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Trumpet Blues: The Life of Harry James 1st Edition

28 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0195142396
ISBN-10: 019514239X
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

An engrossing, swinging biography of a jazz icon, this book traces the life of Harry James, a trumpeter and bandleader who played in Benny Goodman's Orchestra in the '30s, and who led the country's most popular big band during World War II. Levinson, a jazz publicist who knew James from 1959 until the latter's death in 1983, presents the life of the flashy trumpeter as one of fame, fortune and eventual self-destruction. Born in Georgia in 1916 and raised in Texas, James had an insecure, peripatetic childhood. His mother was a trapeze artist and his father a circus bandleader, and James played in the circus band. Taking Louis Armstrong as his musical role model, James, who was white, was recruited to play in Benny Goodman's band, then left to form his own hugely acclaimed band, marrying film star Betty Grable and acting in movies himself. Over the next two decades, his star waned, but he staged a comeback of sorts in the late '50s, playing in Nevada casinos and continuing fitfully to reinvent his band throughout the next two decades. James's three marriages were ruined by addiction to alcohol, sex and gambling. Grable divorced him in 1965 following a 22-year marriage marked by his constant infidelities, neglect of their two daughters and, according to Levinson, by violent abuse. While many jazz critics dismiss James's romantic bluesy style and wide vibrato as schmaltzy and sentimental, Levinson disagrees. This robust biography offers a heady plunge into the swing era and a vivid portrait of a daring and inventive artist. Photos. (Oct.) FYI: A companion CD from Capitol Jazz, annotated by Levinson, features 16 of James's hit songs.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Kirkus Reviews

Leading jazz publicist Levinson makes his literary debut with this biography of the late bandleader, who in the '30s and '40s established himself as a rival to Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey, among others. Jamess early years were particularly formative, as he was born to parents who devoted much of their lives to performing for the circus. ``Young Harry first met his public at the age of 11 days, when his parents introduced him to the circus audience,'' Levinson writes. With his look at the life of circus entertainers in the early part of the century, Levinson hooks the reader immediately. He makes Jamess progression from childhood circus performer to budding musician at age 12 when he was ``the youngest circus bandleader in the world''a seamless evolution. By the early 1930s, when James was struggling to succeed as a trumpet player, the reader has a strong sense of his musical growth. It wasn't until December 1936, when Goodmanwho would stay friends with James throughout their lifetimes, despite their competition for bookingsinvited him to join his band, that the trumpeter became a star. Levinson captures the era well, citing the impact of WWII on popular music, telling stories of the biggest stars of the time (including Goodman, Dorsey, Jamess hero Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton, and Frank Sinatra, whom James helped discover by giving the ``kid'' his first recording gig) and the bigotry integrated big bands faced on the road. To his credit, Levinson, while hardly ignoring James's legendary womanizing, gambling, and drinking, as well as his lengthy marriage to pinup queen Betty Grableultimately victimized by all of James's vicesavoids turning the bandleaders life into a melodramatic soap opera. Instead, he concentrates on the music. Impressive, and a fascinating read not only for fans of jazz, but for students of 20th-century history, Hollywood, and the music business. -- Copyright ©1999, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Series: Life of Harry James
  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; 1st edition (May 24, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 019514239X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195142396
  • Product Dimensions: 8.9 x 1 x 6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (28 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,829,802 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

25 of 26 people found the following review helpful By P.J. Capelotti on April 28, 2000
Format: Hardcover
I met Harry in 1974, when I was 14, in between sets at the South Shore Music Circus. He had two trumpet cases, one for his horns and another for something clear he was drinking. As a young trumpet player, he was my idol, and musically still is. The accompanying CD to this bio has some terrific releases on it, but would have been even better had they included "Countin," "One on the House," "Blues for Harry's Sake," and "Bangtail," the key charts from his great comeback band.
As much as I always wanted to read an account of his life, however, I'm almost sorry I did. Now I know what the clear liquid was, and how badly it tormented the greatest trumpet player ever. The book is interesting, but we still need an account of Harry's super-human technique. What bore did he use on his King, and how did that bore, which I've heard was the largest they ever constructed, mesh with the tiny Parduba mouthpiece. What mouthpiece did he learn on when he was building his chops on circus music, the hardest music in the world?
And how on earth did he ever manage to perform at such a high level for 45 years with his lifestyle, is unanswered here. Playing at his level after a fifth of bourbon just doesn't seem credible, although if he could drink Phil Harris under the table maybe it was. There is likewise no evidence presented to justify the physical abuse charge levelled against Everette, save for the rapped on the knuckles vignette Harry told to Merv Griffin. There are other munched nuances as well: Harry is placed at Reagan's second inaugural, even though he would have been dead for a year and a half then. It would have been interesting to hear more from FS, Jr., as well. Artie Shaw had it right in this jacket blurb: this is a horribly depressing story. Harry, when I finished it, I cried for you.
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20 of 20 people found the following review helpful By Richard Boverie on March 3, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Harry James was a titan of the trumpet and Big Bands. We have sorely needed a biography, and I think that this first biography is absolutely superb. Harry James has always been my #1 favorite. "Trumpet Blues" confirms for me James' extraordinary musical contributions but also fleshes out his story with a rich, full treatment of the realities - both good and bad - of his professional and personal lives. Included are excellent materials on his grand musical history, his first wife, the appealing singer Louise Tobin, and his second wife, the marvelous Betty Grable. I came away from the book with a much different and far more realistic vision of Harry James than I had going in - that he indeed was a musical giant (he is still my #1 favorite) but that he also was a human being with his share of personal flaws and imperfections to go with his fine qualities. I am glad that "Trumpet Blues" is here and that I read it.
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32 of 35 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on November 16, 1999
Format: Hardcover
At last a biography that reads like a novel. From the first page this book pulls in the reader. I relived an era that took place long before my birth. Harry James is a musical legend hard to capture in written word. Levinson did just that. After a tearful farewell to Harry I watched "Springtime in the Rockies".
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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Dick Bobnick on March 21, 2004
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I originally bought this book when it came out in 1999 and actually spoke with Mr. Peter Levinson putting him on to several contacts when the book was in preparation. I have not chosen to send in my review until now after having reread the book several times.
Harry James was a phenomenon in the music world: a musician who reached the pinnacle of success in record sales, popularity with the masses, stardom in the glory days of Hollywood musicals and longevity in the big band arena long after the hay days of the big bands. He was a child prodigy, mastering his instrument, the trumpet, at a very early age of fourteen. In two years he was on the road with territory bands and at twenty he was leading the top big band trumpet section in the country with the Benny Goodman band. When he formed his own band at twenty three he already had a body of recorded jazz work equal to all the trumpet giants of his era. He had the blues soul of a Louis Armstrong, Mugsy Spanier and Bix Beiderbecke but because he reached real commercial stardom based on commercial ballads, and, he was WHITE, many of the so called jazz critics of the day demeaned his jazz work and dismissed all his later work. If one traverses the jazz shelves of the local libraries one will be hard pressed to find many references to Harry James listed among the elite jazz icons in any number of jazz histories as reviewed by current so-called jazz critics. These wet behind the ears critics continue to believe you have to be BLACK to have any credibility in jazz. Similarly, one does not see the name of Stan Kenton or Artie Shaw mentioned as much or ever as one sees the names of Basie, Fletcher Henderson or Chick Webb.
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20 of 21 people found the following review helpful By Terry K. Strand on January 28, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Having been a trumpet player and Harry James fan for many years, I was delighted to read Trumpet Blues. It was a sorely needed account of a fabulous technician and musician. A great book, very complete, though I yearned for a little more in the way of comments regarding Harry's technical approach. There is a nice treatment of Harry's sweet balladry which drew criticism from the jazz quarter. Because Harry could sell records by making his trumpet almost speak, as in 'If I Loved You' and 'Sleepy Lagoon' he was thought to be 'too commercial'. What the critics failed to note, or to even hear, was the emotion in the horn. 'Mona Lisa' was no less a work than his swing and jazz playing. His high 'e' entrance in 'If I Loved You' was astonishing. Pick up this book if you are a trumpet player or a music buff. Well done!
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