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"Harry James was a genius. He could read all of the highly syncopated charts at sight, and he played fantastic jazz solos—different every time. ... He was also a good conductor and a fine arranger."
- Arthur Rollini, member of the reed section of the 1937-38 Benny Goodman Orchestra
“By January 1937, then, through the almost random process of comings and goings and casually hired replacements and all the other accidents of circumstance that commonly determined the course of a big band's personnel, the Benny Goodman trumpet section finally completed its evolution and had formed itself into the classic triumvirate of Harry James, Ziggy Elman and Chris Griffin.
This powerhouse trio, as it came to be called, played with a precision and drive and spirit-rousing joyfulness that added even more excitement to the band's performances, and it was the perfect vehicle for executing the Jimmy Mundy killer-dillers that Benny was now favoring. For Hammond, who much preferred Fletcher Henderson's more subtle and relaxed approach to orchestration, "the loud, meaningless 'killer' arrangements which Benny instructs Jimmy Mundy to pound out in mass production each week are definitely detracting from the musicianship of the orchestra." But even he had to admit "there has never been a better trumpet section except in one of Fletcher Henderson's old bands."
This was not an uncommon opinion. Glenn Miller, for one, considered it "the Marvel of the Age." "The best compliment we ever got," Chris Griffin remembers, "is when Duke Ellington once said we were the greatest trumpet section that ever was, as far as his liking." In most trumpet sections one man played lead and the others held down the less demanding second and third trumpet chairs….
In the Goodman band, though, the lead was alternated among all three players. "They switched the parts around because there were so many high notes for the trumpets they'd wear one guy out," Jess Stacy explains. "They had to switch the parts. If they hadn't, one guy would have died."
- Ross Firestone, Swing, Swing, Swing: The Life & Times of Benny Goodman
''His solo work poured out of his horn with a sense of inevitability that no other trumpeter could equal with such consistency."
- Gunther Schuller, The Swing Era
The editorial staff at JazzProfiles, continues its in-depth look at the career of trumpeter and band leader, Harry James with a reprinting of the following inserts notes that Jazz musician, bandleader, author and editor Bill Kirchner penned for Verve Jazz Masters 55: Harry James [314 529 902-2]. The CD provides a wonderful retrospective of the music produced by the bands that Harry led in the 1950's and 1960's.
Still to come in future postings about Harry are Gunther Schuller’s take on him in The Swing Era and a synopsis of the salient aspects of his career as drawn from Peter Levinson’s Trumpet Blues: The Life of Harry James.
“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 Cornet 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 succession of bands in Texas, where his family had settled, and by the time he was nineteen had graduated to the national 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.
(The two Burns compositions, released here for the first time, are from a November 1961 session in which James recorded eight Burns originals. Hommage a Swee Pea is a tribute to Burns's friend Billy Strayhorn, the longtime Duke Ellington collaborator and compositional alter ego. Rosebud was a nickname for a well-known groupie.)
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 — and in the series of nine albums recorded for MGM between January 1959 and March '64, he demonstrated his artistry in a variety of settings. There was a Bob Crosby-like album of big band Dixieland as well as a mainstream small-group date, updated orchestrations of Swing Era fare, and challenging postbop vehicles (The Jazz Connoisseur, its sequel A Swinging Serenade, and Walkin'). As a soloist, James was at his peak, and his former sidemen remember his musicianship with awe. "On a scale of one to ten," recalls lead trumpeter Rob Turk, "Harry was a fifty."
"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.
If James was a prodigious musician, his band was more than capable of supporting him. The James band heard on these sixteen tracks was one of the finest jazz orchestras of its era. Its most celebrated members were drumming phenomenon Buddy Rich (in residence from 1962 to '66), the great lead alto saxophonist Willie Smith (a longtime James sideman who originally had achieved fame with Jimmie Lunceford), and tenor saxophonist Corky Corcoran — but there were other notable soloists, including tenor saxophonists Corre and Sam Firmature, trombonist Sims (older brother of Zoot), and pianist Jack Perciful.
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
The following video features Harry on Ernie Wilkins’s Jazz Connoisseur.