The enthusiastic applause fades in the background as I watch Big J shuffling through the heat haze in the lower paddock of my Hunter Valley hideaway, his head to the ground in search of sustenance. I recall the pleasurable look in his eyes when I promised pinot noir in his bowl instead of shiraz if he increased his intake of greens. Meanwhile the applause is growing in intensity again as I turn towards my sound system revelling in the swinging power of a big band.
There have been few more exciting examples of Benny Goodman’s orchestra in full cry than on Jimmy Mundy’s arrangement of Cole Porter’s Ridin’ High from a Camel Caravan radio broadcast in New York on November 9, 1937. Goodman never recorded it commercially although it was the third number played, after Bugle Call Rag and Star Dust, during the opening of his legendary stand at the Paramount Theatre in New York on March 10, 1937 when teenagers jitterbugged in the aisles.
No wonder. It would be hard to top this performance in the cold confines of a recording studio. You reach for superlatives to describe Goodman’s clarinet playing in the chase choruses with Harry James whose explosive sound is fat-toned and ferociously intent. Zeke Zarchey, who was replaced by James in the band, said: “Fire came out of that trumpet every time he picked up his horn”. Louis Armstrong, James’ early influence, said: “That white boy – he plays like a jig”.
Jazz historian Gunther Schuller said: “The solo work poured out of his horn with a sense of inevitability that no other trumpeter could equal with such consistency”. Add an eloquent jazz style, a passion for the blues and breathtaking execution and you have a unique and great jazz musician. Yet the centenary of his birth (March 16, 1916) has passed without seemingly any comment. How could such a superlative soloist, whose ability was praised by Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Clark Terry, and whose band was popular for more than 40 years be ignored?
Admittedly he put his role as a celebrity bandleader first and as a jazz musician second. However, many jazz critics have never forgiven him for that schmaltzy recording, complete with a string section, of You Made Me Love You where his wide vibrato was likened to that of an Italian tenor. It not only sold a million but rescued James from bankruptcy. The string of sentimental ballads that followed and the bravura performances of The Flight Of The Bumblebee and Carnival of Venice drew even more fire from them but they forgot that James also recorded such swinging instrumentals as Crazy Rhythm and Jeffries Blues.
Was there a more popular jazz musician? Seventy of his hits appeared on Billboard’s charts between 1939 and 1953. In comparison The Rolling Stones had 56! I must confess that if I had the choice of taking only a handful of trumpet discs to a desert island the first choice would be James’ 1945 recording of Carnival arranged by Billy May.
The return of the Count Basie big band in 1952 was to inspire James to the most artistically fruitful period of his career with a band whose smooth, lightly pulsating swing sound was fuelled by a roster of top-class arrangers including Ralph Burns, Neal Hefti, Thad Jones and especially Ernie Wilkins who did so much to set the Basie sound of the 1950’s. James may have been dubbed the “white ofay” but his band was more than just a Basie copy. It is on hearing these records again that I believe his place in the pantheon of jazz trumpeters and his importance in jazz history should be re-evaluated.
A complex personality, he died broke and unhappy. He was a hard- drinking, philandering loner with a gargantuan appetite for booze who abused his wives even using screen siren and his second wife Betty Grable as a punching bag; a promiscuous womaniser, young and old, all shapes and sizes, it didn’t matter; and he lost a fortune gambling and abused his children.
Helen Forrest, the most stylish of the big band singers with whom James had a romantic attachment, said: “He found peace on the bandstand. He knew he was loved when playing the trumpet. He knew nobody could hurt him”.
The heavy drinking took its toll and although James did not die young like Bix Beiderbecke and Bunny Berigan, he looked a lot older than his 67 years when he passed away on July 3, 1983. James worked up until nine days before his death, his health ravaged by lymphantic cancer. He didn’t fear death quipping: “It’s just another road trip”.
– Patrick D.Maguire