The Life of Harry James
By Peter J. Levinson
Oxford, 384 pages, $30
IN HIS OWN WORDS
By Louis Armstrong
Edited by Thomas Brothers
Oxford, 288 pages, $25
Reviewed by Don Rose
[This review appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times, November 7, 1999.]
Harry James had it all, right in the palm of his hand. A trumpet virtuoso, inspired by Louis Armstrong, he becomes one of his era's great jazzmen—when he concentrates on pure jazz. In the mid-'40s he leads the nation's top dance band and becomes a movie star. His records hit the charts more often than the Rolling Stones would do three decades later. What's more, the guy marries America's favorite Hollywood star, pin-up girl Betty Grable. For a while they are the nation's highest paid couple. The American dream—meat for a Hollywood musical right there.
Naturally, there was the dark side. James was a compulsive womanizer and chronic alcoholic—though it never interfered with his playing until his body gave out 35 years beyond his peak. But what kind of fool has to go skirt-chasing with Betty Grable at home? Okay she played around a lot, too; but he was satyristic. Both were gambling addicts—something we don't hear much about in this era of recreational chemicals. They blew $24 million on the ponies and gaming tables. Both died almost broke.
Worse yet, James was a wife beater. Imagine slugging Betty Grable! That's what ultimately caused their divorce in 1965—though they remained close until her death in 19733with James owing her a million bucks.
Peter J. Levinson doggedly assembled this anecdotal biography from clippings and scores of interviews plus his own first-hand experience as a band publicist and management aide. His uneven writing too often lapses into the adoring language of the press release or Las Vegas emcee, but he does pause for a lengthy spate of elementary psychological analysis, blaming James' introversion and other problems on the probability of his being an abused child.
Everette James, a band-master for traveling circuses, taught his son music and immersed him very early in circus life. Clearly, he was a very tough taskmaster and may, indeed, have been seriously abusive.
By age nine Harry was not only an accomplished trumpeter but a drummer and, of all things, a contortionist known as "the human eel." A few years later he was the star trumpeter of Benny Goodman's band. From there it was on to his own band—financially underwritten by Goodman on Draconian terms. For a couple of years the James band struggled at the brink of financial ruin—then came a miracle string of hits, most featuring vocalists such as Frank Sinatra, Dick Haymes and Helen Forrest.
Ironically, the rise of the big-name singer crushed the big-band era even before rock and roll killed it. James's star dimmed, as did Grable's, but he always maintained a fine band. He tried bebop, which didn't work for him as it did for Woody Herman, so returned to Basie-style swing from the mid-'50s on. He played his old hits, but fought perpetually against becoming a mere nostalgia act, even during the dreadful last years working Vegas, where he died in 1983, age 67. Great story—less than great biography.
Armstrong, who invented the jazz solo, jazz singing and the rhythmic concept of swing, inspired not only James but generations of other musicians—not just trumpet players. Like James, he had popular, crossover hits, but unlike James he remained primarily a jazz player. His ingratiating stage style was seen by some critics as the grinning, pandering of an Uncle Tom; to others it was a sardonic mask. The writings collected here, however, reveal complex, painful views on race, including critical attitudes toward fellow African Americans that border on self-hatred.
Few people give much thought to Armstrong's writings, though he published a surprising amount for an early jazzman, including two autobiographies and numerous articles. The words in those books and articles were his own, though heavily edited to gloss over his idiosyncratic writing style, with its oddball system of capitalization and underlining, the sentences eccentrically broken up by ellipses, long dashes and miscellaneous punctuation marks. Some were strongly edited for content, such as his passionate but humorous defense of marijuana, his sometimes too graphic obsession with laxatives and, of course, his critical generalizations about blacks.
Most of the works collected here are unpublished and unedited manuscripts, including some revealing autobiographical pieces and several fascinating letters— along with a few previously published articles.
The most remarkable is an unpublished 30-page memoir "Louis Armstrong + The Jewish Family," written from a hospital bed in 1969 when Armstrong was recovering from a near-fatal illness. It tells of the year he worked for and was mentored by the Karnofsky family in a New Orleans ghetto where Jews were almost as badly segregated and shunned as blacks. He frequently expresses his admiration and respect for Jewish people and their fight against oppression, usually making negative comparisons to Negroes (the accepted word then).
"I will always remember how the Jewish people living in the Negro neighborhood Advanced and did so much ....Boy—if the Negroes could stick together half that much. Hmmm look where we would be today. But I doubt that it would ever happen. Too much Malice and Hate Among us....We just ain't ready yet. And never will be."
He remains, however, fully cognizant of and continually angered by the plague of racism and discrimination. He contends, for example, that there were many better piano players than Jelly Roll Morton, but the Creole Morton rose to prominence because of his light skin. Armstrong later stunned the nation by criticizing President Dwight Eisenhower for having "no guts" and going too slowly in integrating the schools in Little Rock, Arkansas.
It's an intriguing assemblage of material for both its social-historical content as well as the author's usually generous but sometimes surprising musical views. Brothers's extensive annotations are highly enlightening if a bit academic.