Trumpet Blues:
The Life of Harry James

by Peter J. Levinson

Reviewed by Phillip D. Atteberry

This material is copyrighted and was originally published in The Mississippi Rag.

Oxford University Press, 1999. $30.00

Trumpet Blues is an appropriate title for this book because it aptly describes both Harry Jamesí music and his troubled, tumultuous life. Peter Levinson's revelations about Jamesí alcoholism, gambling and womanizing will sadden many of the great trumpeterís fans, and yet I would strongly recommend the book. For all of its dark, personal detail, this is a lively read. As a trumpeter, Jamesí musical style and technique are insightfully discussed. As a bandleader, his recordings as well as his choice of musicians and repertoire are thoroughly examined. Levinsonís purpose in writing this book is to help "reassess the musical contributions of Harry James and rightfully place him as one of the most essential trumpeters and bandleaders in the history American music." That purpose is fully achieved

Levinson spends considerable time discussing James' childhood, his circus upbringing, his early experiences with the trumpet, and the influence of his father as a teacher and mentor. He makes a compelling case that the seeds of Harry Jamesí difficulties as an adult were thoroughly sewn in his childhood.

The chapter on Harry James' years with Benny Goodman leans heavily on the impressions of fellow musicians Jess Stacy, Chris Griffin and Jimmy Maxwell, though numerous other Goodman alumni are referenced. Happily, much of the discussion centers upon James' early trumpet style and recording accomplishments.

In discussing James' early days as a bandleader, Levinson draws extensively on the memories of singer Louise Tobin, James' first wife. Ms. Tobin has never before been thoroughly interviewed about her life with Harry James, and her recollections are insightful.

James becomes especially difficult to assess during the 1940's, his years of peak popularity. His combination of sweetness and swing created plenty of musical heartburn. Many who admired his jazz work could never forgive "You Made Me Love You" and "Sleepy Lagoon." The jazz charts, conversely, put off many who admired the sweet ballads. As is so often the case with artistic innovators, few among the critics were completely satisfied.

James' marriage to Betty Grable, moreover, created a public relations ambiguity, giving James access to the dizzying world of Hollywood royalty without removing him from the rough and tumble byways of the traveling bandleader. As a result, he was regarded with some suspicion in both worlds. It is a credit to Levinson's truthfulness and energy that he provides us with such a variety of assessments of Harry James from so many people who knew him. Though it is difficult to generalize about such diverse impressions, it is clear that the singers and musicians who worked most closely with James view him in the most positive and sympathetic terms

Trumpet Blues presents an interesting contrast to Gene Lees' recent biography of Woody Herman, The Leader of the Band (reviewed in The Mississippi Rag, January 1996). Lees devotes a lot of space to defending his subject's character; Levinson, by contrast, does not. Lees' biography is good because it gives us such a fully textured portrait of the big band era and contains so many interesting sketches of the people who crossed Woody Herman's path. It does not, however, provide us with a very objective picture of Herman himself. Trumpet Blues does not provide as fully detailed picture of the era but does deliver a more objective, multi-dimensional portrait of the central subject.

Ultimately, however, good biographies transcend their subjects and address larger issues of the human spirit, explaining not only why a person is important but how--and at what cost--that importance was achieved. People with extraordinary talents--like Harry James--often lead difficult lives. They suffer abbreviated childhoods, are frequently exploited and are prey to both public deification and rejection. No wonder most of them never come close to reaching their potential. When one does, like Harry James, it is worth examining why. The central interest in this book is not the revelation of Harry Jamesí prodigious character flaws but that he managed such remarkable achievements in spite of them. That is why I disagree with those who feel too much of this book is devoted to unseemly personal detail. Without it, we could not fully appreciate Harry Jamesí achievements and what they cost him.