Friday, December 30, 2016

Terry Teachout appreciates Harry James

The Harry James Orchestra with Frank Sinatra, July 8, 1939. Sintra opens, but James closes with a solid Armstrong-influenced solo starting at 2:44. Listen to his stop-time chorus at 3:05 and the following descending cascades.

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!”
He could play the blues:
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.”
But ne never really sold himself to the public as a jazz soloist. He was always the band leader:
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.

It's hard to describe what's going on here, but it's obviously from a movie (Do You Love Me? 1946). The introduction is silly and pretentious, but James shows his blues chops at 0:33. From there to the end it's up and down, and James is always so down he's up. Or is it so up he's down?
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James did the off-screen trumpet playing for Kirk Douglas in Young Man with a Horn (1951). I still remember watching that movie on TV sometime in the early 1960s. It electrified me (figuratively speaking). Some commentary on the racial politics of the film HERE.

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