Trumpet Blues: The Life of Harry James
by Peter Levinson
Oxford Univ Press
Miles Davis thought he was wonderful. Clark Terry said he could do it all. That’s a couple of pretty fair trumpet players talking about another.
About Louis Armstrong?
His name was Harry James and his fascinating and somewhat tragic story is told in “Trumpet Blues, The Life of Harry James,” by Peter J. Levinson (Oxford University Press). Levinson lays out a good account of one of America’s classic musicians. A white trumpeter from the swing age, he might be known more for his buttery trumpet solos on some hits from a bygone era, his marriage to Hollywood pinup girl Betty Grable, and his striking good looks in movie appearances. Some may remember he hired a young Frank Sinatra. In the pantheon of trumpeters, from Louis to Roy Eldridge, to Dizzy, on to Miles, Fat Navarro, Clifford Brown and forward, his name rarely comes up.
Levinson points out the error of that omission in the book, illustrating that James had the chops and ability that place him among the all-time greats on the instrument. Indeed, Satchmo had the upmost respect for him. Lionel Hampton said he sounded “black” (a compliment), as did current drummer Kenny Washington who went back to study James on record. “Don’t go to sleep on Harry James. He’s a bad dude,” said trumpeter Terry, getting to the crux of the issue.
Yet at the crux of the book is Levinson’s contention that despite the fact that trumpeters like Arturo Sandoval, Kenny Dorham, Maynard Ferguson, and the aforementioned Miles, Roy, Louis and Diz have all praised his astounding technique and virtuosity, “in line with the way American pop culture has long enjoyed disposing of its musical heroes, sixteen years after his death, Harry James musical greatness is almost completely forgotten,”
His book, he says, is an attempt to document James life and keep it in the public eye.
And what a life! For those who know of James trumpet genius, there is still plenty more to know. He grew up in a traveling circus where he performed as a contortionist and a drummer before switching to trumpet as a young child, eventually leading a circus band, like his father. His mother was an acrobat and taught him some of those tricks. But music became his calling and the book chronicles his meteoric rise, though the bands of Ben Pollak and Benny Goodman, to becoming the nation’s biggest star with the hottest band. There’s far more to his career than the legendary “You Made Me Love You” solo, beloved for decades by so many, and bemoaned by come critics as too “schmaltzy.”
Along the way, his fondness for alcohol, women and gambling are vices that create trouble and eventually help do him in. Nonetheless, the journey is intriguing and Levinson brings it out in great detail.
While it may be tragic to see so many artists who had their personal demons, their lives are extremely colorful. Books about churchgoers who stay home at night are not going to stay open very long.
Despite all the glitz – his womanizing (“Do you have to get laid every night?” roommate and pianist Jess Stacy once asked), his high-profile marriages (Grable was the love of his life, as its turns out), his public displays (he once punched out actor George Raft at the Palladium) and his celebrity status that he so craved – James was an extraordinary player and musician who could play “modern” when he wanted to.
The book is also a good glimpse at the Big Band era and how it rose and fell. James was part of it all, in concert halls, on radio programs, in Las Vegas and later in the new medium of television. Benny Goodman, Mel Torme, Helen Forest, Buddy Rich, Sinatra and many more talents were all part of the James story at one time or another.
And it isn’t the story of just a troubled man, but a person who stood up for blacks, even though he was raised in the south in an era when it was synonymous with racism. (Where Artie Shaw once had to convince Billie Holiday to use the service elevator of the hotel where they were performing because blacks weren’t allowed in the regular elevators, James told his whole band to pack up when told a hotel didn’t have a room for one black band mate. The hotel gave in). It’s about a person who loved music and who was loyal to those in his band. He fought through the bleak times of swing music and survived it all in an industry that has swallowed up lesser men and women.