Monday, May 30, 2011

Harry James 1916-1983: Remembering An Extraordinary Musician

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

I haven’t been able to get the tune Sleepy Time Gal out of our mind today. I woke up singing it in my head. Later in the day I was humming it; after a while I was whistling it.

Given the amount of music that has run through my mind over the years, becoming preoccupied with a tune is nothing unusual.

But somehow, the refrain from Sleepy Time Gal was very insistent to the point that I even found myself doubling the time when I “heard” the melody for the second time.

Then it dawned on me that the version that constantly played its way through my mind from the time I got out of bed today was exactly the same as the one that trumpeter Harry James recorded in 1939.

I knew it by heart because it was one of the earliest Jazz records that I remember hearing as a child and because my father, who was a huge fan of Harry James, was always going around the house whistling every note of the original 2:39 minute 78 rpm.

And then another thought occurred to me: today is Memorial Day and my Dad served with General George Patton’s 3rd Army in North Africa and Sicily during the Second World War. Although he was wounded and survived the war, many of his friends and other members of our family did not.

Could it be that my preoccupation with Sleepy Time Gal was a kind of subconscious connection between the purpose of the holiday, my Dad and the tune?

These reflections all played their part in the development of the following video tribute to Harry James on whose sound track you can hear Sleepy Time Gal, replete with the doubled-time second chorus.

We’ve followed this with some comments about Harry James and his place in Jazz history from the noted Jazz author and musician, Bill Kirchner, who prepared these thoughts as the insert notes to the Verve Harry James: Jazz Master compilation [314 529 902-2].

© -Bill Kirchner, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“If a poll were taken to pick the most famous trumpeters in the history of twentieth-century music, chances are that Louis Armstrong and Harry James would top most lists. Armstrong, of course, also has a most secure place in the jazz pantheon, but James does not, due to the "burden" of having achieved enormous commercial success early in his career. It's ironic that while few judge Armstrong's achievements on the basis of such hits as "Hello, Dolly", James is still viewed in many quarters mainly as an early-Forties purveyor of schmaltzy ballads such as "You Made Me Love You" and such virtuoso pop-classical fare as "Flight of the Bumble Bee".

To be sure, there was a strong element of commercialism in James's musical persona, but there was an intense jazz side as well. His playing gave witness to the varied influences of his favorite trumpeters: Armstrong, Muggsy Spanier, Bunny Berigan, Buck Clayton, and Clifford Brown. There have been few trumpeters in jazz history who could sound equally convincing on Armstrong's Comet Chop Suey and the challenging bebop harmonies of Ernie Wilkins's Jazz Connoisseur; James pulled it all off effortlessly, while leaving no doubt who was playing. ("His solo work", observed composer, conductor, and historian Gunther Schuller in The Swing Era, "poured out of his horn . . . with a sense of inevitability that no other trumpeter could equal with such consistency.") Combine these elements with an eloquent jazz ballad style — there are several examples in this collection — a passion for the blues, and breathtaking execution, and you have a unique, and great, jazz musician.

Born in 1916 in Albany, Georgia, Harry Hagg James was the son of a circus bandleader, and he spent much of his childhood in this unusual musical environment. (His adult fondness for such showpieces as "Carnival of Venice" no doubt stemmed from early exposure to brass-band music.) He began playing drums at age seven and three years later commenced trumpet lessons with his father. The boy evidently learned quickly: While in his teens, he played in a succession of bands in Texas, where his family had settled, and by the time he was nineteen had graduated to the national level with the Ben Pollack band. His popularity, however, was established with his 1937-38 stint in the most renowned of Benny Goodman's orchestras, enabling him to go on his own and become one of the most successful bandleaders of the Swing Era — before reaching the age of thirty. …

With the unofficial demise of the Swing Era at the end of 1946, James disbanded his orchestra, as did a number of other bandleaders, but he formed a new band soon afterward and led it intermittently throughout the next decade. In the late Fifties he began what was arguably the most artistically fruitful period of his career: During this time, he acquired a base at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas, where his band played for several months of each year when not touring. James also commissioned a slew of charts from first-rate composer-arrangers: Ralph Burns, Bob Florence, Neal Hefti, Thad Jones and, most of all, Ernie Wilkins. The last three, not coincidentally, had written extensively for Count Basie, whose band James admired and, to some extent, imitated in approach.

But the James band was more than just a Basie copy — its leader was too strong a musical personality to settle for that. His own playing continued to grow in scope — including an assimilation of Clifford Brown's music — ….

"He was the greatest musician I ever played with," tenor saxophonist Jay Corre says. Both Corre and bassist Red Kelly mention that James had what must have been a photographic memory (and a phonographic ear). He not only had his own parts memorized but those of every band member as well. If a player was absent, James would play the missing part on trumpet. And Ray Sims played an occasional game with the leader: Sims would pull out any chart and display a random two measures of his second trombone — even from an arrangement that the band had not played in years — and James would invariably identify the piece correctly. …

Harry James continued to play magnificently and lead his orchestra until his death in 1983. The music contained in this collection, all recorded during what was arguably his most creative period, makes a strong case for a reevaluation of his place both in jazz history and in the jazz pantheon. In a musical tradition that celebrates individuality, he was truly one of a kind.”

Bill Kirchner
November 1995