“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.

From Bing to Bix: Beiderbecke, That Is!

Last week’s post profiled Bing Crosby, an entertainer whose name is still widely recognized but whose historical importance and versatility as a performer are rarely appreciated. I like a good story – one with real interest, and the short life of this week’s subject easily fills the bill. So….here goes!

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Few of you will recognize the name or the image. Most of you with an interest in music history and early jazz will readily identify the “Young Man With a Horn” as the enigmatic, genius Cornet player from the nineteen-twenties, Bix Beiderbecke. In the early nineteen-twenties, jazz was still in its formative stages as a musical art form. Emanating primarily from New Orleans after the turn of the twentieth century, it was begun and shaped by black musicians who imbued it with deep-south cultural experiences, primarily the blues tradition which echoed the travails and sorrows of the field hands who worked barely beyond what were once slave conditions.

If you follow my blog, you are aware that Louis Armstrong was one of those born into the New Orleans culture which gave jazz its start. The jazz art form was subsequently refined up the Mississippi River in bustling, vibrant Chicago.

Bix Beiderbecke was born in 1903, in Davenport, Iowa, to respectable, upper class parents – far from the breeding grounds of jazz clubs and speakeasies in New Orleans and Chicago. At two years of age, Bix was already showing signs of musical precociousness. He was playing the piano by three, and soon, he could play by ear after hearing the piece once. By ten years of age, Bix was spending time at the end of town, down by the riverfront dock, waiting for the excursion boats to come in from down south replete with on-board bands playing the new, infant jazz. He reportedly heard the cornet playing of Louis Armstrong who regularly worked these excursion boats early in his career.

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Around 1918, Bix’s older brother brought home a Victrola phonograph along with records featuring the “Original Dixieland Jazz Band.” That seemed to be the seminal event in young Beiderbecke’s life, for he was soon hooked by the hot dixieland jazz sounds like Tiger Rag which poured forth. He sat in front of the Victrola for hours playing along on his cornet.

Beiderbecke floundered in high school as he began to play cornet in local bands at the age of seventeen. His refined, merchant-class parents had always looked down upon the new music and those who played it: For them, the music and those who immersed themselves in it bordered on the degenerate. They saw no good future for their son in such avante-garde activities.

Bix was sent to an exclusive boarding school in Lake Forest, Illinois, to get his schooling back on track – an unfortunate choice on the parent’s part due to Lake Forest’s proximity to Chicago where, by the nineteen-twenties, all the real jazz action was happening. Chicago was the welcoming ticket for the many aspiring black musicians who took a chance and traveled up the Mississippi River seeking greater fame and fortune. Chicago filtered out the best from the rest of these.

Beiderbecke was attracted like a moth to the bright lights of Chicago and the aural pleasures it offered. After a few weeks of cutting classes and spending late nights in Chicago’s jazz clubs and speakeasies, Bix was expelled from Lake Forest and sent home. He made it a point while in Chicago to get to the South Side to hear King Oliver and his jazz band at the Lincoln Gardens. It was about that time, in 1922, that Louis Armstrong arrived in Chicago from New Orleans to join his boyhood mentor and idol, Joe “King” Oliver at the Gardens. It was from that point in time and place that Louis Armstrong’s long, storied career in music was launched.

By 1923, Beiderbecke was now living in Chicago after a brief stint back in Iowa with his parents. He had acquired a strong fancy for alcohol (Gin preferred), a taste undoubtedly reinforced during his earlier sojourns to Chicago. His drinking, along with his academic failure, combined to doom his tenure at Lake Forest. After working odds and ends of musical gigs while living in Chicago, Bix joined the Wolverine Orchestra in late 1923. The group took its name after their signature piece, “Jelly Roll” Morton’s Wolverine Blues.

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The Wolverine Orchestra with Bix on cornet: Early 1924

Then as now, “cutting a record” was the ultimate achievement for any performer or musical group. On February 18, 1924, the Wolverines made their first recording at the famous Gennett Records studio in Richmond, Indiana.

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The Wolverine Orchestra at Gennett Records: Feb. 18, 1924

I love this photo showing a young Bix, second from right! Look carefully at the Gennett “recording studio” where they, and so many other jazz pioneers made their first recordings. Note the “air-conditioning” in the form of two fans on the shelf. Note also the large “horns” which feed a black hole into which the sound travels to a stylus which grooves the master disc. Pictures of the “studio” show few changes during these years – from 1923 on; the same two fans are always present!

In those days, there were no microphones and no electronic amplification of the music being played. The recording process relied on adequate sound-pressure coming from the musician’s instruments to cut record grooves.

An interesting sidebar at Gennett Records: When King Oliver’s group with Louis Armstrong first recorded their classic discs in 1923, Armstrong, with his power-playing on the cornet, was moved back away from the pick-up horn and into the hallway of the studio to prevent his robust sound from drowning out the rest of the group on the recordings!

Bix in the Big-Time: The Making of a Jazz Legend

In October of 1926, Bix Beidebecke joined the Jean Goldkette band out of Detroit. The band which was headquartered at the Graystone Ballroom in Detroit was well-known and regarded. Bix and the band opened at the famous Roseland Ballroom in New York City opposite one of the best jazz ensembles of the time – the all-black Fletcher Henderson Orchestra. The resulting “Battle of the Bands,” as it was billed by Roseland, left Goldkette’s group with top honors – quite an upsetting experience for the seasoned Henderson group.

These were the early days of jazz when bands were segregated – either wholly white or black. Black musicians had literally birthed and raised jazz to its adolescence by 1926, and they still largely defined its direction.

The boyish-looking young white man from Davenport, Iowa, playing cornet for Goldkette was, by now, turning heads in the jazz world with his pure tone and his innovative jazz phrasing. White and black musicians alike were very impressed with his fresh style, reminiscent in some ways of the pioneering innovations of Louis Armstrong. By 1926, Louis, himself, had made it a point to see and hear this young white player perform his very own pioneering jazz style.

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

Adolphus “Doc” Cheatham, a legendary black musician whose trumpet playing spanned from the early nineteen-twenties to well into his nineties, and who knew all of the great ones, stated that many cornet/trumpet players back then, white and black, tried hard to imitate Beiderbecke’s unique tone and style of playing: As hard as they tried, they found it impossible, he concluded.

Perhaps the finest tribute to Beiderbecke and his talent came from the great Louis Armstrong himself: “Ain’t none of them play like him yet.”

Paul Whiteman: No Better Than This!

In October of 1927, Beiderbecke hit the top – an invitation to join the Paul Whiteman Orchestra…quickly accepted. When Whiteman came calling, few musicians turned him down. Even Bing Crosby’s young career got its kick-start as vocalist with the Whiteman Orchestra. Paul Whiteman, a violin player, had been billed as the “King of Jazz,” a decided misnomer even though he was a significant influence and his orchestra resided at the summit of the musical mountain. Perhaps you have heard that old tune, Whispering? Whiteman made that into a very big hit in the twenties. In 1924, he also premiered George Gershwin’s famous orchestral jazz composition, Rhapsody in Blue in New York City. Unfortunately, Bix’s arrival at music’s summit with the Whiteman Orchestra coincided with the beginning of his precipitous, personal fall.

Life in the Fast Lane – Then Suddenly Gone

Bix’s smooth run with Whiteman was to last no more than a year. By November of 1928, after a year of grueling touring and recording with Whiteman, Beiderbecke suffered a nervous breakdown in Cleveland. His troubles were unquestionably fueled by his love of gin and uncontrolled drinking which by this time had affected his health and his playing. Whiteman sent him home to his parents in Davenport to recover. When Beiderbecke returned after two such attempts at alcoholic recovery, Whiteman finally had to let him go. Beiderbecke spent his last months in a New York apartment in Queens where he died at twenty-eight years of age from failing health and pneumonia on August 6, 1931. Alcohol had literally robbed the cradle of one of music’s most illustrious, inventive musicians.

A Sad and Poignant Sidebar to the Bix Story

Bix’s body died from his flagrant misuse of alcohol, but his heart and soul likely were already dead from the steadfast lack of recognition and approval from his parents. In the euphoria of those occasions when Bix recorded with the Goldkette and Whiteman bands, he proudly sent copies of his records to his parents in Iowa to share with them his success. While he was at home in Davenport recuperating after his breakdown with the Whiteman band, Bix discovered the cache of records he had sent to his parents in celebration of his musical achievement stashed in a closet …the packages were never opened.

Knowing Bix: The Legend and the Cult

The life and career of Bix Beiderbecke holds a special fascination for most early jazz enthusiasts. For someone with so short a musical life, he has captured the imaginations of many fans over the decades – to the point of becoming a music legend.

I have his recordings, and I have listened. His cornet solos do stand apart from other players – I particularly love his rendition of I’m Coming, Virginia recorded with Frank Trumbauer in 1927 – a true classic. The fine jazz cornet player, Bobby Hackett, played that number in tribute to Bix at the memorable Benny Goodman jazz concert in Carnegie Hall, 1938. With respect to Hackett’s tribute, it is interesting for me to reflect upon my current, avid interest in Bix and my very first LP album purchased almost 60 years ago as a teenager – Bobby Hackett’s In a Mellow Mood! I still have that album – so many “connections” throughout life.

I had long wondered if the immense adulation heaped on Beiderbecke over all these years was, perhaps, a bit overdone. Was his legend the product of a cult mentality? After all, his short life has always seemed to me a series of shadows, barely glimpsed and recorded.

That all changed a few weeks ago when I stumbled upon a two hour DVD documentary on Bix filmed some years ago and released under the auspices of the Playboy Jazz Series. It is a film by Brigitte Berman, exquisitely crafted and featuring live interviews with many of the musicians who actually played with Bix, including Hoagy Carmichael of Stardust fame. I listened and heard the message voiced by so many who were there: Bix was a musical genius living in his own inner world. For him, music was life – there was nothing else…except alcohol. He never could “read” music in the true sense, something that bothered and hindered him, but a shortcoming that he overcame by virtue of his musical ear which allowed him to play anything he heard.

Bix’s improvisation skill was legendary. He often played without music even in Whiteman’s band. When asked to sit down with Beiderbecke and musically notate a piano composition of Bix’s, the poor producer found that whenever they had to run through a section of the piece several times, Bix played it differently each time through. The producer practically went nuts. Until he succeeded in getting some version down on musical staff paper, no one else could play the piece!

Here are the universally acknowledged attributes of his playing that the film highlighted through first-person testimony:

-His gorgeous tone on the instrument: “Each note like a small mallet hitting a chime,” to paraphrase his good friend, Hoagy Carmichael.

-His innate jazz phrasing and style which were so revolutionary coming from a white player in the early nineteen-twenties – and much of it was improvised on the spot! To repeat what Louis Armstrong said about the legions of  Bix’s contemporaries, white and black, who tried to imitate his playing: “Ain’t none of them play like him yet.”

-His social/historical impact. Beiderbecke and Armstrong reportedly met on at least one occasion to jam into the wee morning hours. This was no so-called “cutting” session to see who could outplay the other; by all accounts, it was a friendly, joyful collaboration between two virtuoso musicians wishing to make great music together. Such informal fraternity between black and white players was not at all unusual in those early days, although it was not until the mid-nineteen-thirties that mixed musical groups were seen performing. Bix was one of the first white players whose abilities the black jazz pioneers could relate to and respect. In that historical and human sense, he was a most interesting and important character.

The film by Ms. Berman is titled, simply, Bix and wonderfully reconstructs the aura of the jazz age and what it was like to be a musician during this most exciting and colorful period. The interviews and the many photographs of ballrooms and band ephemera help paint the vibrant picture it so successfully projects. I am a “Bix believer” after listening to his music and viewing the film’s testimonials from musical colleagues who fully support the legend.

The opening photos of this blog show Bix and his Vincent Bach “Stradivarius” model cornet. The Bach “Stradivarius” instrument was a legend in itself among horn players in those early days. Here is the factory production ticket for one of Bix’s horns, dated Feb.,1927. Note the name “Bix” engraved on the cornet bell. The horn is one fine reminder of the life and legend of Bix Beiderbecke.

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Do You Like Pop Music? If So, You Should Thank Bing Crosby!

 

If the name “Bing Crosby” kindles any response at all among younger readers of this post, it is likely the image of “that old-style crooner” who regularly surfaces once a year at Christmas time and sings the best-selling recording of all time (by far) – “White Christmas.”

Single_Bing_Crosby_-_White_Christmas_cover[1]The very same sparse reaction would be registered by most middle-aged readers who experienced Crosby in their youth and, even then, regarded him merely as a “pleasant crooner,” a purveyor of pop music. Such images fall far short of the reality of the man and his accomplishments. “Der Bingle” is factually remembered in show business as one of the great innovators in jazz and pop music and THE most versatile, prolific, and popular vocalist…ever.

Bing Crosby’s era is not defined solely by the familiar nineteen-forties, a decade in which he became the most popular singer of all time: Yes, that’s right – even more popular than his successor and closest competitor, a young fellow named Frank Sinatra. Crosby’s rise to prominence began way back in 1925 when bandleader Paul Whiteman first took note of the newly formed, young vocal duo of Crosby and buddy, Al Rinker. Whiteman hired them on the spot to perform with his “orchestra” which was already experiencing a steep rise to fame by capturing the public’s fancy while pioneering the newly-emerging jazz idiom along the way.

 The Greatest Male Pop Singer of Them All?

No, the greatest was not Bing Crosby: That is history’s verdict and my personal opinion, as well. That honor belongs to Frank Sinatra. The younger Sinatra followed Crosby, and by taking cues from the best vocalist of the nineteen-thirties and early forties, Sinatra learned much about style and phrasing. Style, phrasing, and attention to song lyrics were first introduced into vocals by Bing Crosby; Sinatra improved upon Bing’s model and added his own panache, as well.

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 Crosby, Grace Kelley, Sinatra, and Louis Armstrong in “High Society”

Tommy Dorsey who, besides having the finest big-band of all time, was also a very savvy and shrewd musician. Dorsey counseled his band vocalist, a very young Sinatra, to pay close attention to song lyrics – “like Bing Crosby.” Another great (white) big-band leader, the irrepressible Artie Shaw, singled out Bing Crosby as “the first hip white person born in the United States.” Contrary to the modern image of Crosby, Shaw was right-on: Crosby had what it takes.

Listen to Bing’s predecessors, vocalists like the band-leader Rudy Vallee and hear the difference. Early songsters sang “on the beat” – the precise way a song is notated on paper… and the style of the nineteen-twenties – but a style that soon proved tedious and unexciting. Crosby changed all of that with his innovative phrasing, style, and respect for lyrics. With his fine, mellow, baritone voice, Crosby set the standard for vocalists – until Mr. Sinatra came along and “did it his way.”

 The Thrill of “Finding Out” Such Things

If you have followed this blog, you already appreciate the effect that Ken Burns’ excellent film documentary, “Jazz,” has had on me. I am a “musician”… of sorts, and as I began to progress with my trumpet playing late in life, I reached out to learn more about the music I love – the early forms of jazz which led to swing and the big-band era. Along with much musical history, I learned one very important lesson from that film: Some of the performers who were already regarded as “old, tired, and predictable performers” when I was young in the nineteen-fifties had, in their own young, dynamic years, actually pioneered the new music called jazz and swing, and, by their influence, set the standard for much of the music heard ever since.

armstrongThe prime case in point is Louis Armstrong, a cornet/trumpet man from the slums of New Orleans via Chicago in the early twenties whose youthful talent on the instrument were both stirring and trend-setting. There was no one who played better trumpet and possessed the musical creativity/improvisation that Armstrong displayed. Indeed, the Burns film credits Armstrong with his power-playing, creative phrasing, and improvisation skills as the single individual most responsible for the evolution of jazz as we know it. What Armstrong did for instrumental music and the jazz idiom, Bing Crosby did for vocalizing. That is powerful stuff, and little did I appreciate the historical importance of these two legendary performers and just how far back in time they did go. These days, when I think of Louis Armstrong and Bing Crosby, a wholly different image of each appears in my mind’s eye. After many hours of pleasurable reading /researching the history of jazz and entertainment, I became very aware that both Crosby and Louis had great respect for each other’s talent and place in the history of music and entertainment. To experience that mutual respect, take a look at the famous segment from the fine movie, “High Society,” in which Crosby, with Armstrong and his small group perform the famous “Now You Has Jazz” number – not a bad performance for two old-timers, already well past their prime in 1955. In that same movie and vein, also take a look at the terrific “Swell Party” duet performed by Crosby and Sinatra which hints at their different styles while projecting great mutual respect and fantastic showmanship.

The Just-Released PBS American Masters Documentary
on Crosby: “Bing Crosby Rediscovered”

I watched the new PBS documentary last night and very much enjoyed it. Bing Crosby traveled many, many miles during a vibrant life. It was not always good, and it was not always pretty along the way, but the man left this earth with his feet firmly planted, and he deserves to be remembered for his contributions to music and to our culture. His life-long, chiding comic cohort, Bob Hope, put it this way referring to his pal, Bing: “Never before has someone done so much, for so long, with so little, for so much.” On the contrary, Crosby accomplished much over his lifetime…with much talent, talent deceptively masked by his greatest asset: The ability to make it all look so easy!

1024px-Bing_Crosby_star_HWF[1]Twenty-three gold and platinum records and forty-one hits reaching #1 on the charts is far beyond the stats of any other vocalist or group: That includes Sinatra, Elvis Presley, and the Beatles. And then there are the three separate stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame which speak to his versatility as a performer. It is said that Crosby’s is the most electronically-recorded voice in history. Yes, I can believe that, and he did much more during his career than record vocals on lacquer by also triumphing in the movies, radio, and television – truly an amazing life. The best-actor Oscar in 1945 for his priestly role in the fine film, “Going My Way,” speaks to the depth of his talent. As with Louis Armstrong, I quickly grasped Crosby’s importance to the music and entertainment culture after watching the Burns film, “Jazz.”

Bing BioAccordingly, I purchased Crosby’s definitive biography by Gary Giddens. I still recollect my parents relating attending Catholic mass with Bing, his second wife, Kathryn, and their family at Our Lady of Angels in nearby Burlingame, California. My parents lived just blocks from the church and the Crosbys lived in nearby Hillsborough.

Now, realizing just how extensive were Bing Crosby’s travels through a long and very colorful life, I am transfixed by the image of his gravestone in Culver City, California. It all ends right there: His long journey is over. Have a peaceful eternity, Bing…and thanks for the memories.

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For more of my posts on music and entertainment, go to the “Home” page, click on “Categories” in the right-hand column and then select “Music.”

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

Meet Louis Armstrong – musician. You, the reader, may be muttering, “You must be joking: Everyone knows Louis Armstrong – musician and trumpet player, and he’s still world- famous even though he is long-gone from this earth!” In reality, only a tiny fraction of the many people around the world who “know” Louis Armstrong actually does.

king_oliver[1]Joe (King) Oliver and the Creole Jazz Band – 1923. King Oliver is on muted cornet behind the kneeling Louis Armstrong and Armstrong’s future second wife, pioneer jazz pianist, Lil Hardin.

Years ago, as a teen-aged, aspiring trumpet player, I had Louis Armstrong pegged as an old-timer from New Orleans whose trumpet playing sounded frayed around the edges. His questionable virtuosity on the trumpet seemed somewhat offset by his appealing “feel” for the music of his home town. His was an infectious style of playing – real soul – the inevitable outcome of growing up in the “Big Easy,” I reckoned. That’s all.

And I knew of his singing with that raspy voice. Songs like “Mack the Knife,” “Blueberry Hill,” “Hello Dolly,” and “It’s a Wonderful World” were very popular back in the nineteen-sixties. Armstrong had an awful voice… yet listening to him was and is, strangely, a pleasurable experience. Why is that? One thing was certain: Mr. Armstrong was a unique entertainer with his ever-present smile which often verged on “mugging.”

I knew nothing about Louis Armstrong, in reality! I discovered Louis Armstrong – jazz pioneer and trumpet player without peer once I began to seriously delve into music and my own trumpet playing – late in life. The eye-opener for me was the Ken Burns video opus titled, Jazz. That excellent, comprehensive documentary on the history of jazz took me way back in time to Armstrong’s early years in New Orleans, Chicago, and New York. It was then that I realized what a sensational musician he had been on the trumpet in his prime and how he, perhaps more than any single individual, defined a new style of playing which ultimately evolved into the musical genre known as “jazz.”

Then I read more about Armstrong – biographical accounts, and I listened to his early recordings (now on re-mastered CDs). I quickly realized that this man was not only the finest trumpet player of his era – by far – he was also an irresistible force stirring the winds of change which brought us new music – music which ranged from New Orleans and Chicago jazz to the big-band swing tunes of Goodman, Dorsey, Shaw, and Harry James. Jazz has continued to evolve from the seeds planted and nurtured by Louis Armstrong – even today.

I ultimately appreciated that his true stature as a musician evolves from both the brilliance of his playing in the early years and his unique musical phrasing which freed musicians from the prison of playing the music exactly as written. Armstrong’s creative, improvisational style heralded the beginning of modern jazz. The well-regarded authority, Gary Giddins, has said there is virtually nothing musically that came along later that did not have echoes of Louis, Louis….Louis.

 Out of the Mud Grows the Lotus; A Most Improbable Story!

I agree that fact is stranger than fiction. I can think of no better illustration than the life-story of Louis Armstrong. Born in the slums of New Orleans at the turn of the twentieth century, his father nowhere to be seen, his mother a part-time prostitute, little Louis (not “Louie”) did what it took to survive, much as his mother Mary Ann (he called her May-Ann) did. The youngster was born at 723 Jane Alley, on the edge of black Storyville, the red-light district where black sex was readily for sale. He lived among the worst squalor extant in New Orleans, and it was there that he began to learn all there was to know about life and living. He, like so many of the black youngsters, moved readily among the pimps, prostitutes, and cut-throat thieves that inhabited that infamous section of New Orleans.

There was another small class of individuals that caught the attention of Armstrong and most of his young pals, and these folks were the local musicians who played in the whore-houses, bars, and honky-tonks. These people, although almost as poor as the rest of the residents, were held in quite high esteem and even idolized by the boys in the neighborhood. For most Storyville residents, life offered little of cheer beyond alcohol, sex….and music. Little Louis and the other boys heard their music from the sidewalk, listening while standing outside joints like the “Funky Butt Hall” located across the street from the Fisk School for Boys which Armstrong began attending in 1907.

Little Louis and the Karnofsky Family who “Adopted” Him:
A Lifelong Respect for Jewish Industry and Ambition

At seven years of age, young Armstrong was working for a large Jewish family, the Karnofskys. Their little business involved buying and selling rags, junk, and coal. Louis pushed his little coal-laden wagon around Storyville, delivering small quantities to various enterprises including those operating in prostitute’s cribs. The Karnofskys took a liking to little Louis, often inviting him to stay for dinner after the day’s work was done. He was frequently included in their daily family rituals.

I purchased a very enlightening book on Louis Armstrong several years ago at Powell’s bookstore in Portland, Oregon. The title reads, Louis Armstrong in His Own Words – Selected Writings. It was edited by Thomas Brothers. Revealing his debt of gratitude to the Karnofsky family for their kindnesses shown him as a young boy, Armstrong pens some very strong words while comparing Jewish attitudes toward personal industry and self-improvement to the behaviors he had long observed on the part of poor black people, especially those he lived among as a boy. While blacks in the South were clearly “held down,” Armstrong saw, first-hand, similarly prejudicial attitudes toward poor Jews like the Karnofskys. In his opinion, Jews were not much better off in that regard. He also noticed that the Jews stuck together while patiently executing their self-crafted plans to lift themselves by their bootstraps – actions he claimed not to see from his black bretheren. Armstrong wore the Star of David for the rest of his life in remembrance of the Karnofskys.

These are startling accounts and accusations coming from a major adult black voice. His choice of words in the writings is blunt and brutally frank.

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When Armstrong left New Orleans to conquer the world with his talent, he often encountered racist attitudes which stung him and his fellow blacks. It is clear from his writings that these incidents left scars, yet he managed to defer the pain and embrace the white entertainment culture which quickly accepted him and made him a star. His willingness to play the white man’s game engendered criticism from many black colleagues at the time, some of whom accused him of “Uncle Tomming.”

Young Louis was once advised by an older, wiser black friend in New Orleans to, “Always have a white man in your corner.” The mature Louis took that advice to heart in the form of Joe Glaser, a tough character with mob connections who managed Armstrong’s career for decades. Despite the disparity of backgrounds and interests, they had mutual respect for one another, and Armstrong was freed to perform his music, free from the headaches of booking and book-keeping. For his all-inclusive role, Glaser received half of Armstrong’s considerable earnings!

The often present, toothy smile across Armstrong’s beaming face irritated some of his black critics, to be sure, and some white folks were not quite sure how to take him. His image was distinctly different from the smooth, sophisticated demeanor of a Duke Ellington, for example. To decipher Louis Armstrong, one must understand the forces that shaped him. I see him as a blend of two people: On the one hand, he was a basically kind, well-meaning human being who loved to please and who was easily pleased, needing not much more in life than his music, audience approval, and basic human respect; on the other hand, he was a worldly man, given his bulging dossier of life-experiences, many of which were bound to leave scars.

Louis, himself, confidently and proudly wrote (I paraphrase perhaps a bit), “There’s nothing I ain’t seen!” That certainly includes a lot of good and, undoubtedly, a bunch of “bad.”

It all began for little Louis Armstrong when the Karnofsky’s advanced him some pay so he could buy a battered, used cornet. He learned to really play his horn in the Colored Waif’s Home band where he found himself at age eleven, having been sent there for being involved in some Rampart Street mayhem on New Year’s Eve. After leaving the Waif’s home, young Louis hung around the local musicians, learning from them and finally coming to the attention of Joe “King” Oliver. Joe Oliver also played the cornet (a first-cousin of the trumpet which Louis later adopted) and fronted some local musical groups. When Oliver left New Orleans for Chicago in search of fame and fortune, he eventually called for Armstrong to come and join him, there. That was in 1922; from there, the rest is history as Louis proceeded to outplay everyone in sight with his unique musical phrasing, his pure tone, his high-register capability, and his overall technical proficiency. It was his phrasing, his interpretation of the written music, which made him the singularly most influential musician in the whole history of jazz and its development. It was his phrasing of music, his improvised elaboration of basic melodies that made listening to his vocals a pleasure despite his gravelly voice. And, always present and a significant factor, was his perfect intonation, or pitch.

Armstrong traveled the world, playing numerous command performances before kings, queens, and presidents. His real-life story makes Cinderella’s storybook transformation look rather mundane, by comparison. Later in life, as his raw talent on the trumpet declined, his music had become distinctly commercial. That was the Louis Armstrong I first encountered as a youngster. That was not the Louis Armstrong that garnered such musical acclaim as a young man – the musician you really should know and appreciate.

Armstrong and his wife Lucille lived their late lives in a very modest house in Queens, New York. There were no security guards; there was no gated property. At the end, Louis Armstrong was, fittingly, merely a “resident of the neighborhood” whom everyone knew just as he was in New Orleans at the beginning of it all.

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A good, readable biography is Pops by Terry Teachout.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Music Mysteries – Part 2

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Last week’s post highlighted some intriguing aspects of music and its power to move us listeners. We saw that the ancient Greek philosopher/mathematician Pythagoras was the first to decipher the hard-wired nature of our brains when it comes to musical harmony. He demonstrated that we are physiologically designed to accept and reject certain tonal combinations (harmony). Those preferences influence our tastes in melodic sequences (melody) as well, from complex works of the great composers to simple tunes. Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called to Say I Love You” strikes me as a modern-day example of a simple, but very “catchy” melodic construct. It has appealed to a very wide audience! Another hard-wired part of our musical brains clearly involves the influence of rhythm, or beat – as in “The Beatles.” 

Given Pythagoras’ findings to partially explain our musical preferences, how do we account for the generational preferences so obvious in the history of the music business? If our parents’ generation loved Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, and the big-band sound of the 30’s and 40’s based on musical merit, should not their grandchildren and great-grandchildren be attracted to it as well? That may be true based on physiology and musical merit alone, but the premise does not take into account important emotional/generational factors. After all, how many of today’s teenagers are listening to their grandparents’ music?

 It seems that musical appreciation is very much related to both the times in which the musical genre surfaced and the memories which are evoked in those who grew up with the music. For many of us, the 50’s was the decade of our maturing, and we were enjoying the simple vocal/orchestral tunes at the top of the charts like the McGuire Sisters’ Sincerely, and Rosemary Clooney’s Hey There. We were adolescents leaving childhood and receptive to the moods and messages of 50’s music – the music we were hearing. Pleasant memories flood back when I hear some of these tunes even though many now, in hindsight, seem musically simple and, yes, even inane and laughable.

Perez PradoCherry Pink 45 1955

One tune from 1955 that topped the charts then and still raises my hairs is Perez Prado’s very popular Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White with its featured trumpet and Latin rhythm. That’s the one that originally “connected” me with music as a teenager and fueled my lifelong passion for the trumpet – powerful stuff, music!

 The venerable music-writer and author James Lincoln Collier stated where he was coming from musically in Ken Burns’ documentary, Jazz. I will loosely paraphrase his love of the big-band era: “When you need solace, you turn to the music of your youth. The big-band sound was where I was coming from – that was my kind of music.” He went on to describe the excitement of going to a place like New York’s Paramount Theatre in the late 30’s – early 40’s to hear a featured band like Benny Goodman or Tommy Dorsey. The first sounds of the band filtered outside the theatre to the folks in line, getting louder and louder as you approached the entrance. Once inside, the music became full-bore as the stage slowly elevated from the pit on hydraulic risers to the audience level. That was chills up your back, as he put it!

 I suppose being born in 1940, I have a memory connected, probably through my parents, to the mood of those times and to war-time sentiments – a powerful adjunct to the mystique of the big-band era. Additionally, I think my personal hard-wiring has something to do with my enthusiasm for the music of those times. One specific aspect of biological influence might explain my love for Chopin’s music – I am half Polish from my mother’s side, so there is a common thread with the composer. I have recordings of two of the all-time great pianists playing Chopin – Vladimir Horowitz and Artur Rubinstein. I once tried a little experiment and proceeded to play, side-by-side, identical numbers as performed by each. Both were top keyboard technicians, but the musical phrasing and interpretation by the Polish Rubinstein is so superior (my opinion only!) to that of Horowitz that I was literally startled at the difference I experienced. Despite a reticence to draw such conclusions, I have come to believe, to the point of making jokes, that Chopin’s music can best be appreciated by a Polish person hearing a Polish pianist interpret the Polish composer! It makes me think even more about that hard-wired business in terms of musical DNA. I do have a distant memory of my mother once commenting that Rubinstein was respected as much for his musical interpretation, especially of Chopin, as he was for his technical mastery of the keyboard. To dispel any notions of a resulting bias on my part, I could easily have chosen his renditions over those of the Russian Horowitz in a blind-test comparison.

 New generations like new musical “ideas.” So do musicians who love to invent and improvise. Even the great Artie Shaw quickly became sick and tired of playing his all-time 1939 hit, Begin the Beguine. He chafed at the ballroom crowds wanting to hear the same thing over and over again while he wanted to push the musical envelope with new ideas. He actually walked out on his great band right at the peak of its popularity because of his discontent. So, the attitude of “our music” has influenced the music business from both sides – the performers and the (young) listeners. As a result we have transitioned from ragtime to jazz/swing to be-bop (where wild improvisation is king) to rock-and-roll to heavy metal, and to where we are today, and I am not really sure just where we are today.

 I do know two things: First, that Louis Armstrong, a great jazz improviser himself, was right: As an improvising performer striving to be “creative,” do not stray too far from the melody line, he admonished. That solid advice came from the great cornet player and his boyhood mentor in New Orleans, Joe “King” Oliver. Second, I know that the musical “talent” of today’s most visible performers catering to young audiences rarely matches that which was obvious many years ago. I am not hearing any modern-day vocalists remotely comparable in musicality to the great ones of decades past like Sinatra, Dick Haymes, Nat King Cole, Helen Forrest, Eydie Gorme, etc. – and where are the songwriters? The truly accomplished musical performers of today are much less visible, ensconced in the many symphony orchestras and stage productions across this country. Today, big concert money and big-time marketing aimed at the young have built musical castles out of sand which the waves of time will quickly wash away.