The Resurrection of Harry James

There used to be many big bands igniting dancers in ballrooms and at college proms across the land. Those on the A list—Ellington, Basie, Goodman, Shaw, Lunceford, Barnet, et al.—are memorialized in books on jazz and in the jazz press. So far as Harry James is remembered, however, his career has long been capsulized in Tom Nolan’s account in January magazine: “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.”

But that assessment was before Peter Levinson’s current book, Trumpet Blues: The Life of Harry James (Oxford University Press), which Tom Nolan rightly characterizes as “the biographical equivalent of a well-produced LP, without a single weak or wasted track.” Having known Peter Levinson for some 30 years, I had no doubt the book would be carefully researched. He spent five years on it, interviewing some 200 people, and he knew James’ private as well as public life very well indeed. But I wondered if this book about a long faded relic of the big band era would get much attention, except maybe in the jazz press. The reviews, however, in the mainstream newspapers and magazines have been considerable and laudatory. It is one of the very few biographies of a musician I have read that not only told me much more than I thought I knew but compelled me to listen right away to the music again. I went to The Complete Capitol Recordings of Gene Krupa & Harry James (Mosaic) and shouted in pleasure at “Blues on a Count” and Duke Ellington’s “What Am I Here For.” (A companion CD to the book is Trumpet Blues: The Best of Harry James on Capitol.)

Just as Charlie Barnet at his best was a soul brother of Duke Ellington, so Harry James not only understood but also ardently felt the Count Basie pulse. With such swinging reedmen as Corky Corcoran and Willie Smith, further empowered by Buddy Rich on these sides, the leader, who began as a trumpet player in a circus band, also showed how much he had learned from Louis Armstrong.

As for Armstrong, Peter Levinson tells in the book of a night Louis caught the Benny Goodman band on the road. “Armstrong, standing in the wings, watched Harry James intently as he soloed on several numbers. Suddenly, Louis exclaimed to Lionel Hampton, ‘That white boy—he plays like a jig!’” Levinson writes that “this compliment might be considered politically incorrect in today’s parlance, but it certainly explains Armstrong’s profound respect for Harry James’ playing.” As Louis wrote to James in a 1962 letter: “Dear Bre’r James: Carry on Gate, you have it made. Stay happy.”

Off the stand, happiness was fleeting for James. His obsessions recall a once familiar eulogy at the start of a New Orleans funeral march: “If the women don’t get you, the liquor must.” Or the other way around. In James’ downslide, add addiction to gambling. Levinson tells it all—from the swinging years, on and off the stand, to the pop hits (the treacly “You Made Me Love You”) to the decline as a lounge act in Las Vegas. “He died,” Terry Teachout ends his review of the book in the Wall Street Journal, “broke, miserable and largely forgotten.”

He is no longer forgotten, thanks to Peter Levinson, to whom Tony Gleske pays a singular tribute in The Hollywood Reporter: “A publicist writes a book with no spin—that’s new.” It’s not news to me. I’ve been writing about jazz even longer than the nearly 30 years Peter has been a publicist and I’ve always been able to trust his straight talk.

For those to whom Levinson’s name is not familiar, his book shows that the very best jazz publicists are effective because they are widely and deeply knowledgeable about the music and find jazz as essential to their lives as the rest of us. Peter’s next book is about Nelson Riddle, whose arrangements for Nat Cole, Peggy Lee and Frank Sinatra are models of a craft that sometimes, as in his work, is transformed into works of art. “He was an unhappy soul,” Levinson says of Riddle. “He was only happy when he was devising an arrangement or a composition.” And Nelson Riddle is also seldom mentioned these days, but that will change too.

Originally published in June 2000

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