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Sunday, October 16, 2016

Harry James

This year marks the centennial of the birth of Harry James, one of America's great trumpeters and a popular band leader during the swing era of the 1940s. I happen to have a certain affection for the big band sound, even though I was born well after it was not popular any more. Listening to a two-disc CD of James' best music is pure bliss.

James first worked for Benny Goodman and then started his own band. Until Miles Davis came along, we was probably America's most famous trumpeter--his sound is so pure and smooth that, as Linda Richman would say, it's like butter. What he does with "You Made Me Love You" is three minutes of heaven.

As a bandleader, he discovered Frank Sinatra (he wanted him to change his name to Frankie Satin, but no dice). Sinatra went on to work for Tommy Dorsey, and he does not appear on this CD. But Helen Forrest does, who was James' main female singer. She sings "I've Heard That Song Before," among others. It should be noted that Woody Allen fans will immediately conjure up Hannah and Her Two Sisters, because he used James music throughout.

James was also famous for marrying Betty Grable in 1943, who was the most prominent pin-up girl of World War II. James played trumpet on the soundtrack for the Kirk Douglas film Young Man With a Horn.

Of course, being a great bandleader meant finding the right musicians, and listening to these recordings you can't detect a false note. Buddy Rich, one of the world's greatest drummers, worked with James, and he's heard to best effect on a number called "Blues for Harry's Sake."

If I had been a kid during this era (and big bands were the music of teenagers back then) I would have wanted to play the trumpet like James and discovered that I was lousy at it. Though Davis revolutionized the instrument, I can't say that anyone played it better than Harry James.

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