from a large immigrant Jewish family, dirt-poor and mired in the worst of Chicago’s slums. His father caught wind of a local charity that was providing musical instruments to young students who could not possibly afford to rent or own them. Benny received a clarinet, quite by luck of the draw. His father saw to it that Benny received tutoring from a classically-trained teacher, Professor Schoepp, who taught him the fine points of musicianship and technique. Goodman quickly proved to be a child prodigy on the clarinet, possessed with a life-long desire to excel on his instrument and in his musical profession.

 By the age of twelve or thirteen, he was already playing in local dance bands with adult musicians – Benny was the one in short pants….literally!

He could do it all at a very early age: Sight-reading, improvisation, jazz, classical, and he was driven early-on by musical instincts and ideas for a genre of music not yet readily heard (or even played) – the sound that became big-band swing. He practiced constantly on his instrument, even after decades of fame and international renown. He never let-up. He was the best clarinetist out there, even in the company of Artie Shaw.

One aspect of Goodman I admire tremendously is the fact that one NEVER hears a compromised note in any of his thousands of intricate lead-solos, and woe to any band member who misses notes or comes in late for his solo. I heard the same accolade paid to Harry James on the trumpet by a well-known music critic; this is an assertion I can attest to after years of listening. Like Goodman, James never fluffed notes, even when playing intricate, high, and fast jazz riffs – an amazing feat on the difficult trumpet. Goodman was very confident in his abilities on the clarinet even as a young teenager playing professionally with adults. I recently saw an interview of the aged but still active and able Goodman conducted by a young Diane Sawyer. When asked about his talent, he answered with complete frankness and humility that it is something one must be born with. Determination and hard work alone are not sufficient to produce that kind of capability. We mere mortals could practice an instrument twelve hours a day for years and never approach the abilities of a Benny Goodman or a Harry James. The fact that Goodman worked so diligently at his craft despite his great gifts is the ultimate tribute to him and undoubtedly reflects the difficulties and insecurities he experienced as a child in the Chicago slums. He was driven to excel; He was one-of-a-kind, the likes of which will not be seen again. 

Tommy Dorsey

Tommy Dorsey – a fine musician and trombone player whose band was second to none thanks to fabulous instincts and a no-nonsense approach to band-leading. Benny’s band swung harder; Harry James and His Music Makers were louder and brassier, but Dorsey’s outfit was more versatile and endowed with fabulous musical arrangements and taste. He made Frank Sinatra the star he became when Sinatra joined him in 1939 after a year with Harry James and his new band.

TD&FS

I have a CD called The Essential Frank Sinatra With the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra which features a bonanza of stellar recordings from the 1939-1941 era when the band was still featured but the vocalist had a major part in the number. These are priceless arrangements with Sinatra on the verge of perfecting his genius, supported by fabulous, often subtle-as-silk orchestration. They called Dorsey “The Sentimental Gentleman of Swing,” yet he was anything but. He was one tough character with a fiery temper who was not above driving home a point with his fists….and yet somehow he produced this beautiful musical product – an amazing contradiction.

Harry James

 As good as Benny Goodman was on the clarinet, perhaps Harry James was even better on the trumpet. Also a child prodigy on that difficult instrument, it seems that James could so anything on the trumpet ….and do it perfectly. I recall Goodman, himself, paying that compliment to James. Unlike even the best of his contemporaries, he NEVER fluffed or sloughed notes, even the quick ones tucked in a rapid passage; you heard them all – each and every one of them!  He was very versatile, equally able to play the difficult trumpet standard, Carnival of Venice like any classically trained trumpeter, yet able to improvise the hottest of jazz licks and make them shimmer. Comparing Goodman and James for virtuosity, Goodman did have competition from Artie Shaw on the clarinet. I cannot name any trumpet player during the late thirties and through the forties who could seriously challenge Harry James.

HJ

James came from a traveling circus family in Texas. His father, Everett, was a fine cornet player responsible for leading the circus bands; his mother was a trapeze flyer. Like so very many of the major players in the music business, Harry led a hard-scrabble life as a youngster, following the circus from town to town with his parents. His father was a stern taskmaster and saw to it that James was well trained on the horn, driving young Harry to master Arban’s Complete Conservatory Method  For Trumpet, the trumpet player’s bible. Young Harry apparently did just that.

The “Chill” Factor and Harry James

 It is a wonderful, other-worldly experience when one hears music which can produce chills up the spine. I recently bought a DVD of the 1948 film, Young Man with a Horn starring Kirk Douglas as a talented, obsessed trumpet player. Harry James did all the playing for the film.

YMWH

In one scene that has burned itself in my movie-memory, Douglas and Doris Day visit a posh nightclub where the elder trumpet player who mentored Douglas years ago as a boy was playing with a small jazz group. Douglas was recognized by his old teacher and was invited up to the stage to play a number for the audience. He took out his horn and, with the backing of the other musicians, launched into the old standard, With a Song in My Heart. Right from the very first note and all the way through the piece, I got chills up and down my spine from the power, the tone purity, and the musicality James put into that number. The scene was beautifully staged; the elegant nightclub audience was stopped cold in its conversational tracks on the first note, mesmerized by the beautiful artistry on display. I do not believe it took much acting on their part.

 At the conclusion of the song, with the audience a-buzz, the elder player remarked to the audience that he, indeed, had taught the young Douglas how to hold that trumpet, but he “did not teach him how to play it – not the way that he does.” Putting his hand on his breast, he added, “That’s something that you can’t learn; you’ve got to have it.”

 I have heard a lot of very fine trumpet in my years of involvement with the instrument and am not that easily impressed, but James’ playing in the fine soundtrack of this film takes my breath away every single time I hear it – especially that one number. Pure genius; one has to be born with it to be that good. 

A Social Commentary on the Interesting Common Denominator of These Four

All four performers came from rough/tough beginnings – from dire poverty – and all four had to develop very tough skins early in life. Artie Shaw, another great musician/bandleader fits the same mold. Reading their bios, one is amazed at the sensitivity and artistic expression which became the hallmark of their music given the rough and tumble business in which they worked and the hard-driving lifestyle that being on the road made virtually inevitable. The three bandleaders profiled were not only superb musicians in their own right, they also mastered the supremely difficult task of hiring and retaining the best (and often ego-centric) musicians – and keeping them in line. The lesson to be learned from the three of them: Steel, hard-forged in fire, is the toughest.

I wish more young people today were aware of the great artistry they and others of their ilk displayed and the tremendous lift their music provided to a country emerging from a great depression while simultaneously mobilizing for a world war. Those fine musicians deserve the recognition. They and their music need not take a back seat to any musical genre. Lucky are we who understand and know the joy.