802 Bookshelf: Trumpet Blues – The Life Of Harry James

by Peter J. Levinson, Oxford University Press, New York, 1999, 284 pp., hardcover, $30

Volume C, No. 11November, 2000

John Glasel

This biography traces the career of Harry James. Taught to play trumpet by his father, a Texas circus bandmaster, he started playing in circus bands, went on to join local “territory bands” and then to big band stardom, first with Benny Goodman’s band and later his own. Breaking attendance records, winning listener polls and garnering gold records, James achieved even more fame and fortune after his marriage to film superstar Betty Grable. He acted in several moving pictures and became an avid horse-racing fan, ultimately running his own thoroughbred stable.

When the band business began to slow after World War II James kept his band working, albeit with more one-nighters on the road. Always admired for his jazz talents, he put together a Count Basie-style ensemble with top side musicians. His romantic (some said “schmaltzy”) ballad style remained popular, and he could have ended his career in relative comfort. However, a host of compulsions – women, alcohol and gambling – destroyed his marriage, his fortune and, ultimately, his health.

“Trumpet Blues” tells us a lot about the entertainment business in 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. New Yorkers are reminded of times when “name” bands constantly appeared in hotel ballrooms and movie stage shows. The ins and outs of Hollywood’s studio politics are hinted at in descriptions of Betty Grable’s rise to stardom and Harry’s various film roles. We learn how Las Vegas, where James spent much of his later life, was musician-friendly when it was controlled by the mafia, but axed most lounge musicians upon being taken over by Corporate America (makes one wonder: which mob is better?).

Author Levinson, a publicist who worked with booking agencies in his earlier years, knew Harry James during last 24 years of his life and personally witnessed the gradual disintegration of that larger-than-life personage. Perhaps for that reason, the last section of the work has more emotional content than the descriptions of James’ earlier years, which too often seem flat and one-dimensional.

This book might have been improved if its author had collaborated with a professional writer. For example, after detours taken when lives of peripheral characters needed explanation, the reader is often left wondering what year the narrative returns to – a confusion that a competent wordsmith could easily avoid by inserting the occasional date.

Furthermore, although Mr. Levinson credits his wife and a couple of folks at the publisher’s office with editing, one wonders what they actually did. A local theatre makes its first appearance in the book as “Valley Forge Music Fair on Long Island,” an error corrected on the following page with a reference to Westbury Music Fair (under the same ownership as the Pennsylvania operation). Though Levinson knows (and explains later) that gold records are awarded on the basis of record sales, we read that “Harry James soon received a gold record for making an unprecedented six more appearances on [the radio program] Spotlight Bands within a two-month period.” Sloppy, sloppy! This book looks like the author never even proofread it! Perhaps because of these problems, your faithful scribe found it hard to stay with. The editorial board is hereby warned: this volunteer reviewer will insist on being paid if ever again asked to read such amateurish fare.

“Trumpet Blues” contains a wealth of material gleaned from a few books and nearly 200 interviews with musicians, friends and family members, all neatly referenced in end notes. Let’s hope that someday it becomes a source for a really well-written biography of Harry James. “Trumpet Blues” is available from Local 802’s library.