Warming Up

Warming Up

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Most Influential Trumpet Player Ever

OK, I’m gonna say it: Harry James is the most influential trumpet player ever.

End of post.

Well, alright, being the loquacious jerk that I am, I’m not going to just make a statement and not back it up with piles of empirical proof (sarcasm). The only problem here is that I have no proof – just an opinion. And a theory. But I’m still going to try to make an argument for this statement. Harry James. I did not say that he was the greatest trumpet player of all time (or my favorite, for that matter), just the most influential (Archangel Gabriel does not count, ok).

If someone is influential they have exerted a strong influence. Harry James influenced trumpet players. More than any other single trumpet player, Harry James influenced trumpet players and he still does today. Harry James was a popular trumpet player. He played popular music, which at the time of James’ greatest celebrity was “jazz” or at least “jazz-influenced pop music.” Harry James surely did not invent jazz trumpet playing and he probably didn’t invent popular trumpet playing though sure did an awful lot to make trumpet playing popular. Before we go any further, let’s get something clear, Louis Armstrong was jazz’s first master soloist. He was the first trumpet player to really make it big, to really elevate the trumpet into a solo instrument capable of shock and awe. Before there was Louis Armstrong, there was just nothing at all like Louis Armstrong. Sure, Armstrong came from King Oliver, from Freddie Keppard, back to Buddy Bolden, but before Pops no one really played like Pops. He was the beginning, and for many people, because of that fact, he is also the end. Alpha and the Omega. Remember, Miles Davis said “you can’t play nothing on the trumpet that Louis Armstrong didn’t already play.” I’m not going to argue against that. Pops was the greatest. Nuff said. But was he the most influential? I don’t think so. I think Harry James was. Because of his virtuosic trumpet playing, his showbiz abilities and star appeal, and his time-proven chain of influence.

One of the cool things about the art form of jazz is that you can really trace an historical progression of the music and the evolving styles of its practitioners. This is true of jazz trumpet. You can’t have Armstrong without Oliver; can’t have Roy Eldridge without Louis Armstrong; can’t have Dizzy Gillespie without Roy Eldridge; can’t have Clifford without Fats; can’t have Lee Morgan without Clifford, etc. on and on until the present day. Everyone has a daddy. Or two, or three. That’s the way the music goes. It’s a lineage. Here’s my point though: Harry James was a daddy to many, many people. Hey wait, that doesn’t sound right! I’m talking about trumpet and music here, not sexual promiscuity. I don’t know about that side of Harry James nor do I want to. Well, Harry was married to Betty Grable and she sure was hot. But that’s a digression, people, sort of. It’s a fact that Harry James was a huge celebrity back in the late 30’s and early 40’s. He was arguably the biggest star in America (and thus the world?). And he played trumpet. And yes, he was married to pinup legend, Betty Grable. He was the tops. For those facts alone, James’ influence could be proven to be quite large. But I really think that it is his trumpet playing that makes his star endure, which makes his influence so all-encompassing. Here’s what I mean.

Harry James came from somewhere, he didn’t just appear. He surely listened to lots of jazz (maybe secretively) and classical popular music as he was coming up learning the ropes of trumpet playing as a kid growing up playing in the family circus. Yes, it was a family circus, and his dad also played the trumpet – probably forced young Harry to practice and excel. And Harry certainly practiced and excelled. His father must have taught him well because, as far as I can tell, Harry had no physical flaws in his playing. Perfect embouchure, endurance for days, incredibly fast fingers, single and multiple tonguing technique that rivaled top classical players, a screaming high register (when he wanted), and most important of all: a huge, big, fat, round sound – a sound so big you could drive a truck through it. In the parlance, he was an efficient player who could really move a lot of air. There were surely other trumpet players at the time who had staggering technique like this (remember, Raphael Mendez was ten years older than Harry, but Raphael’s star really only ascending parallel or even a little after Harry’s), but there weren’t that many, definitely not in popular music. And after Armstrong had broken the mold, high note players started to pop up in the late 20’s and 30’s. But high notes are just part of technique. Harry had the whole entire package; therefore, one could argue that Harry James was the first great trumpet virtuoso in jazz.

By the time he was 21 years of age Harry was on the road with the Benny Goodman band, the most popular band in the land. And Harry was the star soloist. Such a star, in fact, that people convinced him to go out on his own as a leader. He started his own orchestra, hit the road, and skyrocketed to stardom. Before he was even 30 years old, he had had a string of hits, made tons and tons of cash, was the first name bandleader to employ a scrawny, big-eared singer from Hoboken (soon to become The Voice), had become movie star, had two kids with his first wife (childhood sweetheart), and married Betty Grable. This guy had it all! I’m sure some of this was a result of the old “right place at the right time,” but there had to have been more to it than that. Harry was a pretty good looking guy (I honestly never saw it, but I was never a woman in the 1940’s so what do I know?). And maybe from all of those hours playing with the circus as a kid, Harry surely learned a thing or two about show business (and maybe also the business of show business) - namely how to please a crowd, how to win an audience – and keep them. Harry was groomed for success in this world – from an early age. He had star power and he knew how to pursue it. His ascendancy was meteoric and he was a household name everywhere.

And this is what brings me to the whole chain of influence thing. The guy was, plain and simple, a virtuoso on an unprecedented level. Who could touch him at that time? Sure he played some schlocky pop tunes that were huge commercial hits – “You Made Me Love You,” “Ciribiribin,” “Sleepy Lagoon,” etc. And some staggeringly, technical showboat features that were also hits like “Carnival of Venice” and “Flight of the Bumble Bee.” But those tunes made him ridiculously popular with ordinary people (don’t forgot there was a war going on – The Big One – so people needed diversions and distractions). Musicians may have sneered at that commercial success but no one could argue with Harry’s technical abilities. And not even just the technique. Harry also could swing his ass off with the best. He could really play a blues. He could burn at fast tempos. His ideas were hip and he could sneak in some really tricky turns and embellishments that really made him stand out. Harmonically he was fairly straightforward, but he could sneak in a hip turn if he wanted. He had style and he had a style. He was a stylist. A trendsetter. And he could play with anyone, any band, any singer, and always sound great. Some of the best Harry James, I think, is the small group stuff where he is a guest, often in mixed race ensembles. Just blowing. In short, he could hang with anyone.

So in my mind, it’s his playing that really makes him so influential. The star power is cool and certainly contributed to the pervasiveness of Harry’s presence on music and popular culture in the late 30’s/early 40’s even through the early 50’s, but the playing is what gives him staying power – the power of influence. When someone is as popular as Harry was, people are going to copy, to imitate, to emulate. That happened everywhere. Players worked extra hard to reach for the next highest note, worked extra hard to develop their tones, to open up their sounds, and also, unfortunately (in 70 years of hindsight), to go after a huge, syrupy vibrato in the hopes of scoring a big, romantic hit ($$$). My theory is that Harry James personally set the bar for practically all trumpet players that followed him – either directly or indirectly. Think about it: every lead trumpet player from then on was going for that huge, pure, full sound. I’d be willing to bet that you could trace most lead trumpet players and their sound inspirations back to Harry James. Players like Conrad Gozzo, Snooky Young, Bernie Glow, Al Porcino, Ernie Royal, Jimmy Maxwell, Earl Gardner, Buddy Childers, Bill Chase, Bud Brisbois, etc. (I’m not a lead guy so don’t yell at me for leaving people out). And not just lead players, but commercial players, studio players, dance band and high school and college bands everywhere. Everyone had to be able to have a little bit of Harry James in their sound, in their arrangements. But there’s also the chain of influence in other styles too. Take just one player to illustrate my point: Miles Davis. When Miles was a kid he idolized Harry James. He wanted to sound like him, play like him, phrase like him. He even tried to get that vibrato too (thank goodness he stopped the shaking and went for his own thing!). But do you get my point here? If Harry influenced Miles, and Miles went on to influence practically everybody, could you not then argue that James’ influence carried on through Miles? I really don’t mean this is a stretch.

What about players like Al Hirt and Herb Alpert. Hirt, especially could really play. But those guys achieved a level of fame and commercial success that no other trumpet player has really been able to achieve since, save for maybe Wynton Marsalis (and really Wynton is something else altogether so it’s almost like he doesn’t even fit in this equation). But could Al Hirt and Herb Alpert been as huge as they were without the precedence of Harry James? I don’t think so. Even musically speaking, I think that Hirt and Alpert are influenced by Harry – trumpet players going after hits. Now, if you were to ask players today that came up in the 60’s and 70’s about their influences growing up, who was it that got them playing the trumpet – do you know what the answers will be 80% of the time? Al Hirt and Herb Alpert. Sure those guys made some corny music, but they were huge commercial successes and their influence was absolutely pervasive. My argument is that there would be no Al Hirt or Herb Alpert without what Harry James did first. Chain of influence. I know this might sound like a stretch, and maybe it is, but I don’t know if there is a trumpet player out there today playing popular music or jazz that isn’t directly or indirectly influenced by Harry James – whether they know it or not. If you play the trumpet and you are working on technique, sound, and style, you are following in Harry’s footsteps (and you have a shitload to live up to). If Harry James was the first real virtuoso trumpet player in jazz, then all of those virtuosos that followed, follow along the path that Harry blazed. Players like Clifford Brown, Freddie Hubbard, Woody Shaw, Wynton. And if you are playing the trumpet and you are trying to achieve commercial success like James did, well, tough crap. Those days are gone. But you should still keep practicing. And maybe you should also consider listening to a little Harry James. We can all learn something from listening to Harry James.

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