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Trumpet Blues: The Life of Harry James by Peter J. Levinson

A working associate and friend of Harry James from 1959 to his death in 1983, former booking agent and publicist Peter Levinson offers a no-nonsense look at the trumpeter’s lifetime career in music, from a childhood spent in his father’s traveling circus band, through his many years as a superstar celebrity, to his final decline as both artist and man. Although undoubtedly sincere in his professed love for jazz, Levinson surprisingly says very little about the music itself. Most notably, he neglects to describe in his own words how James differed in style and technique from other trumpet players, how his bands ranked musically in comparison with those of his contemporaries, and finally, how we should reconcile his blatant commercialism in the 1940s and ’50s with his oft-expressed admiration for Louis Armstrong and other jazzmen.

Levinson is especially strong in ferreting out the details of James’ early career as a circus bandsman, but he is too quick in glossing over his first big-time gig with the Ben Pollack band of the mid-1930s. The far more well-chronicled 1937-38 Benny Goodman period is treated better, thanks to already published research and a plethora of personal interviews with such important primary sources as Harry’s first wife, Louise Tobin, who sang with Goodman in 1939, and about 200 other musicians, friends, and business associates. Because of them, we learn much about the man behind the horn. Apparently a lusty guy from puberty onwards, Harry never learned to restrain his impulses, even when married to one of the most popular pin-up girls of the 1940s, top-ranking Hollywood actress Betty Grable. Even his sidemen marveled at his insatiable appetite, endurance, and, especially, his indiscriminate taste. Beautiful or ugly, young or old, they were all grist for his mill. Harry’s legendary exploits in hotel bedrooms were only exceeded by his gargantuan thirst for booze and his self-destructive need to gamble away every dollar he earned, habits that ultimately even consumed Betty’s considerable savings as well. Levinson reports that by the time of her death in 1973, eight years after their 22-year-long marriage had ended, Harry and Betty had lost around $24 million at both the Las Vegas gaming tables and the track. His drinking, however, was by far the more serious of their problems, having eventually led him, on several occasions, to treat Betty like a punching bag. In 1965, Betty finally sued for divorce on the grounds of extreme cruelty. Harry kept his band working in Las Vegas and on the road to pay off his debts, but he had already lost the best meal ticket he was ever to have.

Harry loved his horn first and foremost, with baseball running a close second, and from his youth he was gifted with such great chops that he never even had to warm up before playing, much less engage in routine practicing as most hornmen do. It all came so easily to him. But, as was also the case with Bix Beiderbecke and Bunny Berigan, that superhuman tolerance for round-the-clock heavy drinking ultimately demanded its prize. Perhaps because of the better medical care available in the 1970s Harry did not die as young as Bix and Bunny had, but all accounts indicate that toward the end there was scarcely anything left of the one-time musical powerhouse. He was only 67 at the time of his death, but he looked much, much older. Additionally, because of cancer and the loss of his teeth, he had not been able to blow a note for some time.

Levinson did a good job of piecing together Harry’s story from those who knew him personally, but in some cases his knowledge of jazz history is way off. For example, he says that in 1937, when Johnny Hodges recorded Harry’s swing instrumental, “Peckin’,” lyrics were added and the title was changed to “Foolin’ Myself.” Actually, “Foolin’ Myself,” a tune that Billie Holiday also recorded, has nothing to do with “Peckin'” except that both were recorded at the same session. Indeed, Hodges’ “Peckin'” was initially rejected and did not surface on record until the late 1970s, when it appeared on a bootleg LP. Elsewhere, Levinson says that Lionel Hampton’s first recording on vibes was Louis Armstrong’s 1931 “Shine,” but the discographies, as well as Louis’ and Hamp’s own accounts, tell us that it was “Memories of You,” which was recorded five months earlier. Perhaps these gaffes are not too important in themselves, but they do cast doubt on the credibility of some of Levinson’s other remarks.

In the course of reading, you may discover things you probably never knew about Harry’s relationship with his most illustrious stars-Frank Sinatra and Buddy Rich-among many other sidemen, singers, and show biz buddies. For example, the late Helen Forrest, who had sung with Artie Shaw and Goodman before joining James, tells of her unrequited love for the very much still married bandleader, who continually romanced his “chirp,” all the while putting off her dreams of marriage on the grounds that his father objected to her being Jewish! Harry was also seeing Betty during this time, and when she got pregnant the busy trumpet player was forced to ask Louise for a divorce. This being 1943, if a hot film property and WWII dream girl like Grable were involved in a sex scandal, it would have wrecked her career, and Harry’s as well. Too much was at stake. Louise was high-pressured into a quickie Mexican divorce by Harry’s lawyer, thus freeing her errant husband to marry Betty and save the day for Hollywood.

Like other pre-rock superstars, such as Sinatra and Rich, whose most supportive fans in the ’50s and ’60s were either big Vegas spenders or their middle-class wannabes, Harry was having the ball of his life. Ever the kid and thinking that the gravy train would never stop, he never even thought of saving or investing his money. It was only a matter of time, then, before his losses put him into serious debt to the mob. In a short time, he was virtually an indentured servant, his expensive ongoing payroll for his band and staff, his unpaid back taxes, and his continuing jones for the bottle and the tables eventually reducing him to financial ruin.

In his prime, a period that lasted far longer for him than it did for most trumpeters, Harry James was the living definition of a celebrity virtuoso, a modern-day Paganini or Liszt. He could swing with great flamboyance and heat, he could play the blues with sincerity, and he could endow ballads with “schmaltzy” romanticism. But, perhaps most importantly, in his latter years he could finally turn his band around to reflect his longstanding love for the Basie sound, which he demonstrated not only in his choice of arrangements by Neal Hefti and the late Ernie Wilkins, but also in his own adaptations of the styles of Buck Clayton and Harry Edison. James was certainly no musical innovator in the sense of a Louis, Roy, or Dizzy, but he was unquestionably the most technically well-endowed, versatile, and influential trumpeter of his time. It’s just a shame that he never grew up.

Originally Published