At the height of their success as star soloists with the Benny Goodman orchestra in 1938 and 1939, respectively, drummer Gene Krupa and trumpeter Harry James left to form their own bands. Despite their obvious talents and popularity, however, neither had an easy start. For different reasons, breakthrough success did not immediately come for either of them. In Krupa’s case, its arrival had to do with his acquisition in 1941 of two vibrant jazz artists, trumpeter Roy Eldridge and singer Anita O’Day. With James’ success came after he decided to direct his formidable technique and excessively rich vibrato toward virtuosic showpieces and romantic ballads, a combination enhanced by his glamorous persona and widely celebrated marriage to one of Hollywood’s and the war effort’s most valued assets, superstar Betty Grable.
Mosaic’s chapter in Krupa’s history begins a few years after the leader’s notorious 1942-43 troubles, which, because of their sensationalistic treatment by the press, nearly wrecked his career. Thanks to Goodman and Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic, he was back on his feet again well before the time of the recordings heard here. Represented on the first four discs by 74 commercially unreleased tracks cut for Capitol’s radio transcription service, the Krupa band of February 1946 through February 1947 boasted such jazz soloists as tenorman Charlie Ventura, trumpeter Red Rodney, altoman Charlie Kennedy, trombonist Dick Taylor, pianist Teddy Napoleon, tenorman Buddy Wise and hip vocalists Buddy Steward and Caroline Grey. The invariably forward-looking arrangers whom Krupa sought out were Ed Finckel, Jimmy Mundy, Budd Johnson, George Williams, Ray Biondi, and his erstwhile section altoman, Gerry Mulligan, whose “Indiana,” “Begin the Beguine,” “Bird House” and “Margie” constitute the young bopper’s only charts documented here. There are, predictably, a number of features allocated to the overly arranged, fussy Jazz Trio of Krupa, Ventura and Napoleon, but these are offset to a large degree by the swinging big band charts and the solos of the principals.
Charlie Ventura was a very popular tenorman during the 1940s, his warm tone and sinuous lines owing equally to Ben Webster and Chu Berry. However, he also had a tendency to sound rather contrived on occasion, and especially so when featured with the Krupa Jazz Trio, whose highly routine arrangements on “Body and Soul,” “Limehouse Blues,” “Stompin’ at the Savoy,” “10 Ritchie Drive,” “Dark Eyes,” “Sweet Lorraine,” “Wire Brush Stomp,” “What Is This Thing Called Love?” and “Idaho” are typical. In contrast, Ventura could also be especially convincing on ballads, but only when he kept his penchant for self-mockery in check. Using both brushes and sticks, Krupa is particularly front and center with the trio, but Napoleon seems more functional than inspired. Of the other soloists, Red Rodney still reflected his roots in Harry James, but it is eminently clear on his many solos that he was also already deeply immersed in bop, as was Charlie Kennedy, a devotee of Charlie Parker. Dick Taylor, though unjustly neglected by history, sounds quite at home in this context, his lusty, swinging, Trummy Youngesque solos representing a style of playing that was rapidly disappearing from jazz. The 1947 sessions heard on Disc IV reflect some personnel changes, with Buddy Wise moving into Ventura’s chair and probably Don Fagerquist replacing Rodney. Taylor and Kennedy, however, are still on board, as are vocalists Stewart and Grey, who are heavily featured.
As the featured hot trumpet soloist in the famed Goodman band of 1937-38, James was virtually everyone’s favorite, but when he went out on his own and started capitalizing on flashy showpieces and drippy tear-jerkers, he quickly lost his earlier support from the jazz community. The 64 tracks heard here from the 1955-58 period reveal a James more happily reconciled with his jazz roots. After opening with a retrospective of earlier landmark commercial hits, the program quickly changes into a display of predominantly hip performances. These are marked by the Basie-oriented originals of Neal Hefti, Ernie Wilkins and others, which feature copious jazz solos by James, altoman Willie Smith (of Lunceford and Ellington fame), tenor saxophonists Corky Corcoran and his replacement, Sam Firmature, and trombonists Juan Tizol, Dick Nash and Ray Sims. The ideal drummer for this cooking edition of the James band, Buddy Rich, makes his presence felt throughout the May 1957 sessions, while the booting Jackie Mills takes over on the 1958 dates.
Despite James’ universally acknowledged superiority as a trumpeter, he had never really been absorbed into the jazz mainstream. Though a runaway favorite with the public, critics seemed to feel that even his best jazz playing was too glib and showy to be regarded as serious expression. By the mid-’50s something had changed, and the James band heard here is almost on par with the best of the swinging big bands of the time. The trumpeter had always been his own major soloist, and he is in toprate form throughout these recordings, but the contributions of the alternately elegant and house-rockin’ Smith, the virile Corcoran, the fluent Nash and the opulent but underexposed clarinetist Herb Lorden are also of parallel interest.
Admittedly, the writers were not on the cutting edge of modernity, nor were they expected to be. But they were all stellar craftsmen who knew how to get the best out of the bands they wrote for. Among others, they include Jay Hill, Bill Holman, Shorty Rogers, Juan Tizol, Hefti, Wilkins and James himself.