My wife was just reading aloud from an article in the L.A. Times about the Bert Lahr Estate going for a cool $28.5 million. Beside the fact that I can’t figure out how an old vaudevillian could afford to have an estate in 1941 (he couldn’t have made that much money off of Wizard of Oz in those days, could he?), the place was also owned by Betty Grable and Harry James. I don’t know how long the two lived there, but I was dying to see what kind of life a jazz trumpeter could have during the swing era. In fact, even though his wife was a screen idol, he might have raked in more dough…those swing stars made money by the truck load back then.
So I took thirty seconds and found the address, and it’s worth taking a look on Google maps satellite view. The pad (hey, it may be enormous but it’s still a jazz player’s pad) has probably been expanded somewhat since then, maybe not all the outbuildings were there in the 1940’s. Still…there isn’t a trumpet player alive today that makes that kind of money. Not Wynton. Not Chuck Mangione. Not even Chris Botti. It’s not even imaginable.
Harry James and Betty Grable, 1943.
When Dizzy started blowing be bop trumpet in the 1940’s he set the template for what a jazz trumpeter is. All the players before him were suddenly old hat. Kind of hokey, maybe, or just commercial. Harry James’ huge hit You Made Me Love You? Some beautiful trumpet but awfully corny with its bah-dah-dah-dah-dah-da-da. You hear that now and those guys were certainly not jazz players, not real jazz players. That’s how we think now. Roy Eldridge gets the nod, maybe because you can hear the influence on Dizzy in his raging solos. And Duke Ellington’s trumpet men–Cat Anderson and Cootie Williams especially–are still talked about with respect. I saw a list of the great trumpeters that listed Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, Bix Beiderbecke and Roy Eldridge for all the pre-bop players. That was it. There was a whole generation of jazz where trumpet was king and only four made it onto that list. Certainly no Harry James, who while no Satchmo was king of the white trumpet players and could play really play his ass off on hot numbers. And how many trumpeters today would cite King Oliver or Bix as an inspiration? I just heard a bunch of young white players at the Blue Whale dissing Bix. Bix was a waste of their time. He probably is. His stuff is ancient, primitive. You play like Bix you get laughed off the bandstand. But even Louis Armstrong doesn’t get a lot of respect, not as much as you’d think. That stuff is just too old, too simple, to easy for people to understand. Not deep enough. Not macho enough. But Dizzy, Clifford Brown, Miles…those were the players. And they were. All those swing guys, they don’t count. Jazz trumpeters played hot way back then. Or played the blues. Or played pretty. Pretty? Trumpeters played for the ladies then. Always a song or three you could dance to. That’s the way it was. The be boppers wouldn’t be caught dead playing for the ladies. Playing a tune you could dance to. Even playing a blues without a hint of irony. Be bop was smart stuff, vastly intellectual, macho as hell. And if people didn’t dig it, fuck ’em (to quote an old be bopper I knew). It’s the same now but even more out there, more intellectual. Not long ago I commended a young trumpeter on this killer set of originals I’d once seen him do a couple years before, pure hard bop, memorable tunes. The crowd loved it. He gave me a withering glance. That stuff was tacky, he said, I’m beyond that now.
And that’s the way it is anymore. Everything began with Dizzy. People will say nice things about Roy Eldridge, but the revolution began with Dizzy. It sounds like I’m bitching about it, but I’m not. Just stating facts. That’s just the way it is. The bebop generation buried that generation stone dead. Maybe not in real life–those old cats kept working, Harry James, Buck Clayton, Yank Lawson, a lot of them–but in terms of jazz history they’re relegated to a footnote, if that. Well, Louis Armstrong gets an opening chapter, but all those swing players, especially the white players, get the footnote. Their legacies are dead, most of them. I’ve never heard anyone ask Gerald Wilson a question about trumpet playing. That’s what he used to do, mostly, play trumpet, before forming his own brilliant orchestra. He arranged plenty but he was always up there on the stand blowing trumpet. He’s nearing the century mark now and would have known all the great swing trumpeters. He could talk about all the original trumpet players. Could talk your ear off. But they don’t matter, those guys. They blew and blew and were household names, some of them, but we scarcely remember those names now. So we ask Gerald questions about arranging for Duke Ellington. That still has validity. And we ask him about Dizzy Gillespie and Miles.
Of course Dizzy didn’t live in a pad like Harry James. Not even Miles Davis lived in a pad like Harry James. The last time a trumpeter lived in a pad like Harry James was, well, Harry James. The King of the Swing trumpeters. Trumpeters ruled the land back then. They were the heroes. They were rock stars. Sold millions of records. Appeared in movies (in fact, that’s Harry James ghosting for Kirk Douglas in Young Man With A Horn.) They were the coolest of the cool. You blew a high, sweet note in those days and Betty Grable leaped into your bed.
They don’t do that now, the big time actresses with the million dollar legs. Not for trumpeters. For movie stars and millionaires and rock stars and basketball players, yes. But if you blow the trumpet, well….
(Above photo and caption from the terrific jazz gallery Stolen Moments: A Pictorial Essay of the Greatest Jazz Giants of our Times.)