Harry James - trumpet; Unknown orchestra
A bona fide trumpet star who became one of the most popular bandleaders of the early '40s, Harry James thrilled Swing era fans with an exhilarating big band performance at Carnegie Hall. For his Newport Jazz Festival debut, James presented a program of jazz standards and bits of Ellingtonia rather than reprising his own hits from the '40s. Throughout his set, the trumpet great demonstrated that at age 66 he was still very much on top of his game.
James opens with a snippet of his usual waltz-time theme before the band jumps into a jaunty rendition of "Don't Be That Way," a tune introduced in 1935 by the Chick Webb Orchestra and later covered by Benny Goodman, Mildred Bailey, and Harry James himself. After the tune, James explains that in 1938 he played with the Benny Goodman Orchestra at this very same Carnegie Hall, and opened up their set with this same tune. The trumpeter is in fine form here, flaunting some of his signature high-note bravura an infinite capacity to swing. With muted trumpet he next leads the orchestra through a smooth, politely swinging rendition of Glenn Miller's "Tuxedo Junction" before launching into his own jaunty number "Ultra," a showcase for outstanding solos baritone saxophonist Joe Cook, alto saxophonist Quinn Davis and the trumpeter-leader himself.
They next breeze their way through Ellington's "I'm Beginning to See the Light," featuring vocalist Sundi Martino, who remains for a rousing big band rendition of the Cole Porter classic, "I Get a Kick Out of You." Several of the band members then get to stretch out on the jaunty mid-tempo swinger "Blues for Sale," an Ernie Wilkins chart from 1957 which also finds the leader in fine form. Tenor saxophonist Corky Corcoran, a charter member of the Harry James Orchestra, then appears as a special guest on the poignant ballad "Alone Together." His burnished tones on the horn are coming right out of the Coleman Hawkins school of big, bold tenor players. Corcoran is next featured on a contemporary arrangement of Duke Ellington's "Caravan." The orchestra follows with three Ellington numbers—a lush "Satin Doll," a vibrant "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" featuring vocals by Ms. Martino, and a rousing Ernie Wilkins arrangement of "Take the A Train," which features some of James' strongest playing of the set along with a sparkling solo from alto saxophonist Quinn Davis.
Pianist Jack Percival steps forward to offer some earthy keyboard accompaniment to James' pungent tones on a New Orleans flavored rendition of "Blues Stay Away" while also turning in a blues-drenched solo himself. Drummer Les DeMerle is next showcased on the James flag-waver "Apples," nearly bringing down the house with his energized eruption on the kit. Singer Martino returns for a stroll down memory lane on a medley of James hits from the '40s, including "I Had the Craziest Dream," "You Made Me Love You," the Tin Pan Alley chestnut "I Cried for You," "It's Been a Long, Long Time" (a tune introduced by Bing Crosby with Les Paul on guitar), and the poignant "I Don't Want to Walk Without You." James and his orchestra close out this Carnegie Hall set with a swinging take on Count Basie's infectious shuffle "Two O'Clock Jump" before departing with a taste of his theme song, "Ciribiribin."
As George Wein says for his closing remarks, "It took us 21 years to get Harry James here but I already talked to his manager and he'll be back next year for the Newport Jazz Festival."
Born Henry Haag James on March 15, 1916 in Albany, Georgia, he began taking trumpet lessons from his trumpet playing father at age 10. In 1931, the family relocated to Beaumont, Texas, where a teenaged James began playing with local dance bands. In 1935, he got his first big break with the Ben Pollack Orchestra and in 1937 left to join the Benny Goodman Orchestra, where he began a high-note solo star. James formed his own big band in 1939 and had a hit in 1941 with his sweet instrumental rendition of "You Made Me Love You," a tune introduced 24 years earlier by Al Jolson and later popularized by Judy Garland in a 1937 recording. In 1939, James hired a then-unknown singer from Hoboken, New Jersey named Frank Sinatra (who was lured away later that year by rival bandleader Tommy Dorsey). One of James' later bands included the sensational young drummer Buddy Rich. The trumpeter appeared in several movies during the height of his popularity in the '40s and in the 1950 film Young Man with a Horn, based on the life of trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke, he played the trumpet parts dubbed by the film's star Kirk Douglas.
James remained a relentless road warrior for the next 40 years, playing and touring well into his 60s. His last recordings came in the '70s—1972's Mr. Trumpet and 1976's live Comin' from a Good Place. In 1983, he was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer but continued to work, playing his last professional job on June 26, 1983, just nine days before his death. Frank Sinatra gave the eulogy at his funeral in Las Vegas. The Harry James Orchestra continues touring to this day under the direction of veteran trumpeter Fred Radke. (Milkowski)