© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
Some think he is “the best of all,” others accuse him of having gone too blatantly commercial. Like in many things in life, the truth about Harry James lies somewhere in the middle. …
As a trumpet player, James has a very personal tone, rich in vibrato, and brilliant technique - and yet, an exaggerated tendency towards self-display, towards circus-like playing can be overheard even in recordings; even those that are to be taken seriously. Strict jazz loyalists regard only a part of James' historical repertoire as acceptable, but whenever he was serious about mounting a performance, it was something which had a great deal of substance.
- Willie Gschwendner, insert notes to Laserlight, The Jazz Collector Edition: Harry James and His Orchestra
“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".
But there are few trumpet players in modern history who could sound equally convincing on Armstrong’s “Cornet Chop Suey” or the challenging bebop harmonies of Ernie Wilkins’s “Jazz Connoisseur.””
- Bill Kirchner, insert notes to Harry James Verve Jazz Masters 55
I realize that Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw and Glenn Miller constituted “The Big Three” during the Swing Era when big bands ruled the roost [I guess a case could be made for Tommy Dorsey’s outfit as well], but my introduction to that era came in the form of retrieved 78 rpm acetates by the Harry James Big Band, or, Orchestra as it was called in those days.
These sides by the James “outfit” [a commonly used descriptor from that time; perhaps a leftover from the jargon of the Wild West days] were salvaged by me when I was doing some exploring one day in the cellar of the family home.
I gather James was idolized by my parents during their courting years hence the trove of discs by the James big band that I discovered molding away in the cellar.
Besides helping to skyrocket James’ career to stardom in a career already boosted by an early spotlight when he played with Benny Goodman’s famous band in the late 1930’s, Harry’s big band also helped launch the careers of vocalists Helen Forrest, Frank Sinatra and Dick Haymes. His was the first “name” band that drummer Buddy Rich performed with at the beginning of what would become a long and illustrious career.
And speaking of “jargon,” it’s fun to go back and read the Jazz press from that era and encounter the slang of that day: words like outfit, killer-diller, jump, “hot” chair [the solo chair in the brass or reed section], kicks, rocks [small R], and boy/girl singer, among many other colloquialisms unique to the Swing Era.
Harry James went well beyond the initial big band era and continued to lead swinging aggregations until his death in 1983, including many long stints at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas which was to become a home base of sorts for him during the last 25 years of his career.
Much like Woody Herman, who is usually heralded for it while Harry is not, for many years, James provided opportunities for many musicians and arrangers, both young and old, to have the experience of playing in a big band.
And just like Woody, he was well-loved as “The Old Man.” Given all the musicians who passed through Harry’s bands over the years, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who would say an unkind word about him.
There’s another quality that distinguishes Harry’s playing: he was able to make the transition from Swing Era phrasing to the modern Jazz idiom in his solos. The same cannot be said about many other stalwarts from the big band era including Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa and the much beloved, Woody Herman.
Given this legacy and the fact that Harry James was an important part of my Jazz upbringing, I thought it would it might be great fun to pay homage to him with a multi-part essay on these pages featuring the writings of George T. Simon, Ross Firestone, Bill Kirchner and Peter Levinson, in addition to my own observations and remembrances.
Let’s begin with George T. because unlike many others writers on the subject of Harry James, Mr. Simon was there at the beginning of what was to become one of the most storied callings in Jazz History.
“It was on a day in mid-September of 1936 that Glenn Miller and Charlie Spivak invited me to go with them to hear a recording session of a band by their former boss, Ben Pollack. He had just arrived in town to do a date for Brunswick, and Glenn, who had always been telling me what a great drummer Pollack was, said, "Now you can hear for yourself."
The band was composed of young musicians, the good kind that Ben had a knack for discovering (he had started Miller, Spivak, Benny Goodman, Jack Teagarden and many other stars). Pollack, I soon found out, was a helluva drummer, and the young, fat man in the reed section, Irving Fazola, was a magnificent clarinetist.
And then, of course, there was the long, lean, hungry-looking trumpeter whom I'd raved about in a column a few months earlier — without even knowing his name — after having heard a Pollack band broadcast from Pittsburgh, and whose rip-roaring style proved to be even more exciting in person. The session became quite something, with Miller and Spivak joining the band and later both spouting raves about the new kid trumpeter.
He, of course, was Harry James, and his playing on these records drew another rave notice from me. "Irving Goodman, Benny's brother, read it in Metronome,' James revealed years later, "and he started listening to me. Finally he convinced Benny he ought to get me into his band." In December, 1936, James joined Goodman, replacing Irving.
Harry was only twenty years old then, but he already had had as much experience as many of the band's veterans, having blown his horn in dance bands since he had been thirteen. His impact on the Goodman band in general and its brass section in particular (he played both lead and hot) was immense.
What's more, his unfailing spirit and enthusiasm seemed to infect the other musicians — he was extremely well-liked and respected, despite his age. And obviously he enjoyed his new environment. Even after he had been with the band for a year and a half and reports persisted that several of the Goodman stars would follow Gene Krupa's move and start their own bands, Harry remained steadfast. "Benny's too great a guy to work for!" he exclaimed in the spring of 1938, insisting that he wouldn't even consider leaving for at least a year. It turned out to be a very short year. In January, 1939, James left Goodman to start his own band.
Benny didn't seem to mind. He gave Harry his blessings and some cash in return for an interest in the band. Eventually James paid him back many times that amount in return for his release.
The new band's first engagement was in Philadelphia at the Benjamin Franklin Hotel. It opened there on February 9, and the March, 1939, issue of Metronome carried this capsule review with the heading "James Jumps."
Harry James' new band here in the Ben Franklin sure kicks — and in a soft way, too. Outfit gets a swell swing, thanks mostly to great arrangements by Andy Gibson, to Dave Matthews' lead sax, Ralph Hawkins' drumming and Harry's horn.
Hotel management insists upon unnaturally soft music. Band complies, producing stuff reminiscent of the original Norvo group. However, in last supper sets it gives out and really rocks!
Some rough spots still obvious: brass intonation varies; saxes, brilliant most of the
time, not yet consistent. Missed: a good hot clarinet and ditto trombone. Personalities of Harry as leader and Beatrice Byers, warbler, fine.—Simon
Also in February, on the twentieth, the new band cut its first records for Brunswick, for whom Harry had previously made several sides with pickup bands that usually included some of Count Basie's men. The new sides by his own big band weren't very impressive at first, but even the best groups suffered acoustical malnutrition from the company's woefully small, dead-sounding studios.
The band, however, did impress its live audiences and radio listeners, and James seemed happy. "No, I don't think I made any mistake when I left Benny," he said. "When I was with Benny, I often had to play sensational horn. I was one of a few featured men in a killer-diller band. Each of us had to impress all the time. Consequently, when I got up to take, say, sixteen bars, I'd have to try to cram everything into that short space."
Right from the start, James began to feature -himself more on ballads— tunes like "I Surrender, Dear," "Just a Gigolo," "I'm in the Market for You" and "Black and Blue." "Playing what you want to play is good for a guy's soul, you know," he explained.
As for the band itself he insisted: "I want to have a band that really swings and that's easy to dance to all the time. Too many bands, in order to be sensational, hit tempos that you just can't dance to." Maybe it's just coincidental, but just at the time James made this statement, Glenn Miller's band, with its extremely fast tempos, had started coming into its own. "We're emphasizing middle tempos," Harry continued. "They can swing just as much and they're certainly more danceable."
The band provided much color, even with its uniforms. Harry had been brought up in a circus, and his tastes often showed it. His men were attired in red mess jackets, and with them they wore white bow ties and winged collars that went with full dress outfits. Harry had a flashy way of playing his horn, too, visually (he'd puff his cheeks so that they'd look as if they were about to pop) as well as aurally, so that you couldn't help noticing him and his band.
He was in those days — and he continued to be, for that matter — a refreshingly straightforward, candid person. His personal approach was much more informal than his band's uniforms, and he succeeded in creating and retaining a rapport with his men that must have been the envy of many another bandleader.
One of his closest friends turned out to be a young singer James says he heard quite by accident one night on the local radio station WNEW's "Dance Parade" program in New York. (Louise Tobin, who was then married to James, insists that she had first drawn his attention to the voice.)
As Harry recalls, it happened in June, 1939, when his new band was playing at the Paramount Theater in New York. James, lying in bed, listening to Harold Arden's band from the Rustic Cabin in Englewood, New Jersey, was immensely impressed when he heard the band's boy vocalist sing. But Harry failed to note his name, so the next night, after his last show, he traveled over to the Rustic Cabin to find out. "I asked the manager where I could find the singer," he recalls, "and he told me, 'We don't have a singer. But we do have an MC who sings a little bit.' "
The singing MC's name turned out to be Frank Sinatra. He crooned a few songs, and Harry was sufficiently convinced to ask him to drop by the Paramount to talk more. "He did, and we made a deal. It was as simple as that. There was only one thing we didn't agree on. I wanted him to change his name because I thought people couldn't remember it. But he didn't want to. He kept pointing out that he had a cousin up in Boston named Ray Sinatra and he had done pretty well as a bandleader, so why shouldn't he keep his name?" Even way back then, Sinatra was a pretty persuasive guy!
The new vocalist recorded his first sides with the band on July 13,1939. They were "From the Bottom of My Heart" and "Melancholy Mood," and though they were musical enough, they sounded very tentative and even slightly shy, like a boy on a first date who doesn't quite know what to say to his girl.
In those days Sinatra, despite an outward cockiness, needed encouragement, and he got it from James, with whom he established a wonderful rapport.
The first indication I had of Frank's lack of confidence came in August when I dropped into the Roseland to review the band. As I was leaving, Jerry Barrett, Harry's manager, came running after me to find out what I thought of the new singer. "He wants a good writeup more than anybody I've ever seen," he said. "So give him a good writeup, will you, because we want to keep him happy and with the band."
The writeup commended Sinatra for his "very pleasing vocals" and his "easy phrasing," praise that was nothing compared with that I had for the band itself: "a band that kicks as few have ever kicked before!" In addition, it did what Harry had said he wanted to do: it played exceptionally well for dancing, producing even waltzes, tangos and rumbas. It also spotted several fine soloists, including Dave Matthews on alto sax, Claude Lakey on tenor sax, Dalton Rizzotti on trombone and Jack Gardner on piano.
The band was doing well around New York. But after Roseland it went out to Los Angeles and into a plush restaurant called Victor Hugo's. "The owner kept telling us we were playing too loud," Harry recalls. "And so he wouldn't pay us. We were struggling pretty good and nobody had any money, so Frank would invite us up to his place and Nancy would cook spaghetti for everyone."
After the West Coast debacle, the band went into the Sherman Hotel in Chicago. The future wasn't looking so bright anymore. What's more, Frank and Nancy were expecting their first baby, who turned out to be little Nancy.
Meanwhile — nearby at the Palmer House—Tommy Dorsey was having boy singer problems. He was told about "the skinny kid with James," heard him and immediately offered him a job. Frank talked it over with Harry. Aware of the impending arrival and the necessity for a more secure future, James merely said, "Go ahead." And Sinatra did.
Sinatra's contract with James still had five months to run. "Frank still kids about honoring our deal," Harry recently noted. "He'll drop in to hear the band and he'll say something like 'O.K., boss' — he still calls me 'boss' — I'm ready anytime. Just call me and I'll be there on the stand.' "
Sinatra's voice had become an important one in the James band. Jack Matthias had written some pretty arrangements for him, including some in which the band sang glee club backgrounds in a strictly semi-professional way. For me the two best vocals Sinatra sang with James were "It's Funny to Everyone but Me" and "All or Nothing at All," which was re-released several years later and only then became a bestseller. Possibly the worst side he ever recorded was the James theme, "Ciribiribin."
With Sinatra gone, James naturally began looking for a replacement. He found him quite by accident one afternoon when the band was rehearsing in New York at the World Transcription studios at 711 Fifth Avenue. Larry Shayne, a music publisher, had brought along a young songwriter to audition some tunes. Harry listened, then turned to Shayne and said, "I don't like the tunes too much, but I sure like the way the kid sings." The kid was Dick Haymes.”
To be continued in Part 2
The following video features Harry performing Sleepy-Time Gal. It is the first tune that I ever heard him play.