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When they first came out in the late 1990s, I snapped up as many of the three dozen or so limited edition Verve Elite series CDs as I could while they were still available.
And why not?
The were packaged in beautiful multifold paper cases, with handsome jewel case artwork, loads of photographs and music by many of my favorite artists including Louie Bellson, Art Blakey, Ray Brown, Buddy DeFranco, Illinois Jacquet, Tal Farlow, Lee Konitz, Yusef Lateef, Sonny Stitt and Ed Thigpen - artists who had had a long association with impresario Norman Granz and his Jazz at The Philharmonic concerts [JATP] and/or had recorded for his various labels over the years including Clef, Norgran and, of course, Verve.
One of my earliest purchases in the select list of issues was Roy Eldridge: Swingin’ on the Town [Verve 314 559 828-2] which was originally released as a Verve LP in 1960 with Roy’s mellifluous and swinging trumpet accompanied by Ronnie Ball [p], Benny Moten [b], and Eddie Locke [d].
Roy is often characterized as the trumpet player whose phrasing bridged Louis Armstrong’s style of playing to the modernists such as Dizzy Gillespie, Fats Navarro and Clifford Brown. Since all Jazz musicians are said “to come from someone” in terms of influences on their playing this is probably true to some extent.
What is irrefutable are these assertions about Roy’s legacy by the highly regarded English Jazz critic Benny Green which form the original liner notes to Roy Eldridge: Swingin’ on the Town Verve Records – MG VS-68389
“What a blessing Roy Eldridge is to those of us whose job it is to see the development of Jazz music as a single continuous process instead of a huge chaotic accident dominated by geniuses who just happen along every so often. It is one of those convenient over-generalisations of jazz theorising that Eldridge is the logical link between the classic style of Louis Armstrong and the revolutionary innovations of Dizzy Gillespie. There is a great deal of truth in this statement, but it always seems to me to reduce Eldridge himself to the proportions of a stepping-stone from one great man to another, which is gross aesthetic injustice.
There is a misconception on the part of the laity, and some critics too, that each new stylistic development is supposed to be an improvement on the fashions it has replaced, and that progress is a synonym for improvement, a kind of artistic demonstration of the old Shavian dictum "Onwards and Upwards''. Well, Dizzy Gillespie himself has punctured that one. He has testified to the fact that one of the factors which inspired him to evolve a personal approach to improvisation was the fact that he could never seem to approach the standard of his great hero Roy Eldridge, and it is true that some of the historic recordings of Little Jazz in prewar clays stand as perfect examples of the jazz art.
Today Eldridge, like many others of his generation, is demonstrating on album after album that the years are having little effect on his instrumental prowess. When Eldridge toured Britain with JATP a few months ago his was easily the outstanding musical contribution, for he played with a power and imagination which blew several of his fellows off the stand. At one concert he performed with such enthusiasm that he split the seam in his trousers. Later in the band room he showed me this split with some pride.
On this album there is one moment of captivating historical interest, and it occurs on "Sweet Sue". After stating the theme Eldridge moves into his first chorus of jazz. And immediately pushes the clock back thirty-two years to a day in 1928 when Bix Beiderbecke, surrounded by the lumbering legions of Paul Whiteman's circus, blew some jazz on the same "Sweet "Sue". On that day Bix, pushing aside the hindrances of stodgy accompanists and idiot vocalists, created a musical fragment which possessed a wonderful skipping gaiety, and Eldridge, no doubt appreciative of the fact, quotes Bix almost verbatim over the first eight bars. Within a few moments Eldridge has moved on to harmonic movements which belong to a period far more sophisticated musically than Bix's day, and it is this very quality of eclecticism in the players of Eldridge's generation which makes them such stimulating listening. Eldridge, who has lost none of his high spirits as a man (in Britain he is always the most courted of the visiting raconteurs), has lost none of them as a Jazzman either. After only a few bars of, for instance, "The Way You Look Tonight", one senses that old quality of pent-tip excitement, that feeling that power latent is behind the power actually expressed. It is at these moments that I find it so hard to believe that Roy Eldridge is several inches shorter than I am. One should never go by appearances.”
The Observer, London
Personnel: Roy Eldridge, trumpet; Ronnie Ball, piano; Benny Moicn. bass; Edward Locke, drums.
When Roy Eldridge: Swingin’ on the Town [Verve 314 559 828-2] was released as a Verve Elite CD in 1999, Alun Morgan, another of England’s many knowledgeable writers and critics about Jazz provided these booklet notes:
“When the bebop movement made its impact on the jazz scene, Roy Eldridge found himself marginalized by some jazz writers. He was relegated to the position of a link between Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Giliespie, a gross and inaccurate oversimplification. Eldridge was very much his own man, with a unique style and a career that included years of experience with big bands (Teddy Hill, Fletcher Henderson, Gene Krupa, Artie Shaw}, his own small groups, and units led by such men as clarinetist Benny Goodman and saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, plus tours with Norman Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic troupe. The album Swingin' on the Town is typical of the quartets he led for nightclub engagements in the late Fifties.
In the jazz pantheon, Eldridge was a true giant: his nickname "Little Jazz" referred only to his physical stature, it was a sobriquet given to him by alto saxophonist Otto Hardwicke when the two of them were working for banjoist Elmer Snowden in 1931. As Eldridge told it, "I was very small at the time. I weighed about a hundred and eighteen pounds — soaking wet — and I used to play all the time. If I couldn't play on the bandstand I'd go in the men's room and play. Otto caught me there one night and said, ‘I’m going to call you Little Jazz because you've always got that horn in your face,' and the name stuck."
A strong competitive spirit and a compulsion to play at every opportunity were important qualities in Eldridge's makeup from his earliest days. Born in Pittsburgh on January 30, 1911 (the same year as fellow trumpeters Buck Clayton, Cootie Williams, Yank Lawson, Bill Dillard, and Louis Prima), Eldridge started out on drums at the age of six, encouraged initially by his brother Joe, three years his senior. But it was Joe who later convinced Roy that he should switch his talents to the trumpet, largely because he felt that his younger brother lacked the physical stamina to carry a drum kit from one gig to the next.
"But I was lazy," Eldridge told Leonard Feather. "I barely learned my solfeggio, and couldn't read music." He was sixteen when he left home to play with the Nighthawk Syncopators, a band of young musicians all with one thing in common: None of them could read a note.
By now Eldridge had learned to play Hawkins's solo on the Henderson band's recording of "Stampede", a feat that got him a job with a carnival band in Youngstown, Ohio. His inability to read a score was seriously affecting his professional career, but his empirical approach to the trumpet was not without its compensations, as he explained in a 1977 BBC interview with Charles Fox:
“From my mother I had developed an ear. Anything I heard, classical or anything, I could automatically play. I didn't know what key I was playing in but I could automatically play. That's why today all the trumpet players, like Dizzy, say to me, 'I don't know how you finger things like that,' and it's because I didn't know what I was doing, I never knew the legitimate way to do things. I just played what came out.”
It was his brother who insisted that Eldridge make the effort to learn the rudiments of music. And it is some measure of the trumpeter's determination to succeed that he was eventually employed by CBS Radio in 1944 to work in the studios as a member of an orchestra fronted by Paul Baron, which also contained such jazz stalwarts as pianist Teddy Wilson, xylophonist-vibraphonist Red Norvo, and trumpeter Charlie Shavers. He told Feather, "It's a nice feeling at first to know that you can make it, that you can read well and fast enough. But after the thrill of reading, I mean of blowing along with everyone else and not having to have an orchestra of thirty men stopped because of you, then what do you have? Playing the same thing again and again becomes monotonous. I guess I don't have the temperament for it. That's why I've stayed with jazz."
Here lies the key to Eldridge's success as an outstanding jazz soloist. He had mastered the academic side of his profession, but his heart lay in the creation of spontaneous improvisation. The very sound of his instrument immediately stamps his identity on the music; a handful of notes at the beginning of a soio and the listener knows that he is hearing Roy Eldridge. His involvement with his music was total, and a strong emotional quality was always manifest. Don Ferrara, a fellow trumpeter who contributed a column to Metronome magazine in the Fifties, wrote, "When Eidridge plays it's his feelings rather than his fingers which push the valves down" — surely one of the most penetrating statements ever made about Eldridge's playing.
The writers who dismissed Eldridge as merely a link between Armstrong and Gillespie were obviously unaware of his upbringing. His first influences were Rex Stewart and Bobby Stark, both members of the Fletcher Henderson trumpet section in the late Twenties and early Thirties, but he was also very impressed by the work of two saxophonists, Coleman Hawkins and Benny Carter. In fact, he did not hear Louis Armstrong in the flesh until 1931. He admired Armstrong greatly, but Armstrong was never a major figure in Eldridge's development as a soloist in his own right.
The competitive spirit was strong, and Eldridge always tried to play higher and faster than anyone else: "I started to feel that if I could combine speed with melodic development while continuing to build, to tell a story, I could create something musical of my own that the public would like." The public certainly liked what he did to "Rockin' Chair" and "Let Me Off Uptown" when he played them with the Gene Krupa band in the Forties. At Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts, Eldridge was the spark plug, the man who could move the excitement level up several notches in his opening chorus. But there was an unhappy period when he felt that public acceptance of the beboppers was likely to leave him stranded, a jazz anachronism in a rapidly changing world.
An offer to tour Europe with Benny Goodman's sextet in the spring of 1950 seemed the perfect excuse to remove himself from the New York jazz scene long enough to take stock of his position. In fact, he did not return home with the Goodman group but stayed on in Paris until April 1951, making records and enjoying the adulation of French audiences. It was a break that restored his self-confidence, and his return to America was the beginning of a new and successful chapter to an already noteworthy career.
Norman Granz put him in the studio with a succession of similarly talented and individual players, such men as saxophonists Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Sonny Stitt, Stan Getz, and Benny Carter, pianists Oscar Peterson and Art Tatum, and drummer Buddy Rich. "He's purely my kind of musician," Granz told Leonard Feather. "I always want the guy who thinks he's a bitch. Coleman Hawkins does, but in a 'quiet contempt' sort of way. Roy has that extra ounce of competitiveness, and because he's an emotional guy, he rises to the heights. And he's completely honest, not only musically but as a person."
During the late Fifties Eldridge led his own small group and also worked as a single, appearing frequently at clubs such as the Cafe Bohemia in New York and the Blue Note in Philadelphia. This was the period when supper-club owners found that audiences were attracted to small units playing well-known songs in a comparatively subdued manner. The most successful group of its kind was trumpeter Jonah Jones's quartet, and this may well have been the original concept behind Swingin’ On the Town.
Eldridge uses a mute on nine of the twelve tunes, while drummer Eddie Locke uses brushes throughout. The rest of the group comprises British-born Ronnie Ball at the piano and Benny Moten (no relation to Bennie Moten, the Kansas City pianist-bandleader who once had Count Basie as a sideman) on bass. Locke was Eldridge's first-call drummer for more than twenty years, and the recording sessions from which these sides were made were his very first. Locke was also on hand for one of Eldridge's final dates, a concert at St. Peter's Church in New York City in May 1978. That concert, which also featured trombonist Vic Dickenson, was recorded and later issued as Roy Eldridge and Vic Dickenson With Eddie Locke and Friends.
In his youth, Eldridge had attacked every piece of music as a personal challenge: "I had to play everything fast and double fast. I couldn't stand still. Like a lot of youngsters today, all my ballads had to be double time. I was fresh. I was full of ideas. Augmented chords. Ninths.” When he made this quartet album, he was forty-nine years old, a mature and experienced player with an appreciation of melody. Some of his most attractive ballad playing will be found here, each note given its correct value, the trumpet tone as individual and expressive as ever.
He plays the Erroll Garner ballads "Crème de Menthe" (Garner's title for the instrumental that became better known as "Dreamy" once lyrics were added) and "Misty" unmuted, giving the listener the opportunity to enjoy that golden sound and perfect control. There are brass men who dislike playing in mute and some who have difficulty in controlling the power of their playing in such circumstances. But Eldridge was a master of mutes (one of his earliest was made from a tin can painted gold), and there are plenty of opportunities to hear his control, starting with the muted wah-wah playing on "Bossa Nova".
There are many moments to cherish in this program. Eldridge commences with the verse on George and Ira Gershwin's "I've Got a Crush on You", played with the same delicacy that another trumpeter, Bobby Hackett, brought to the melody when he played on Frank Sinatra's memorable 1947 recording of the tune. "Honeysuckle Rose" was always an Eldridge favorite, and even in the context of this album he succeeds in building a three-chorus solo of strength before handing over to Ball, whose playing throughout is relaxed and tasteful. "When I Grow Too Old to Dream" observes the conventions of the "muted jazz" concept, but Eldridge finds it difficult to suppress his natural exuberance in the vamp coda.
Swingin' on the Town was to be Roy Eldridge's last album as leader for some time. A few months after the session took place, Norman Granz sold the Verve label, leaving Eldridge without a recording contract for a time. He continued to work regularly, appearing at jazz festivals in the United States and Europe until October 1980, when he suffered a heart attack. Despite this
setback he managed to make guest appearances as a vocalist; he died on February 26,1989, in a Long Island hospital.
The tributes were many and sincere, for Eldridge had been one of the most admired and loved of all jazz players. As one club owner remarked: "Some of the younger guys with reputations are children. Roy is a man."”