Friday, March 25, 2016

"The Excitable Roy Eldridge" by Gary Giddins

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

The editorial staff at JazzProfiles wouldn’t dream of denying Gary Giddins his “Challah and butter,” but we hope he won’t mind too much if we use the following excerpts from Rhythm-a-ning: Jazz Tradition and Innovation to fulfill a long-standing wish to feature something about trumpeter Roy Eldridge on these pages.

If you haven’t cozied up to Gary’s storytellings, you might want to start with a copy of Rhythm-a-ning: Jazz Tradition and Innovation.

You can locate more information about this book and others that Gary has written by visiting him at

Thankfully, many of the recordings that Roy recorded over the span of his career for Norman Granz at Mercury and later for Norman’s own labels - Clef, Norgran and Verve - are still available as commercial CD’s and Mp3 download. You can locate a comprehensive listing of his output by going here.

The Excitable Roy Eldridge

“Through much of its history, jazz made avid converts with the simple promise of undying excitement, whether maximized by throbbing rhythms, blood-curdling high notes, violent polyphony, layered riffs, hyperbolic virtuosity, fevered exchanges, or carnal funk. Yet excitement often gets a bum rap from those converts who, having mined the music's deeper recesses, suspect all crowd-pleasing gestures of vulgarity. At bottom, the distinction between the two is subtle but clear: if you like it, it's exciting; if not, it's vulgar. As Sidney Bechet noted, "You got to be in the sun to feel the sun. It's that way with music too." If you're cold to a musician's impassioned yowling, that passion will seem awfully dim if not aimless, and since crowds more than individuals thrive on excitement, your response to musical rabble-rousing may depend on your willingness to get lost in a crowd.

The showiest expressions of passion frequently border on outright pandering, but immoderation of that sort is a healthy symptom — it tends to proliferate in a milieu where authentic excitement also flourishes. Over the past decade, excitement has been scarce to a degree that not even the spaciest '50s cool-jazz hipster could have anticipated, while vulgarity continues unabated in its new garb, substituting pretentious meditation for caterwauling. Still, that part of the audience that hasn't been rendered insensible by ECM-styled stabiles of sound, in which slowness indicates profundity, hungers for le jazz hot, as witness the gratitude with which it greets the appended swing theme that, in so many contemporary performances, caps an hour's worth of esoteric clamor. …

[Roy] Eldridge ... [one of the most] … electrifying of jazz trumpeters first came to prominence in the '30's with a flashy, passionate, many-noted style that rampaged freely through three octaves, rich with harmonic ideas and impervious to the fastest tempos. In part, his secret was to transfer ideas patented on the more facile tenor saxophone to the trumpet; his ability to play Coleman Hawkins's solo on Fletcher Henderson's 1926 "Stampede" got him his first job, and more than a decade later, when Hawkins, lording it in Europe, heard the first Eldridge recordings, he vowed to work with the younger man when he returned to the States ….

The decade preceding the emergence of bop was rife with frantic, exhilarating trumpeters. After the war, the tenor sax would assume that role of crowd pleaser, honking and moaning like a Baptist who'd just heard the word. But in the '30s and early '40s Louis Armstrong's instrument was still king, and while many of its best practitioners pursued the course of lyrical composure (among them Buck Clayton, Bobby Hackett, Bill Coleman, Harry Edison, and Doc Cheatham), others—Eldridge, Red Allen, Bobby Stark, Hot Lips Page, Charlie Shavers, Shad Collins, Rex Stewart—strove for an agitated, coruscating approach as thrilling as anything heard in American music. If they were more likely to overstep the bounds of good taste, there was a payback — they took the most expressive risks. Eldridge was the most emotionally compelling, versatile, rugged, and far-reaching. His ballads were complicated but stirringly lucid, and his bravura numbers were played with such bracing authority that they dwarfed the competition. To a young Dizzy Gillespie, "He was the Messiah of our generation."

In one way or another, Armstrong fathered all the trumpeters mentioned above. Eldridge started listening to him in 1931, at twenty, taking cues from his dramatic storytelling intensity, his logic, his gleaming high-note flourishes. ...

Nor were Eldridge's high notes rounded like Armstrong's. Instead, shaded by a rapid shake, they seemed a spontaneous, un-containable explosion of feeling. …. His high notes were never merely high; and rather than concluding performances, they tended to prefigure fiery parabolas of melody. Orson Welles once explained that the screaming white cockatoo in Citizen Kane was inserted to keep the audience alert. Eldridge's expressive cries and banshee whistles serve the same purpose, telegraphing his own excitement…”

If you have never seen a 78 rpm [revolutions per minute] record in action, then you are sure to enjoy the following video which features Roy’s very exciting original 78 rpm version of After You’ve Gone as played on a Victrola.

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