© -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.
© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
"Harry James was a deep, deep, deep man; he may not have been academically educated guy, but he was street educated. He was as perceptive as anybody I have ever known. His first exposure to life was to circus people. If you want to learn about life, those are the people you want to talk to."
- Joe Cabot, trumpet play in and eventually musical director of The Harry James Orchestra
Continuing now with Part 2 of our extensive feature on Harry James from George T. Simon's seminal The Big Bands, 4th Edition.
“If ever there was a nervous band singer, it was Dick Haymes. The son of a top vocal coach, Marguerite Haymes, he was incessantly aware of all the problems that singers faced: stuffed-up nasal passages, sore throats, frogs, improper breathing, wrong stances, etc. As a result he looked completely self-conscious whenever he prepared to sing. I still have visions of his routine at the Fiesta Ballroom, at Broadway and Forty-second Street, where the band was playing shortly after Dick joined. As he prepared to sing, he'd clear his throat a couple of times and then invariably take his handkerchief out of his breast pocket and put it to his mouth for a second. Then he'd approach the mike with long steps, look awkwardly around him, take a deep breath and start to sing.
And how he could sing! There wasn't a boy singer in the business who had a better voice box than Dick Haymes — not even Bob Eberly, whom Dick worshiped so much and who amazed Dick and possibly even disillusioned him by doing something no highly trained singer would ever do: smoke on the job! Haymes sang some exquisite vocals on some comparatively obscure James recordings of "How High the Moon" (as a ballad), "Fools Rush In," "The Nearness of You" and "Maybe." They appeared on a minor label called Varsity, with which Harry had signed early in 1940 after his Brunswick and Columbia sides (the two labels were owned by the same company) had shown disappointing sales.
But though his records may not have been selling sensationally, James continued to hold the admiration of his fellow musicians. In the January, 1940, Metronome poll he was voted top trumpeter in two divisions: as best hot trumpeter and as best all-round trumpeter.
During this period the band returned to New York's Roseland, where it sounded better than ever, swinging sensationally throughout the evening. But Harry was thinking ahead. He wanted to be able to play more than just ballrooms and in the too few hotel spots that didn't boycott high-swinging bands. "You know what I want to do?" he confided to me one evening. "I'm going to add strings and maybe even a novachord. Then we'll be able to play anywhere."
My reactions, like that of any jazz-oriented critic who couldn't see beyond the next beat, was one of horror. James add strings? What a wild, scatterbrained idea! "You're out of your mind," I told him. A few weeks later he announced he was giving up the idea, explaining that he'd planned it only because he figured that was how he could cop an engagement in a class New York hotel spot. But when the hotel operator insisted upon owning a piece of the band too, Harry shelved his plans.
During the summer of 1940 the band appeared at the Dancing Campus of the New York World's Fair. It had begun to settle into a wonderful groove, with the ensemble sounds matching those of such brilliant soloists as James himself, Dave Matthews on alto and Vido Musso and Sam Donahue on tenor saxes. In a fit of critical enthusiasm that caused Benny Goodman to appear in my office to ask incredulously, "Do you really think so?" I had noted in Metronome that "strictly for swing kicks, Harry James has the greatest white band in the country, and, for that matter, so far as this reviewer is concerned, the greatest dance-bandom has ever known. And that's leaving out nobody!"
But Harry never seemed to be quite satisfied. In the fall he made several personnel changes, explaining that "the boys need inspiration, so I decided to call in some fresh blood." One of the most surprising moves was installing Claude Lakey, who had joined the band on tenor sax and then had switched into the trumpet section, as new leader of the saxes in place of Matthews.
But the most important move was still to come. Harry had finished his contract with Varsity Records (if you think the Brunswick sound was bad, listen to some of the Varsity sides!) and had returned to Columbia, which by now was getting some great results out of its large Liederkranz Hotel studio. The company had a very astute A&R producer named Morty Palitz who, Harry recently said, "suggested I add a woodwind section and a string quartet. I settled for the strings."
Remember how those of us who knew everything had warned Harry against such a move less than a year before? Harry just didn't have sense enough to listen to us, though. He added the strings and recorded such trumpet virtuoso sides as "The Flight of the Bumble Bee," "The Carnival of Venice" and the two-sided "Trumpet Rhapsody" all complete with a string section. And on May 20, 1941, he recorded "You Made Me Love You," his schmaltzy trumpet backed by the dainty sounds of his strings. Despite our grave warnings, the record proved to be a smash hit, and the James band was on the way to stardom.
He recorded the tune for a very simple reason: he loved the way Judy Garland sang the song. I remember his raving about her during those very quiet nights when he and I used to sit in the Blue Room of the Hotel Lincoln, where the musicians would sometimes outnumber the customers. In addition to music, we shared another passion, baseball and, at that time, the Brooklyn Dodgers in particular. (For the sake of the record it should be noted that James eventually became a staunch fan of the St. Louis Cardinals, for whom he still roots today.) It was a curious routine that we followed: we'd sit in the Lincoln all night and talk about baseball and then during the afternoons we'd go out to Ebbets Field to watch the Dodgers. And what would we be talking about out there? Music, of course.
In June, James recorded a swinging salute to his favorite team, "Dodgers' Fan Dance." He also tried to emulate them literally by playing ball with his team in Central Park on almost every clear afternoon. There was an unconfirmed rumor that before James would hire a musician, he'd find out how well he could play ball — after which he'd audition him with his instrument. Certainly he had some athletic-looking guys in his band during those days.
"Dodgers' Fan Dance" wasn't much of a hit. But "You Made Me Love You," of course, was, and from then on the character of the James band changed for good. It still played its powerful swing numbers, but it began interspersing them more and more with many lush ballads that featured Harry's horn, blown, as I noted in a Metronome review, "with an inordinate amount of feeling, though many may object, and with just cause, to a vibrato that could easily span the distance from left field to first base."
Ironically, "You Made Me Love You" wasn't released until several months after it had been recorded. Perhaps the Columbia people agreed with some of the jazz critics. But they were wrong, too.
The hit was backed by one of the greatest of all James ballad sides, "A Sinner Kissed an Angel," which proved once again what a great singer Haymes had become. During this period Dick also recorded several other outstanding sides: "I'll Get By," "You Don't Know What Love Is" and probably his greatest James vocal of all, "You've Changed."
With singers like Sinatra and Haymes, Harry apparently felt he didn't need to feature a girl vocalist. Previously he had carried several, Bernice Byers and then Connie Haines during the band's earliest days. And in May, 1941, he had hired Helen Ward, Goodman's original singer to make a recording of "Daddy." Then later, for a while, he spotted a very statuesque show-girl type named Dell Parker, who in July, 1941, was replaced by petite Lynn Richards. But few sang much or sang well. Definitely the best was yet to come.
The best turned out to be Helen Forrest, who'd recorded some great sides with Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman but who suddenly quit the latter, "to avoid having a nervous breakdown. Then just on a hunch," Helen recently revealed, "I decided to contact Harry. I loved the way he played that trumpet, with that Jewish phrasing, and I thought I'd fit right in with the band. But Harry didn't seem to want me because he already had Dick Haymes to sing all the ballads and he was looking for a rhythm singer. Then Peewee Monte, his manager, had me come over to rehearsal, and after that the guys in the band took a vote and they decided they wanted me with them. So Harry agreed.
"I've got to thank Harry for letting me really develop even further as a singer. I'll always remain grateful to Artie and Benny. But they had been featuring me more like they did a member of the band, almost like another instrumental soloist. Harry, though, gave me the right sort of arrangements and setting that fit a singer. It wasn't just a matter of my getting up, singing a chorus, and sitting down again."
What James did, of course, was to build the arrangements around his horn and Helen's voice, establishing warmer moods by slowing down the tempo so that two, instead of the usual three or more choruses, would fill a record. Sometimes there'd even be less; many an arrangement would build to a closing climax during Helen's vocal, so that she would emerge as its star.
Helen, who was just as warm a person as she sounded, blended ideally with the schmaltzier approach that was beginning to turn the James band into the most popular big band in the land and that helped Helen win the 1941 Metronome poll. True, there were times when she tended to pour it on a little too thick with a crying kind of phrasing, but then she was merely reflecting the sort of unctuous emotion that Harry was pouring out through his horn.
It may not have been what his real jazz fans wanted, but Harry was beginning to care less and less what they thought and more and more about the money and squarer customers who kept pouring in.
Helen turned out a whole series of excellent ballad sides that helped the band's stock soar. Many of them, beginning with her first vocal, "He's I-A in the Army and He's A-I in My Heart," dwelled upon the-boy-in-the-service-and-his-girl-back-home theme. Thus came such recordings as "I Don't Want to Walk Without You," "He's My Guy," "That Soldier of Mine" and "My Beloved Is Rugged," plus plain but equally sentimental ballads, like "Make Love to Me," "But Not for Me," "Skylark," "I Cried for You," "I Had the Craziest Dream" and "I've Heard That Song Before."
The band personnel began to improve, too. A young tenor saxist, who was still a guardian of another bandleader, Sonny Dunham, joined and became one of the James fixtures for the next twenty-five years. This was Corky Corcoran, a great third baseman, who was released by Dunham upon Harry's payment to him of the costs of the seventeen-year-old saxist's recent appendicitis operation. The reeds had already been bolstered by the addition of two excellent alto saxists, Sam Marowitz in the lead chair, and Johnny McAfee, who, after Haymes left at the end of 1941, contributed some very good vocals. James had also featured another singer, Jimmy Saunders.
An indication of what lay ahead appeared when the band entered the select winner's circle of the Coca-Cola radio show, which spotted the bands with the most popular records. Previous victors had been Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Freddy Martin and Sammy Kaye, all Victor artists. Then, in March, 1942, the James band broke their hold with its recording of "I Don't Want to Walk Without You." What's more, two months later the band and the record copped honors for the show's favorite recording of all!”
To be continued in Part 3 ....
© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
The following posting continues and concludes the George T. Simon portion of our planned, extended profiles on Harry James as drawn from the 4th edition of his pioneering work on The Big Bands.
“The new formula of Harry's schmaltzy horn and Helen's emotional voice, with swing numbers interspersed, was certainly beginning to pay off. In the spring of 1942 the band broke records on two coasts—at the Meadowbrook in Cedar Grove, New Jersey, and at the Palladium in Hollywood, where it drew thirty-five thousand customers in one week and eight thousand of them in a single evening!
To those of us who had been enraptured by the band's tremendous free-swinging drive, the change in musical emphasis was disappointing. In a review of a radio program during its record-breaking Palladium stay, I concluded, after deploring the band's muddy-sounding rhythmic approach, that "it would be a shame to discover that the Harry James band had really lost that thrilling drive that sparked its performances for such a long time."
But the band just kept going on to bigger and bigger things. In the summer of 1942 it won Martin Block's "Make Believe Ballroom" poll, unseating what most people considered the number-one band in the country, Glenn Miller's. And then, when shortly thereafter, Glenn enlisted in the Army Air Force, his sponsor, Chesterfield cigarettes, selected James to replace him. By then, the band was appearing on commercial radio five nights a week— three times for Chesterfield, once for Coca-Cola and once again for Jello as part of "The Jack Benny Show" emanating from New York.
While in the East the band again played the Meadowbrook. And it also repaid a debt to Maria Kramer, owner of the Lincoln Hotel, where it had spent so many of its earlier nights, by playing the spot at quite a loss in income.
But it left the engagement early when it was summoned to Hollywood to appear in the movie version of Best Foot Forward.
Barry Ulanov, who preferred jazz to schmaltz, summed up the reason for the James success in a December, 1942, Metronome review that began:
Rarely has the public's faith in a band been so generously rewarded as it has in the organization headed by Harry James. Of the number one favorites of recent years, Harry's gives its fans the most for its money. . . . His taste is the public's taste, and his pulse runs wonderfully right along with that of the man in the street and the woman on the dance floor. . . .
Whether or not you agree with or accept Harry James' taste doesn't matter in appraising this band. It's not the band of tomorrow. It's not an experimental outfit. It's not even the brilliant jazz crew that Harry fronted a couple of years ago. It's just a fine all-around outfit that reflects dance music of today perfectly.
One further indication of the band's commercial success: the day it was to open a twelve-thousand-five-hundred-dollar-a-week engagement at New York's Paramount Theater was a nasty, rainy one. The doors were to open at a quarter to ten. At five in the morning the lines began forming, and if a batch of extra police hadn't arrived, there could have been a riot.
And still another sign: Columbia Records announced in June, 1942, that it was running into a shellac famine because of James. That band's version of "I've Heard That Song Before" had become the company's all-time biggest seller at 1,250,000 copies! "Velvet Moon" and "You Made Me Love You" had passed the one million mark. And "All or Nothing at All" and "Flash," the former featuring Sinatra, the latter a James original, a coupling that had sold 16,000 copies when it had been released three years earlier, had been reissued and had sold 975,000 copies to date!
Meanwhile the band was signed to appear in two more movies, Mr. Co-Ed with Red Skelton and A Tale of Two Sisters, as Harry kept growing closer and closer to the movie scene, and particularly to one of its most glamorous stars. She was Betty Grable, who occupied a table every night at the Astor Roof when the band appeared there in the spring of 1943.
During that engagement it became increasingly obvious that Harry was far more interested in pleasing his public, and in Miss Grable, then he was in playing any more outstanding jazz. The band performed its ballads as well as usual, but the men seemed to be blowing listlessly. "The stuff instead of sounding solid, sounds stolid, on the pompous side," I noted in my July, 1943, review. "You get the feeling that the men are plodding through the notes. . . . I don't know whether it's because they are living too well, or because they just aren't capable of playing more rhythmically. . . ."
Perhaps my thoughts were going back too much to those early days when the band had such tremendous spirit, when it was filled with laughs and good humor and ambition and a healthy desire to play and swing and succeed. Now success had come, but the inspiration seemed to have disappeared.
Harry, himself, seemed far less interested in his music. Of course, with someone like Betty Grable around, most of us could hardly blame him.
But Harry had worries, too. The armed services were taking some of his best men. And, what's more, they were constantly beckoning in his direction too.
On July 5 in Las Vegas, Nevada, Harry James married Betty Grable. One month later his draft board classified him 4-F.
But his draft problems were by no means over. Rumors kept persisting that he would be reclassified I-A. On February 11, 1944, he took his pre-induction physical. Then Harry put his entire band on notice with an invitation "to stick around and see what happens." There really wasn't much to stick around for because his radio series sponsor announced that the band would be dropped from the program in March.
And then it happened: at the very last minute, James was re-classified 4-F because of an old back injury. Quickly he called together some of his old men. He had been featuring Buddy DiVito and Helen Ward (Helen Forrest had begun her career as a single late in 1943) as his singers, but the latter was replaced by Kitty Kallen when the band returned to the Astor Roof on May 22. Juan Tizol, meanwhile, had come over from Duke Ellington's band to fill a James trombone chair.
The band's success continued. After its Astor engagement, where an improved rhythm section was noted, it went on a record-breaking tour, highlighted by a sixty thousand throng at the Rubber Bowl in Akron, Ohio, and terminating in California, where it began another healthy schedule on Coca-Cola's Spotlight Band radio series, and where Harry broke something other than a record — his leg. How? Playing baseball, of course.
The James band had not made any good new recordings for more than two years; the AFM ban saw to that. Finally, on November 11, 1944, the companies and Petrillo ended their war. Immediately James went into Columbia's New York studio to record four sides, including a fine version of "I'm Beginning to See the Light," featuring his pretty, new vocalist, Kitty Kallen, plus his first jazz combo opus in many a year, "I'm Confessing" which spotted the great Willie Smith, Jimmie Lunceford's former alto saxist, who had just joined the band, and a brilliant pianist named Arnold Ross.
When the band returned East to play at Meadowbrook, Barry Ulanov noted a stronger emphasis on jazz, praising James for playing swinging things instead of merely playing it safe. "He has taken advantage of his unassailable commercial position to play good music, to diminish the amount of tremulous trash which formed the bulk of his sets when he was coming up. Now, if he will just drop those meaningless strings. . . ."
But Harry wasn't listening. He increased his string section to two full dozen. "With a section as big as that," I wrote in July, 1945, "somebody ought to be able to produce impressive sounds." But nobody did.
The more I saw Harry in those days, the more I realized he had become less and less interested in his music. He had broadened his career as an entertainer when in January, 1945, he had been signed for the Danny Kaye radio series, where, in addition to leading and blowing his horn, he also acted as a stooge and a comedian of sorts. And he seemed to like his new roles — perhaps even more than his music.
He developed other consuming interests. With his wife, he devoted a great deal of his time to horseracing, running his own nags and spending much time at the tracks. He became so successful that he could choose the spots he wanted to play with his band, and, if he felt like concentrating on affairs apart from music, he'd do so.
But in 1946 the bottom began to fall slowly out of the band business. The big-paying steady dates were disappearing. James, who had refused to play one-nighters for almost two years, ostensibly because he wanted to remain where the action was, announced in February that he would again tour with his band.
His financial overhead was high. But Harry was not drawing his usual big crowds. It must have been a big blow to him and his pride. In December, 1946, just ten years after he had joined Benny Goodman's band, Harry James announced that he was giving up. Ironically, Goodman made a similar announcement that very month.
But then something — nobody knows just what — changed Harry's mind. A few months later, he was back again with a brand new, streamlined band. It jumped. He jumped. And there were just four fiddles, and they had very little to do.
How come the sudden change? A healthy and happy-looking Harry James talked about it in the summer of 1947: "First of all, I've settled a few problems in my mind, problems nobody ever knew I had and which I didn't bother telling anyone about. But when you're worried and upset, you don't feel like playing and you certainly can't relax enough to play anything like good jazz."
It was like the old days in more ways than one. James cut his price in half; he played one-nighters everywhere and on every one of them he blew his brilliant jazz, just the way he had when he first started his band.
And then there was the new group's contagious enthusiasm. "The most important thing that makes me want to play," he said, "is this new band of mine. You know what I've had in the past. Well, now I've got me a bunch of kids and their spirit kills me. They're up on the bandstand wanting to play all the time, so how can I possibly not feel like blowing! I haven't had a bunch like this since my first band."
Harry made that statement thirty years ago. And, with just a few short time-outs, he has been leading a group ever since, at times only a small one, but most of the time a big, swinging band with a booting brass section and a swinging sax section and rhythm quartet to match — and with no strings attached!
It has played mostly in Nevada—forty weeks out of each year, to be precise. In 1966 he brought his band back to New York for a few weeks, and a wonderfully swinging outfit it was, too, with some youngsters, and some veterans like Corky Corcoran and Louis Bellson, who had just replaced Buddy Rich on drums. And there were some of the old arrangements and there were some new swinging ones.
But most of all, there was Harry James, happy, effervescent, boasting without reservations that "this is the best band I've ever had in my life! These young musicians, they're getting so much better training and they can do so
It was the Harry James of old, enthusiastic about his music, anxious to please and to be appreciated. He looked about thirty pounds heavier, with a few gray hairs here and there, but he was still blowing his potent horn, still getting and giving his musical kicks via one of the country's greatest bands.
It was quite a sight to see and quite a sound to hear!”
© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
"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.
© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
“While it is fashionable for jazz writers to pick out the relatively few "pure jazz" sides in the more commercially successful bands, using either the paucity or plenitude of such evidence to respectively condemn or praise their subject, it is a quite unrealistic approach and ultimately inaccurate. A discriminating historian cannot avoid looking at the totality of an artist's creativity; he must look at all facets of his work. And if we look at the James band's full recorded output in its first peak period (late 1941 through 1942), we discover not only a more balanced selection of its three repertory elements—ballad vocals, novelty vocals, and jazz instrumentals—but a considerable improvement in all three areas, especially in the quality of the jazz instrumentals.”
- Gunther Schuller, The Swing Era
“James's own playing had lost none of its assurance; his solo work poured out of his horn—as it was to throughout his career—with a sense of inevitability that no other trumpeter could equal with such consistency. In a long and truly remarkable career as a trumpet player James hardly ever missed a note. He played extraordinarily well almost until the day he died, an astonishing achievement for a brass player.”
- Gunther Schuller, The Swing Era
In addition to George T. Simon’s The Big Bands, the other invaluable reference for the big band/swing era is Gunther Schuller, The Swing Era, The Development of Jazz, 1930-1945.
Simon’s book emphasizes reportage, and well it should , after all he was there while it was happening and posting reports to magazines such as Metronome and to newspapers about developments in the big bands.
Schuller is a musician and his approach is more one of analysis and evaluation and his work includes many notations to explain what’s happening in the music itself that helps distinguish one big band from another.
Here’s his take on Harry James as we continue our expansive profile of the music of this great Jazz musician.
"It is probably difficult for most jazz aficionados to think of the late Harry James as a major jazz figure. And perhaps one is justified in considering his right for a place in the jazz pantheon a controversial and qualified one. But if one looks at the full life-long record and chooses not to remember only the period of his greatest public popularity—the early 1940s—then one discovers a musician who devoted the greater part of his career to the cause of jazz. For the truth is that, in its baldest outlines, his life was involved almost continuously with jazz, certainly in his early days with Ben Pollack and Goodman, but also later, though less in the limelight, as leader of his own band for nearly thirty-five years, featuring outstanding jazz soloists such as Willie Smith, Ray Sims, Corky Corcoran, Buddy Rich, Red Kelly, and Jack Perciful and hard-swinging progressive arrangements by Ray Conniff and (in later years) Neal Hefti and Ernie Wilkins—all with a minimum of commercial intrusions.
James was undoubtedly the most technically assured and prodigiously talented
white trumpet player of the late Swing Era and early postwar years, both as an improvising jazz and blues player and as a richly expressive ballad performer. He was, unlike many other Armstrong disciples, a creative musician, unwilling to merely imitate the master. Indeed, James extended Armstrong's melodic and rhythmic conception in two dramatically divergent and quite personal directions: the one as a brilliant, often brash virtuoso soloist equipped with unlimited technique, accuracy and endurance; the other as a romantic popular song balladeer, at times carrying Armstrong's melodic style to its ultimate commercial extreme.
Yet, one can only speculate why a fine jazz player like James felt that he could fulfill his band-leading ambitions only via the most commercial of routes. Perhaps he wanted to ensure financial success and stability for himself and his orchestra first, before devoting himself to more progressive forms of jazz. Or perhaps, deep down, he realized that his eclectic talents were not sufficient to create a new and deeply original style which could survive as, for example, that of Armstrong or Gillespie or Hawkins or Ellington.
In any case James's orchestra was from the very outset commercially oriented, in striking contrast to the excellent jazz credentials he had already garnered, not only in his years with Goodman but with a variety of small groups featuring variously a nucleus of Basie musicians in 1937 and 1938 (Buck Clayton, Herschel Evans, Walter Page, Jo Jones) or his 1939 Boogie Woogie Trio with Pete Johnson and Albert Ammons (hear James's fine blues trumpet on Home James), or with Teddy Wilson (Just a Mood) and Lionel Hampton (1938). With such numbers as the schmaltzy Chiribiribin, the empty virtuosity of Flight of the Bumble Bee, and the mercilessly pretentious pastiche, Concerto for Trumpet, James set his band on an entirely different path from, say, the one Krupa had chosen a year earlier. Even bona fide jazz pieces like King Porter Stomp, Two O'Clock Jump and Feet Draggin Blues were either cheapened (with the boogie-woogie intrusions on Two O'Clock) or listlessly, unswingingly performed (as on Feet Draggin). In any case, the "jazz" instrumental were hardly distinctive, being lesser imitations of the Goodman-via-Henderson manner, occasionally mildly "updated" by James's tenorman, Dave Matthews. It is possible—and has been so reported (by George Simon)—that James played a healthy sampling of "sensationally swinging" numbers on dance and ballroom dates, but certainly the recordings made for Brunswick between February and November 1939 do not indicate any such predilection.
The arrival of Frank Sinatra, to be replaced a half-year later by Dick Haymes (when Sinatra joined Tommy Dorsey), may have tipped James's approach even more in a populist direction. Though Sinatra's big success came with Dorsey, there is no question that James had discovered a major singing and musical talent, and that his presence had a more than casual impact on his band's popularity. Of these early nine Sinatra sides All or Nothing at All is the most impressive, showing the then twenty-three-year-old singer as already the possessor of a rich, warm baritone voice with a relatively straight unembellished delivery. He also barely got through the long high F at the end of the song. A moderate commercial success, the record became a big hit a few years later when rere-leased by Columbia and when Sinatra was already firmly established as one of the top popular singers of the land, even threatening Bing Crosby in his number one position.
It is interesting to note that in these early recordings James is trying to be more crooningly "vocal" in his trumpet-playing than Sinatra in his singing; he abandons virtually all taste and standards in his emphasis on an exaggeratedly saccharine, cheap vibrato—something that undoubtedly impressed a musically illiterate audience, but which was technically the easiest thing to do and a gross aberration of both Armstrong's and the old classical cornet soloists' lyric style. (James knew this latter tradition well, for his father, who taught young Harry trumpet, was a conductor of traveling circus bands, where much of that earlier turn-of-the-century cornet-style survived well into the thirties and forties.)
After one year with the Varsity label, for whom James recorded a series of unimpressive, stiffly played sides and whose distribution was so poor in any case that the recordings would have had no impact, James returned to Columbia in early 1941. One of Columbia's producers, Morty Palitz, who had had some success with using woodwinds in recordings with Mildred Bailey and Eddie Sauter, as well as Alec Wilder's 1939-40 Octets, suggested that James add woodwinds and a string quartet. Harry opted for the strings, sensing that here his commercial hold on a larger audience could best be expanded. And to everyone's surprise—and to the jazz critics' utter dismay—James succeeded where others, like Shaw and Miller, had previously failed.
While James clung to a jazz approach—just barely—with such swing numbers as Strictly Instrumental, Record Session, Sharp as a Tack, Jeffries Blues, and Crazy Rhythm, the big successes were his absolutely non-jazz-related "hat trick" of recordings of Eli-Eli, Rimsky Korsakov's Flight of the Bumble Bee, and the old cornet-solo favorite, Carnival of Venice, as well as the crooning vocals of Dick Haymes enveloped in strings (like You Made Me Love You, My Silent Love). Oddly enough, these ballads were in their own way quite effective, the strings adding some contrasting color and, I suppose, for many casual listeners "a bit of class." But it was James's own playing, totally convincing and authoritative, that made these recordings popularly successful.
It wasn't the first time— nor the last—that an offering of questionable aesthetic taste would succeed with a large segment of the public by virtue of its irresistible combination of technical mastery and novelty of conception. For the fact remains that James's radiantly brassy tone, combined with an overbearing vibrato, was totally original and instantly recognizable.
No one had ever dared to go that far—even James's section-mate in the Goodman band, Ziggy Elman—and, on purely commercial terms, it is that kind of nervy authority, technical perfection, and unequivocal recognizability that succeeds. It succeeds because it is clearly identifiable, therefore precisely labelable and therefore, in turn, marketable. James had stumbled onto a powerful formula for success, knowing incidentally, whatever his inclinations as a jazz musician may have been, that to compete directly with Glenn Miller or Count Basie or Goodman was folly, and would not garner him "a place in the sun." The formula he chose turned out to be irresistible: a star instrumentalist, technically invincible, romantic ballad singers (Sinatra, Haymes, Helen Forrest), and heady arrangements using strings, all superimposed on the vestiges of a jazz orchestra.
If the formula had had considerable commercial success with Dick Haymes— incidentally a first-rate musician, masterful in his phrasing—it was to turn into an incredible bonanza when James acquired Helen Forrest, who left Goodman's employ abruptly in late 1941, as the band's singer. (Haymes left James around the same time, attaining even greater acclaim with both Goodman and Dorsey.) The point about Helen Forrest's success with James was not so much how well she sang—she always had done that—but how effectively the James orchestra and its arrangers supported her singing, enhancing it, and drawing from her many truly magical performances.
James was the first (except for Ellington) to exploit and capitalize fully on the presence of a band singer by creating special musical frameworks for that singing talent, tailor-made, so to speak, at the same time craftily exploiting the need during the tense wartime years for the comforting reassurance of sentimental ballads.
Previously, band singers simply got up and delivered their songs in whatever fashion their talent permitted—as I have said elsewhere, singing, as it were, in parallel to the band but not really with it or in it. (This was not true, to be sure, of a few of the major vocal artists, like Jimmy Rushing with Basie, or Billie Holiday with Teddy Wilson, or Mildred Bailey with Eddie Sauter.) "Boy" and "girl" singers were simply a necessary appurtenance of a dance band in a realm where crooned "love and moon-in-June" lyrics were deemed to be an absolute trade prerequisite.
James saw that a singer of Helen Forrest's potential could achieve much more than that, could in fact be a dominant force in the popular success of an orchestra, in effect a co-leader. Of course, James did not foresee how such a development would affect the future course of jazz. But the results were soon fully audible and visible: as other bands, especially Dorsey (with Sinatra) copied the formula, singers took over the popular music field, jazz as swing was more or less driven out—certainly as a leading force. In turn a new form of jazz, namely bop, primarily instrumental and represented by smaller combos was to take over. By the end of the decade the split between the instrumental and vocal factions of jazz was irreparable, and eventually it would lead to a further separation in the form of the rock phenomenon, again a primarily vocal form of popular music.
While it is fashionable for jazz writers to pick out the relatively few "pure jazz" sides in the more commercially successful bands, using either the paucity or plenitude of such evidence to respectively condemn or praise their subject, it is a quite unrealistic approach and ultimately inaccurate. A discriminating historian cannot avoid looking at the totality of an artist's creativity; he must look at all facets of his work. And if we look at the James band's full recorded output in its first peak period (late 1941 through 1942), we discover not only a more balanced selection of its three repertory elements—ballad vocals, novelty vocals, and jazz instrumentals—but a considerable improvement in all three areas, especially in the quality of the jazz instrumentals.
In such pieces as Strictly Instrumental (originally written by Edgar Battle for the Lunceford band), The Clipper, Crazy Rhythm, James's own Let Me Up, and especially The Mole, the band developed an interesting synthesis of the lyrical-vocal and swinging jazz. The link between the two tendencies was the string section, integrated at its best in a way that no other band (even Shaw, who certainly tried) had ever succeeded in doing. It was to become a formula much imitated in those war years, especially successfully by Sy Oliver and Tommy Dorsey.
In this way James found a new middle ground where strings and bona fide jazz instruments could coexist in friendly partnership. The results of this fusion were particularly effective on The Mole, where the strings seem to be no longer an intrusive element but rather one of the co-equal choirs of the orchestra. Particularly effective is the use of high floating violin harmonics, a device all but unknown to early jazz arrangers, in the final chorus Equally fetching is the superbly played muted trumpet quartet, an idea James had first developed when still in the Goodman band.
Just as the use of strings—and by mid-1942 a French horn—in a generally lyrical approach affected the way the James band played jazz in those years, so, too, conversely jazz in the form of swing often affected the treatment of ballads.
There were, of course, those outright lushly sentimental ballads like But Not for Me, I Had the Craziest Dream, and By The Sleepy Lagoon (the latter filching the entire introduction to Ravel's Daphnis and Chloe, Suite No. 2). But there were also songs like I've Heard That Song Before, a fine Helen Forrest vocal, played with a bouncy "rockin' chair" beat and swing that very few, if any, white bands had as yet achieved (and certainly not in ballads), and which was a fine precursor of the broadly swinging beat and style of James's superb 1944 I’m Beginning To See the Light.
Another development worth noting is the gradually increased integration of James's solos into the overall framework or arrangement. Whereas James had begun his band-leading career by appropriating all the solo space he could— with a few exceptions, like Vido Musso's extended solos on Jeffries Blues—he had by early 1942 returned to a more modest policy. Listen to how beautifully James's solo on Crazy Rhythm, for example, is assimilated into the ensemble.
The two arrangers who managed this wide range of assignments for James in those years were Dave Matthews and Leroy Holmes. Matthews was a great admirer and student of Duke Ellington and brought some of the master's tone colors and voicings to the James band, notably on Let Me Up and I’m Beginning To See the Light. Notice how Matthews uses Ellington's old Mood Indigo trio of muted trumpet and trombone plus low-register clarinet in the former title, not this time in a sustained song-like theme, but in a jauntily moving jump/riff tune. The Duke-ish harmonization and voicing of the last eight bars of I’m Beginning are particularly fetching , as is Alan Reuss's guitar coda with its fade-away blues-ish single-note line and final chord in harmonics. I’m Beginning seems to me to attain the kind of admirable synthesis I spoke of earlier: it is a song, a vocal (sung well by Kitty Kallen), it uses strings (quite idiomatically), yet it is unquestionably a jazz performance.
Leroy Holmes composed and arranged such brilliant scores as Prince Charming and The Mole, well-made swing-riff tunes, smartly arranged, that did much to keep the jazz flame alive in James's band.
By the time the recording ban had run its course in 1944, James had revamped his personnel extensively; he had brought in Willie Smith and Corky Corcoran, the fine band pianist Arnold Ross and two superior rhythm section members, Alan Reuss and Ed Mihelich, a strong driving bass player who had already done wonders for the Krupa rhythm section. With the further addition of outstanding arranging talent in the persons of Johnny Thompson and Ray Conniff, the James band moved unqualifiedly into a leading position as one of the finest performing ensembles of the mid- and late-1940s, while perpetuating a harmonically, rhythmically advanced swing/dance-band style. Its singers—like Kitty Kallen, Ginnie Powell, and Buddy DeVito, all representing a new breed of vocalist who had been weaned on Anita O'Day, Peggy Lee, and Frank Sinatra—continued the trend of a more instrumentalized type of singing, with at least an awareness of jazz as a strongly rhythmic language.
But above all the band concentrated in its repertory on a substantial amount of jazz instrumentals, mostly created by Ray Conniff, who had already contributed so importantly to Artie Shaw's 1944 band. Friar Rock, Easy, I've Never Forgotten, 9:20 Special, Tuxedo Junction, What Am I Gonna Do?, Moten Swing, Vine Street Blues are all striking examples of the kind of exuberant swing and blistering drive the James band could produce during this period.
James's own playing had lost none of its assurance; his solo work poured out of his horn—as it was to throughout his career—with a sense of inevitability that no other trumpeter could equal with such consistency. In a long and truly remarkable career as a trumpet player James hardly ever missed a note. He played extraordinarily well almost until the day he died, an astonishing achievement for a brass player. His brilliant bravura solo on Friar Rock is but one typical example of his extraordinary facility and flawless execution.
As I pointed out earlier, Harry James reverted increasingly in the ensuing years to a primarily jazz policy, albeit basically in what one might call a "progressive swing" idiom. In this respect James's career reverses the much more common pattern: tracing a gradual decline from high idealism (and even experimentalism) through various stages of compromise to commercial accommodation and ultimate artistic demise. James started at the other end; he sowed his commercial oats during his band's youthful years, achieving a security and fame early on which permitted him in later years to more or less play the kind of jazz-as-dance-music he knew best, always with an adequate measure of musical spontaneity and freedom, to keep his improvisatory and virtuosic skills well honed.
To his credit, James succumbed to a bop influence in his own playing only fleetingly, the Gillespie model being always a temptation for most trumpet players. In James's case these were minor flirtations that never deterred him from being his own man, instrumentally and creatively. Nor did he in the heyday years of bop, the late forties, like so many others turn his band into a bop ensemble. He had always admired Basie from his earliest days in New York, and it was perhaps inevitable that James's post-1950 bands were built upon the Basie model, especially since two of Basie's top arrangers, Ernie Wilkins and Neal Hefti, were responsible for most of the James book in the last three decades.
It is also significant that by the early 1950s James had been cured of his initial conspicuous reliance on singers, and that during this entire later period—with but a few exceptions to re-create revivals of earlier successes—James worked entirely without singers—and no strings!”
© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
The editorial staff at JazzProfiles concudes it extended feature on the life and music of Harry James with a series of reviews on the biography written by Peter Levinson which he entitled Trumpet Blues: The Life of Harry James.
At the time of its publication in 1999 by Oxford University Press, Mr. Levinson was one of the foremost Jazz publicists for over two and a half decades. He would go on to write biographies of Nelson Riddle and Tommy Dorsey.
He knew Harry personally for 24 years: "I first met James in the fall of 1959 when I was a young MCA talent agent. During the next twenty-four years, or until his death in July 1983,I spent considerable time with him in New York, Las Vegas, Hollywood—on the road, at personal appearances, and during recording sessions. I also wrote several magazine articles on him over the years.
Through knowing him, I discovered the other side of stardom in the music business. Here was a musician who combined both extraordinary talent and dashing good looks, who could play a romantic ballad like no other trumpeter, which had enabled him to achieve enormous success; yet this was also a man who ruined his life through serious addictions to alcohol and gambling."
The title of the book is obviously drawn from these serious addiction [and, of course, by the composition with the same title that Harry co-wrote with Jack Matthias].
More about Peter Levinson can be discerned from the following obituary written by Douglas Martin that appeared in The New York Times [November 15, 2008] which is followed by three reviews of Trumpet Blues: The Life of Harry James.
Peter Levinson, Publicist and Biographer of Jazz Greats, Is Dead at 74
“Peter J. Levinson, a music publicist who parlayed his close familiarity with jazz personalities into rich and sometimes intimate biographies of them, died on Oct. 21 at his home in Malibu, Calif. He was 74.
The cause was injuries suffered from a fall, said Dale Olson, a publicist and his longtime friend.
Nearly two years ago Mr. Levinson received a diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the neurodegenerative disease popularly called Lou Gehrig’s disease. With the aid of his talking computer he was able to write and carry on business until the day he died.
Mr. Levinson handled publicity for stars including Dave Brubeck, Rosemary Clooney, Stan Getz, Woody Herman, the Modern Jazz Quartet and Mel Tormé. He publicized the hit television series “Dallas” and the film “Kramer vs. Kramer” (1979), which won an Academy Award for best picture. He helped to orchestrate the campaign to issue a postage stamp honoring Duke Ellington.
In an interview in 2004 with Tom Nolan on the Web site januarymagazine.com, Mr. Levinson said he had never planned to become an author. “I can’t say that I set a path for myself to do this,” he said. “It just occurred to me.”
“If you work as a publicist,” he added, “you’re working not only with artists but with managers and agents and so forth. You get an understanding of what careers are all about.”
Mr. Levinson’s first book was “Trumpet Blues: The Life of Harry James” (1999), a biography of the trumpeter and bandleader. Mr. Levinson mined his reminiscences from 24 years of knowing James, as well as from 200 interviews with musicians and James’s friends, to paint a portrait that pulled few punches.
“Long before there was sex, drugs and rock and roll, there was sex, alcohol and big-band swing,” People magazine said about the book. “And as this surprisingly absorbing biography suggests, trumpet player Harry James could have been the role model for Mick Jagger.”
Mr. Levinson next wrote “September in the Rain: The Life of Nelson Riddle” (2001), about the arranger known for his work with Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole. Variety praised Mr. Levinson’s detailed description of the artistic and personal relationship between Sinatra and Riddle, again drawing from his experiences with both. But the review also complained that mountains of “mundane detail” got in the way of the Sinatra story.
His next book was “Tommy Dorsey: Livin’ in a Great Big Way” (2005), which told how Sinatra patterned himself after Dorsey, the trombonist and bandleader, in everything from his way of breathing while singing to his wardrobe to his dashing self-assuredness.
A fourth book, “Puttin’ on the Ritz: Fred Astaire and the Fine Art of Panache — a Biography,” is scheduled to be published in March.
Mr. Levinson was born on July 1, 1934, in Atlantic City and graduated from the University of Virginia, where he began writing about jazz artists and producing jazz concerts. He continued to produce concerts while serving in the Army in Korea. He then took a job as a music publicist with Columbia Records, after a brief stint as a freelance writer.
He eventually started his own publicity firm in New York and later expanded it to Los Angeles.
Mr. Levinson is survived by his wife, Grace Diekhaus, and a brother, Dr. John Levinson, of Wilmington, Del.
In his 2004 interview, he said his publicity background not only helped him gather material for books but also helped him promote them. When publicists for the Harry James book failed to get him radio appearances, he said, he personally set up 23 interviews with disc jockeys.
Peter J. Levinson - Trumpet Blues: The Life of Harry James
Reviewed by Tom Nolan for the January Magazine
For many jazz fans, trumpet player Harry James was at best superfluous and at worst a sellout: a musician of formidable technique who abandoned the fiery style that made him a star of the Benny Goodman Orchestra in the late 1930s, only to adopt a much more schmaltzy, flashy, commercial manner that led to a remarkable number of hit records throughout the 40s.
To dance music lovers, James was the leader for three decades of a consistently satisfying big band whose earliest incarnation gave Frank Sinatra his start and whose 1950s version found its most lucrative gigs at the casino hotels in Vegas and at Tahoe.
But most of America knew Harry James simply as the husband of movie star Betty Grable, the blonde pinup who caused World War II G.I.s to croon, "I want a gal, just like the gal, who married Harry James..."
None of these versions of James would necessarily warrant publishing a major biography at century's end; but Peter J. Levinson, a long-time music publicist and first-time author, has produced one in Trumpet Blues. And in putting together all the Harry Jameses -- jazz player, big-band leader, celebrity husband (as well as promiscuous womanizer, unrecovered alcoholic and ruinous gambler) -- he's not only made James a much more interesting figure than might have been imagined, but written one of the most engrossing and compelling jazz biographies in many years.
As shown by Levinson (whose own professional acquaintance with his subject is woven discreetly and effectively throughout the book), Harry James was both "one of the most essential trumpeters and bandleaders in the history of American music," and a man who lived "a sad and misguided life."
Born to circus performer parents (his father was a bandmaster, his mother a trapeze artist and horse rider), Harry Haag James was reared as a prodigy and learned that performing well was the price of approval. By age 3, he was a featured drummer; by 9, he played trumpet; at 12, he was leading a band. Schooled by his father, a stern taskmaster, James studied the classic trumpet repertoire and developed the iron chops and bravura technique of a circus musician; but he also soaked up the jazz and blues of his native Texas and loved Louis Armstrong's playing. After a stint with the influential Ben Pollack Orchestra, and an early first marriage, James joined the wildly popular Benny Goodman band in 1936 at the startlingly early age of 20. He was an instant sensation, and the rest of his life was lived in the spotlight.
By 20, too, his bad habits were formed: heavy drinking, incessant gambling and compulsive promiscuity. In his decades of success, James found no reason to change, remaining (in the words of one of his band members) "a perpetual teenager as a man," someone who "served all his appetites and all his desires. He wasn't terribly concerned with other people."Indeed, his dark sides had a tendency to eclipse his skill on the silver trumpets.
James' self-centered existence had its colorful aspects. A great sports fan, he was very serious about his band's baseball team and often hired band members as much for their athletic prowess as their musical abilities. A lover of Western movies, he eventually arranged to star in one (Outlaw Queen, 1957). And as a big-band leader for much of his life, he participated to an expected degree in the antics and merriment that punctuated the dullness of life on the road.
But antics aside, Harry James was aloof. "Harry never got close to people," one of his drummers said. "I don't think anybody really liked him." His first of three wives, singer Louise Tobin (one of the hundreds of subjects Levinson interviewed), spoke of James' "inhuman side," his "cold, icy stare" and his "absolute indifference to his own children."
Levinson traces the roots of James' stunted personality -- his "deeply ingrained loneliness and insecurity" -- to a childhood in which he received no proper nurturing: "It appears... he grew up not... knowing the meaning of love." From boyhood on, Levinson writes, "[James] needed an audience to feel alive, special, important, and loved. Without it, he believed he really wasn't worth very much." Lacking any real education, he "wouldn't allow people to get close to him -- they might find out he was a fraud." Only on the bandstand did James feel fulfilled and safe, according to singer Helen Forrest: "He was at peace and he knew he was loved, when he was playing the trumpet.... He knew nobody could hurt him." Another singer, Marion Morgan, thought that James "gave all his warmth and love through his trumpet. There just wasn't much left."
Levinson recounts James' life in straightforward prose, clearly and with a wealth of detail, against a vivid backdrop of the 1940s swing years and the postwar entertainment era of the 50s and 60s. A number of other famous folk necessarily do cameo turns: drummer Buddy Rich, Frank Sinatra, singers Dick Haymes and Helen Forrest, and bandleaders Phil Harris and Glenn Miller.
The good-looking, high-living James -- slickly packaged by record and movie people, quipped trumpeter Pete Candoli, "like a WASP Cesar Romero" -- thought his success ride would never end. Certainly his work never did. His poor gambling luck, which found him losing millions of his own dollars (plus some of Betty Grable's), kept him touring virtually to his dying day. (James said he didn't fear death: "It's just another road trip.")
Peter Levinson's book is sort of the antithesis of his subject's trumpet style: not flashy, not schmaltzy, not full of fireworks. But in its own solid way it swings. Trumpet Blues is the biographical equivalent of a well-produced LP, with not a single weak or wasted track.
Novelist Ross Macdonald once said in defense of biography: "The more we know about a man, the more in a way we can love him." Harry James may not emerge as loveable, even after this thorough and convincing depiction; but he does now seem interesting and understandable. I thank Peter Levinson for so capably and comprehensively telling me a story I never dreamed I'd want to hear. January 2000
TOM NOLAN, a contributing editor of January Magazine, is also the author of Ross Macdonald: A Biography(Scribner).
Peter J. Levinson - Trumpet Blues: The Life of Harry James
By Jack Sohmer, DECEMBER 1999 JazzTimes
A working associate and friend of Harry James from 1959 to his death in 1983, former booking agent and publicist Peter Levinson offers a no-nonsense look at the trumpeter’s lifetime career in music, from a childhood spent in his father’s traveling circus band, through his many years as a superstar celebrity, to his final decline as both artist and man. Although undoubtedly sincere in his professed love for jazz, Levinson surprisingly says very little about the music itself. Most notably, he neglects to describe in his own words how James differed in style and technique from other trumpet players, how his bands ranked musically in comparison with those of his contemporaries, and finally, how we should reconcile his blatant commercialism in the 1940s and ’50s with his oft-expressed admiration for Louis Armstrong and other jazzmen.
Levinson is especially strong in ferreting out the details of James’ early career as a circus bandsman, but he is too quick in glossing over his first big-time gig with the Ben Pollack band of the mid-1930s. The far more well-chronicled 1937-38 Benny Goodman period is treated better, thanks to already published research and a plethora of personal interviews with such important primary sources as Harry’s first wife, Louise Tobin, who sang with Goodman in 1939, and about 200 other musicians, friends, and business associates. Because of them, we learn much about the man behind the horn. Apparently a lusty guy from puberty onwards, Harry never learned to restrain his impulses, even when married to one of the most popular pin-up girls of the 1940s, top-ranking Hollywood actress Betty Grable. Even his sidemen marveled at his insatiable appetite, endurance, and, especially, his indiscriminate taste. Beautiful or ugly, young or old, they were all grist for his mill. Harry’s legendary exploits in hotel bedrooms were only exceeded by his gargantuan thirst for booze and his self-destructive need to gamble away every dollar he earned, habits that ultimately even consumed Betty’s considerable savings as well. Levinson reports that by the time of her death in 1973, eight years after their 22-year-long marriage had ended, Harry and Betty had lost around $24 million at both the Las Vegas gaming tables and the track. His drinking, however, was by far the more serious of their problems, having eventually led him, on several occasions, to treat Betty like a punching bag. In 1965, Betty finally sued for divorce on the grounds of extreme cruelty. Harry kept his band working in Las Vegas and on the road to pay off his debts, but he had already lost the best meal ticket he was ever to have.
Harry loved his horn first and foremost, with baseball running a close second, and from his youth he was gifted with such great chops that he never even had to warm up before playing, much less engage in routine practicing as most hornmen do. It all came so easily to him. But, as was also the case with Bix Beiderbecke and Bunny Berigan, that superhuman tolerance for round-the-clock heavy drinking ultimately demanded its prize. Perhaps because of the better medical care available in the 1970s Harry did not die as young as Bix and Bunny had, but all accounts indicate that toward the end there was scarcely anything left of the one-time musical powerhouse. He was only 67 at the time of his death, but he looked much, much older. Additionally, because of cancer and the loss of his teeth, he had not been able to blow a note for some time.
Levinson did a good job of piecing together Harry’s story from those who knew him personally, but in some cases his knowledge of jazz history is way off. For example, he says that in 1937, when Johnny Hodges recorded Harry’s swing instrumental, “Peckin’,” lyrics were added and the title was changed to “Foolin’ Myself.” Actually, “Foolin’ Myself,” a tune that Billie Holiday also recorded, has nothing to do with “Peckin’” except that both were recorded at the same session. Indeed, Hodges’ “Peckin’” was initially rejected and did not surface on record until the late 1970s, when it appeared on a bootleg LP. Elsewhere, Levinson says that Lionel Hampton’s first recording on vibes was Louis Armstrong’s 1931 “Shine,” but the discographies, as well as Louis’ and Hamp’s own accounts, tell us that it was “Memories of You,” which was recorded five months earlier. Perhaps these gaffes are not too important in themselves, but they do cast doubt on the credibility of some of Levinson’s other remarks.
In the course of reading, you may discover things you probably never knew about Harry’s relationship with his most illustrious stars—Frank Sinatra and Buddy Rich—among many other sidemen, singers, and show biz buddies. For example, the late Helen Forrest, who had sung with Artie Shaw and Goodman before joining James, tells of her unrequited love for the very much still married bandleader, who continually romanced his “chirp,” all the while putting off her dreams of marriage on the grounds that his father objected to her being Jewish! Harry was also seeing Betty during this time, and when she got pregnant the busy trumpet player was forced to ask Louise for a divorce. This being 1943, if a hot film property and WWII dream girl like Grable were involved in a sex scandal, it would have wrecked her career, and Harry’s as well. Too much was at stake. Louise was high-pressured into a quickie Mexican divorce by Harry’s lawyer, thus freeing her errant husband to marry Betty and save the day for Hollywood.
Like other pre-rock superstars, such as Sinatra and Rich, whose most supportive fans in the ’50s and ’60s were either big Vegas spenders or their middle-class wannabes, Harry was having the ball of his life. Ever the kid and thinking that the gravy train would never stop, he never even thought of saving or investing his money. It was only a matter of time, then, before his losses put him into serious debt to the mob. In a short time, he was virtually an indentured servant, his expensive ongoing payroll for his band and staff, his unpaid back taxes, and his continuing jones for the bottle and the tables eventually reducing him to financial ruin.
In his prime, a period that lasted far longer for him than it did for most trumpeters, Harry James was the living definition of a celebrity virtuoso, a modern-day Paganini or Liszt. He could swing with great flamboyance and heat, he could play the blues with sincerity, and he could endow ballads with “schmaltzy” romanticism. But, perhaps most importantly, in his latter years he could finally turn his band around to reflect his longstanding love for the Basie sound, which he demonstrated not only in his choice of arrangements by Neal Hefti and the late Ernie Wilkins, but also in his own adaptations of the styles of Buck Clayton and Harry Edison. James was certainly no musical innovator in the sense of a Louis, Roy, or Dizzy, but he was unquestionably the most technically well-endowed, versatile, and influential trumpeter of his time. It’s just a shame that he never grew up.”
Trumpet Blues: The Life of Harry James by Peter Levinson
By R.J. DELUKE
March 8, 2004 All About Jazz
“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, through 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 some 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.
Levinson did a good job in carrying out his task and the story is compelling. Colorful incidents and anecdotes abound, as one would expect, but the author does a good job of placing it all in historical perspective and painting a good picture of who harry James wanted to be and who he was. It’s a very worthy read and at provides a worthy documentation that musicologists should consider when considering the history of music in America.
James died in 1983 on the 40th anniversary of his marriage to his beloved Betty Grable. In music, he knew all the changes. In life, there may have been a few he wished he could have made but never really did. Those of the world War II generation can still say, “You Made Me Love You,” Harry.”