Harry James

Harry James - Conflicted between sweet and swing.

Harry James And His Orchestra – 1945 – Past Daily Downbeat

Harry James
Harry James – Conflicted between sweet and swing.

Harry James and his Orchestra – July 20, 1945 – Armed Forces Radio Service – Gordon Skene Sound Collection –

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Harry James during one of his many appearances at camps and hospitals during World War 2. Recorded at The Cushing General Hospital on July 20, 1945, this program was broadcast via Armed Forces Radio Service.

I was always wondering, where do you actually put Harry James in the grand scheme of Jazz history? Harry James was a remarkable and highly influential Trumpet player, who had a technique emulated by many during the Big Band era. He won high praise from colleagues and press during the 1930s when he was with Benny Goodman and when he initially formed his own band. But that changed when strings were added and the arrangements became sweeter. Trying to grab the mainstream (i.e. Pop) audience, he became a huge commercial success, but at the cost of many fans who felt he had sold out in order to make a living.

Well, you gotta do what you gotta do, and listening to this show you can hear aspects of sweet arrangements that helped put him over the top as far as popularity was concerned. But Harry James wasn’t the only one to use strings in a big band setting. Artie Shaw used strings (and harpsichords and everything else) and it only added to his popularity.

After coasting through the mid-1950s, James made a complete reevaluation of where he was heading in his musical career. Count Basie provided the impetus by making a significant comeback with his newly formed “16 Men Swinging” band, and James wanted a band with a decided Basie flavor. James signed with Capitol Records in 1955, and two years later, after releasing new studio versions of many of his previously released songs from Columbia, James recorded ten new tracks for an album entitled Wild About Harry!. This album was the first in a series released on Capitol, and continuing later on MGM, representative of the Basie style that James adopted during this period, with some of the arrangements provided by former Basie saxophonist and arranger Ernie Wilkins, whom James hired for his own band.

While James never completely regained favor with jazz critics during his lifetime in spite of his return to more jazz-oriented releases in the late 1950s and into the 1960s, contemporary opinion of his work has shifted. Recent reissues such as Capitol’s 2012 7-disc set The Capitol Vaults Jazz Series: Gene Krupa and Harry James have prompted new, more favorable analyses. In 2014, Marc Myers of JazzWax commented, “[James’s] band of the mid-1940s was more modern than most of the majors, and in 1949 he led one of the finest bands of the year.” And on James’s releases from 1958–1961, Myers noted, “The James band during this period has been eclipsed by bands led by Basie, Maynard Ferguson and Stan Kenton. While each served up its own brand of magnificence, James produced more consistently brilliant tracks than the others… virtually everything James recorded during this period was an uncompromising, swinging gem.”

James felt strongly about the music he both played and recorded. In 1972 while in London, he did an interview with the English jazz critic Steve Voce, who asked if the biggest audience was for the commercial numbers he had recorded. James visibly bristled, replying “That would depend on for whom you are playing. If you’re playing for a jazz audience, I’m pretty sure that some of the jazz things we do would be a lot more popular than ‘Sleepy Lagoon,’ and if we’re playing at a country club or playing Vegas, in which we have many, many types of people, then I’m sure that ‘Sleepy Lagoon’ would be more popular at that particular time. But I really get bugged about these people talking about commercial tunes, because to me, if you’re gonna be commercial, you’re gonna stand on your head and make funny noises and do idiotic things. I don’t think we’ve ever recorded or played one tune that I didn’t particularly love to play. Otherwise, I wouldn’t play it.”

So pull up a chair and relax for the next half-hour, Harry James has it under control.

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