Trumpet Blues: The Life of Harry James

by Peter J. Levinson

Published by Oxford University Press

334 pages, 1999


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A Slick But Stunted Star

Reviewed by Tom Nolan

 

For many jazz fans, trumpet player Harry James was at best superfluous and at worst a sellout: a musician of formidable technique who abandoned the fiery style that made him a star of the Benny Goodman Orchestra in the late 1930s, only to adopt a much more schmaltzy, flashy, commercial manner that led to a remarkable number of hit records throughout the 40s.

To dance music lovers, James was the leader for three decades of a consistently satisfying big band whose earliest incarnation gave Frank Sinatra his start and whose 1950s version found its most lucrative gigs at the casino hotels in Vegas and at Tahoe.

But most of America knew Harry James simply as the husband of movie star Betty Grable, the blonde pinup who caused World War II G.I.s to croon, "I want a gal, just like the gal, who married Harry James..."

None of these versions of James would necessarily warrant publishing a major biography at century's end; but Peter J. Levinson, a longtime music publicist and first-time author, has produced one in Trumpet Blues. And in putting together all the Harry Jameses -- jazz player, big-band leader, celebrity husband (as well as promiscuous womanizer, unrecovered alcoholic and ruinous gambler) -- he's not only made James a much more interesting figure than might have been imagined, but written one of the most engrossing and compelling jazz biographies in many years.

As shown by Levinson (whose own professional acquaintance with his subject is woven discreetly and effectively throughout the book), Harry James was both "one of the most essential trumpeters and bandleaders in the history of American music," and a man who lived "a sad and misguided life."

Born to circus performer parents (his father was a bandmaster, his mother a trapeze artist and horse rider), Harry Haag James was reared as a prodigy and learned that performing well was the price of approval. By age 3, he was a featured drummer; by 9, he played trumpet; at 12, he was leading a band. Schooled by his father, a stern taskmaster, James studied the classic trumpet repertoire and developed the iron chops and bravura technique of a circus musician; but he also soaked up the jazz and blues of his native Texas and loved Louis Armstrong's playing. After a stint with the influential Ben Pollack Orchestra, and an early first marriage, James joined the wildly popular Benny Goodman band in 1936 at the startlingly early age of 20. He was an instant sensation, and the rest of his life was lived in the spotlight.

By 20, too, his bad habits were formed: heavy drinking, incessant gambling and compulsive promiscuity. In his decades of success, James found no reason to change, remaining (in the words of one of his band members) "a perpetual teenager as a man," someone who "served all his appetites and all his desires. He wasn't terribly concerned with other people." He wasn't terribly concerned with other people." Indeed, his dark sides had a tendency to eclipse his skill on the silver trumpets.

James' self-centered existence had its colorful aspects. A great sports fan, he was very serious about his band's baseball team and often hired band members as much for their athletic prowess as their musical abilities. A lover of Western movies, he eventually arranged to star in one (Outlaw Queen, 1957). And as a big-band leader for much of his life, he participated to an expected degree in the antics and merriment that punctuated the dullness of life on the road.

But antics aside, Harry James was aloof. "Harry never got close to people," one of his drummers said. "I don't think anybody really liked him." His first of three wives, singer Louise Tobin (one of the hundreds of subjects Levinson interviewed), spoke of James' "inhuman side," his "cold, icy stare" and his "absolute indifference to his own children."

Levinson traces the roots of James' stunted personality -- his "deeply ingrained loneliness and insecurity" -- to a childhood in which he received no proper nurturing: "It appears... he grew up not... knowing the meaning of love." From boyhood on, Levinson writes, "[James] needed an audience to feel alive, special, important, and loved. Without it, he believed he really wasn't worth very much." Lacking any real education, he "wouldn't allow people to get close to him -- they might find out he was a fraud." Only on the bandstand did James feel fulfilled and safe, according to singer Helen Forrest: "He was at peace and he knew he was loved, when he was playing the trumpet.... He knew nobody could hurt him." Another singer, Marion Morgan, thought that James "gave all his warmth and love through his trumpet. There just wasn't much left."

Levinson recounts James' life in straightforward prose, clearly and with a wealth of detail, against a vivid backdrop of the 1940s swing years and the postwar entertainment era of the 50s and 60s. A number of other famous folk necessarily do cameo turns: drummer Buddy Rich, Frank Sinatra, singers Dick Haymes and Helen Forrest, and bandleaders Phil Harris and Glenn Miller.

The good-looking, high-living James -- slickly packaged by record and movie people, quipped trumpeter Pete Candoli, "like a WASP Cesar Romero" -- thought his success ride would never end. Certainly his work never did. His poor gambling luck, which found him losing millions of his own dollars (plus some of Betty Grable's), kept him touring virtually to his dying day. (James said he didn't fear death: "It's just another road trip.")

Peter Levinson's book is sort of the antithesis of his subject's trumpet style: not flashy, not schmaltzy, not full of fireworks. But in its own solid way it swings. Trumpet Blues is the biographical equivalent of a well-produced LP, with not a single weak or wasted track.

Novelist Ross Macdonald once said in defense of biography: "The more we know about a man, the more in a way we can love him." Harry James may not emerge as loveable, even after this thorough and convincing depiction; but he does now seem interesting and understandable. I thank Peter Levinson for so capably and comprehensively telling me a story I never dreamed I'd want to hear. | January 2000

 

TOM NOLAN, a contributing editor of January Magazine, is also the author of Ross Macdonald: A Biography (Scribner).