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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.

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