ournalists are fond of marking centenaries, but no particular fuss was made over the occasion of Harry James’s birth 100 years ago this past March. To the extent that he is still remembered today, it is only for having set Frank Sinatra on the road to glory by hiring the young singer to perform with his big band in 1939. Yet James had once been famous enough in his own right for his picture to appear on the front page of the New York Times when he died in 1983, a fitting tribute to a trumpet-playing bandleader described in the paper’s obituary as “a major figure of the swing era” whose big band “remained popular for more than 40 years.”
That was, if anything, an understatement. No jazz instrumentalist has ever been more popular than James. Seventy of his records appeared on Billboard’s pop charts between 1939 and 1953. (The Rolling Stones, by contrast, have had 56 chart hits to date.) During that same time, he and his band were heard regularly on network radio and appeared in 10 feature films, including one with Betty Grable, the celebrated World War II pinup girl and the second of James’s three wives. Long after rock ’n’ roll had decisively supplanted golden-age pop as America’s preferred form of popular music, he managed to keep his band working, continuing to perform in public until nine days before his death.
Why, then, is James mostly forgotten? First, his popularity was and is off-putting to certain critics and jazz buffs, and the way in which he won it was even more offensive to them. As John S. Wilson explained in the Times obituary, James’s success “came only when he added to his repertory romantic ballads played with warm emotion and a vibrato so broad that at times it seemed almost comic.” Still, even at the height of his commercial success, he also played plenty of hard-core big-band jazz, and numerous other critics and scholars, including some who had no use for his schmaltzy hit records of “I Don’t Want to Walk Without You” and “You Made Me Love You,” lauded him. Gunther Schuller, for one, called James “the most technically assured and prodigiously talented white trumpet player of the late Swing Era…possibly the most complete trumpet player who ever lived.”
No less troublesome, especially now that race-conscious jazz critics are on the lookout for egregious examples of “cultural appropriation,” was the fact that James was white. But the color of his skin did not prevent such illustrious black trumpeters as Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, and Clark Terry from admiring his technique and artistry. Louis Armstrong, on whom James initially modeled his playing, went so far as to praise him in characteristically pithy terms: “That white boy—he plays like a jig!”
One must dig more deeply to understand why James is so little remembered today, a venture aided by the existence of Peter J. Levinson’s Trumpet Blues (1999), a thoroughly researched biography that deals frankly with his squalid private life. A hard-drinking, philandering loner who abused his wives, ignored his children, and lost a fortune at the craps tables of the casinos that employed him, James died broke and unhappy. But he left behind ample evidence that he was a great jazzman who made self-destructive career choices, at least where his reputation was concerned.
AS THE SAYING goes, James was born in a trunk. His mother was an acrobat, and his father led a circus band that toured throughout the south. James’s father, himself an accomplished trumpeter, drilled the boy unstintingly in the hope that he would become a classical musician, and Harry developed into a budding young virtuoso with an impeccably polished technique and the iron-lipped stamina that comes from playing marches for circus acts.
But James had other plans. He fell in love with jazz after hearing Louis Armstrong’s early records, and when his family settled down in Texas in 1931, he started playing with local dance bands and working his way up the professional ladder. Benny Goodman, the most famous bandleader of the early swing era, heard and hired him six years later, and within a matter of months the 21-year-old James had become, after Goodman himself, the band’s best-known and most admired soloist.
James recorded extensively with Goodman in 1937 and 1938, and he can also be heard in off-the-air broadcasts of live performances that illustrate even more clearly what Zeke Zarchy, whom he replaced in Goodman’s trumpet section, later said about him: “Fire came out of that trumpet every time he picked up his horn. It was like a guy throwing a spear.” His sound was fat-toned and ferociously intense, and he played with a darting, daring agility worthy of Armstrong in his prime.
James had another spear in his capacious quiver. Like Armstrong, he was also a wholly idiomatic blues player, an accomplishment rare among white jazzmen of the ’30s that added emotional depth to a self-consciously flashy style. As he explained in a 1977 interview with Merv Griffin: “I was brought up in Texas with the blues. When I was 11 or 12 years old, down in what they call Barbecue Row, I used to sit in with the guys that had the broken bottlenecks on their guitars, playing the blues. That’s all we knew.”
James was determined to cover all the musical bases, and he did so with seeming effortlessness. Moreover, he always insisted that he performed sentimental ballads not for commercial reasons but solely because he liked doing so.
Finally, in 1941, he turned the key of commercial success by hiring Helen Forrest, perhaps the most tasteful and expressive female singer of the big-band era, and adding a small string section to his otherwise conventional instrumental lineup. It was with this group that James recorded an unabashedly sentimental arrangement of “You Made Me Love You (I Didn’t Want to Do It),” a 1913 ballad that had been revived four years earlier by Judy Garland. His instrumental version promptly became a million-selling hit, and he rode it to fame and fortune by recording a series of equally fulsome ballads featuring Forrest.
The jazz critic Dan Morgenstern has called “You Made Me Love You” “the record that the jazz critics never forgave Harry James for recording.” Their disdain, while excessive, is understandable: James played the song and others like it with a mile-wide vibrato that has been likened to that of an Italian tenor in full cry, cushioned by sugary violins. He also featured himself on light-classic arrangements like “Carnival of Venice” and “Flight of the Bumblebee” that showed off the spectacularly nimble technique he had acquired from countless hours of youthful practice. At the same time, though, he recorded any number of swinging vocal and instrumental sides, including “Crazy Rhythm,” “Jeffrie’s Blues,” “I’ve Heard That Song Before” (with Forrest), Duke Ellington’s “I’m Beginning to See the Light,” and his own “Let Me Up,” all of which demonstrated his prowess as a jazzman.
The major labels stopped recording him in 1968, the same year in which he made his last appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, and he soon came to be seen not as a still-vital soloist but as the leader of a nostalgia act.
James maintained his popularity into the late ’40s, far longer than most of his contemporaries, but changing musical tastes ultimately forced him to disband his wartime orchestra and organize a smaller, stringless group. Nonplussed by the fast-growing popularity of solo singers like Sinatra, he briefly flirted (as did Benny Goodman) with big-band bebop in 1949, but quickly discovered that his fans were uninterested in hearing him perform harmonically complex up-tempo compositions. “It was a big mistake…playing music that was not fundamentally dance music in places where people came to dance,” he ruefully confessed.
After treading stylistic water for several years, James found a new path to popularity. Long a fervent admirer of the no-nonsense swing of Count Basie, he opted to emulate the smooth, streamlined approach of the “New Testament” band that Basie had put together in 1952. Basie’s new group played blues-oriented ensemble jazz with explosively wide dynamic contrasts. It was harmonically advanced but steered clear of the ultra-fast tempos and vertiginous chromaticism of the boppers. His 1957 album Wild About Harry, arranged and performed in this new style, immediately re-established him as a major voice.
James stuck closely to his neo-Basie approach for most of the rest of his life, leading a first-class group of crack instrumentalists (especially in the mid-’60s, when Buddy Rich played drums for him) and programming his hits of the ’40s alongside big-band versions of jazz compositions such as Miles Davis’s “Walkin’” and Horace Silver’s “Doodlin’.” Not only did he continue to solo with verve and authority, but he gradually expanded the parameters of his style, incorporating elements of the playing of such postwar bebop trumpeters as Clifford Brown without compromising his individuality.
Then his luck ran out. The major labels stopped recording him in 1968, the same year in which he made his last appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, and he soon came to be seen not as a still-vital soloist but as the leader of a nostalgia act, playing a steadily narrowing repertoire of pop hits for senior citizens who longed to relive their youth. By the time he died in 1983, he had become a back number.
HOW COULD SO superlative a soloist and bandleader have fallen off the map of jazz? In retrospect, it seems clear that James’s key mistake with those writers who maintain and burnish the reputations of musicians was to present himself as a celebrity bandleader first and a jazz musician second.
Throughout his two-year tenure as a member of Benny Goodman’s troupe, he had recorded to unfailingly powerful effect as a small-group sideman with such distinguished swing-era contemporaries as Lionel Hampton, Billie Holiday, Pete Johnson, and Red Norvo. But after he started his own band in 1939, James never again worked as anything other than a leader, nor did he perform in small groups save on rare occasions with studio-only combos whose members were drawn from the ranks of his own band. As a result, baby-boom jazz fans were largely unaware of his gifts as an improviser.
At the same time, James mostly limited his public appearances to ballrooms and casino lounges. It would not be until 1958 that his band would play a jazz club. Basie and Ellington performed both in nightclubs and in concert halls, and they made a point of recording frequently with small groups of various kinds as well as with their big bands. Because of this, they were seen as jazzmen first and foremost. And even after the center of gravity in jazz shifted from big bands to combos in the ’50s, no one was in doubt as to their continuing musical significance. Not so James, who clung stubbornly to his superannuated matinee-idol status until it was too late for him to remake his image along more modern lines.
James’s refusal to come to terms with his diminished place in the world of American pop culture likely had much to do with the emotional immaturity on which everyone who knew him remarked. Incapable of personal intimacy and embarrassed by his lack of formal education, he spent his free time chasing women, drinking to excess, and gambling away his hard-earned fortune. Such compulsive behavior is usually the mark of a deeply troubled person, and Helen Forrest, with whom James had a romantic relationship in the ’40s, believed that he was happy only when playing for an adoring crowd: “He was at peace, and he knew he was loved when he was playing the trumpet….He knew nobody could hurt him.”
It stands to reason that such a man would have found it inordinately difficult to settle for the limited amount of fame available to the postwar jazzman. But James’s unwillingness to face reality should not be allowed to obscure his musical stature. He was one of the foremost jazz trumpeters of the 20th century, and the groups that he led from 1957 to the end of the ’60s ranked among the very best in postwar big-band jazz. One can—and should—forgive a great many saccharine ballads in return for such consistent excellence.