The group dynamics of a big band were such that one musician could have an oversize impact on a group’s sound and spirit. Benny Goodman was already leading the hottest band in the country when Harry James joined, but the fiery former circus trumpeter spurred the orchestra to an even higher level of swinging excitement. With James on board, the Goodman band reached its peak of popularity with screaming teenagers crowding the bandstand and dancing in the aisles. This edition of his band was the one Goodman called his favorite.
This week on SDPB Radio’s Big Band Spotlight, we’re featuring a handful of Harry James’ classic performances during his two year tenure with the King of Swing.
Harry James was born in Georgia in 1916. His father was a formidable trumpeter and the bandmaster of the Mighty Haag Circus, a show that toured the south and southeast. His mother was an aerialist who, according to legend, was still performing on the trapeze a month before Harry was born. His first took up the drums before beginning trumpet studies with his father at the age of eight. A year later he was working in his father’s band and by the time he was twelve he was leading circus bands himself. His early experience playing circus marches gave him an iron lip, dynamic range and a remarkable, virtuosic technique.
James was playing with veteran drummer Ben Pollack’s band when Benny Goodman recruited him. (Pollack was the same bandleader who helped give Goodman his start a decade earlier.) He made his debut with Goodman just after Christmas 1936 and it didn’t take long for his presence to electrify the band. Lionel Hampton, who played in the Goodman Quartet and occasionally filled in on drums with the full band, noticed how the young trumpeter changed the sound of the band. “When Harry came he enthused the [trumpet] section and gave it some real style,” he told James biographer Peter J. Levinson. “The band didn’t have that fire and expression ’til he come along.”
But we need to be careful not to give all of the credit for the Goodman’s band’s energy and spirit to James. Gene Krupa’s exuberant drumming was the band’s engine; James just increased the horsepower.
James also wasn’t the only great trumpeter in the band. He shared the section with another fiery soloist, Ziggy Elman, as well as the versatile Chris Griffin. Together the three formed what was called a “powerhouse trio.” Griffin remembered Duke Ellington calling them the greatest trumpet section that ever was. Glenn Miller said the section was “the Marvel of the Age.” While it was customary in most big bands for one trumpeter to play lead and the others second and third, James, Elman and Griffin traded parts since each of them could read and play jazz solos. Plus they had to switch things around so they wouldn’t blow their lips out playing all the high notes in the lead parts.
Although Benny Goodman had been leading a band for over two years when Harry James joined, the young trumpeter’s arrival coincided with his orchestra’s peak of popularity. In March of that year, the Goodman band had a two-week engagement at the Paramount Theater on Times Square. No one was expecting anything special, but when the band showed up for rehearsal the morning of opening day, Goodman’s musicians were surprised to see hundreds of mostly young high school students lining up at the box office.
The Paramount had a rising bandstand and as the Goodman orchestra came into view playing its theme “Let’s Dance,” fans jumped to their feet and screamed. Some scurried into the aisles to dance and others crowded around the bandstand. Goodman had to tell his enthusiastic fans to quiet down so the band could play. It was a scene repeated wherever the band went throughout the country as the year went on.
Some seventy-five years later with all the changes in music that have occurred, it might be difficult to understand what all the fuss was about. Like so much pop music over the subsequent decades, the Goodman band’s music was energetic and danceable. At the heart of it all was a driving beat, powered by Gene Krupa’s spirited drumming. And the band was loud with Harry James’ fiery trumpet solos serving the same role played by electric guitarists in the hard rock bands to come.
The biggest triumph for this edition of the Goodman Orchestra came in January of 1938 with a legendary concert at Carnegie Hall. But it also turned out to be something of a last hurrah. Gene Krupa and Goodman weren’t getting along and a month later the drummer quit the band following a date in Philadelphia.
According to band pianist Jess Stacy, the conflict between the two grew as Krupa emerged as the band’s big star and showman. Krupa and Harry James were crowd- pleasers while Goodman was more aloof and believed that playing a great solo should be enough to satisfy audiences. It was legendary record producer and erstwhile Goodman advisor John Hammond’s belief that the split was over the music Krupa’s exhibitionistic showmanship was forcing the band to play. Goodman was frustrated that the public seemed to want noise and crazy antics instead of good music.
Although the core of musicians who played with Goodman at Carnegie Hall still remained at the end of the year, it didn’t really sound like the same band anymore. Its music was slipping and fans were turning to the other swing bands that had formed in the wake of Goodman’s great success. Harry James was now a big star and making plans to start his own big band.
James played his last radio broadcast with the Goodman band on January 10th, 1939. Jess Stacy said that when the trumpeter left, Goodman would never admit it, but the guys knew something was wrong and the band was never the same. Goodman went into a slump, but he brought in new musicians and arrangers, revamped his style and by 1941 had what I would argue was his greatest band.
James faced struggles of his own after leaving Goodman and forming his own orchestra. He had some lean years, but by 1943 was leading the most popular band in the country. But his tremendous popularity wasn’t built on his fiery jazz trumpet, but on romantic ballads capturing the spirit of the World War Two years.
Here’s the classic Benny Goodman Orchestra in a clip filmed for the movie Hollywood Hotel in the summer of 1937. It features a pair of short solos from Harry James, a little bit of Gene Krupa and the Goodman quartet. (Ignore the fourth trumpeter. That’s Johnny “Scat” Davis who starred in the film but doesn’t actually play with the band.)