Born on March 15, 1916 in Albany, Georgia, Harry James was the child of a circus performer. His father, a bandleader and trumpeter with the Mighty Haag Circus, was certainly James’ first source of inspiration. Here’s how he went from contortionist to jazz icon.
Who was Harry James?
Growing up in the circus, James became an artist himself at the age of four, when he began working as a contortionist.
He soon turned to music, however, first playing snare drum in the orchestra from the age of six.
At the age of 12, he took over the direction of the second Christy Brothers Circus orchestra, for which his family worked at the time.
He attended elementary school in Beaumont, Texas, where the circus spent the winter.
At the age of 14, he won a state music competition as a trumpet player. This happy event revealed his vocation to him. and he decided to leave the circus and study music at a music school in Beaumont.
James became interested in jazz as a teenager, playing trumpet with local groups like the Beaumont Elite Jazz Band and leading jam sessions.
Harry James’ career
Now a professional trumpeter, James began playing in local bands. In 1935, he was hired by Ben Pollack. He made his first recordings as a member of the Pollack Band in September 1936.
Shortly afterwards, he was approached by Benny Goodman, who was then leading one of the country’s most popular bands. James quickly made a name for himself in Goodman’s band, and in December 1937 began recording under his own name.
In early 1939, the trumpeter left Goodman and launched his own orchestra, which he premiered in Philadelphia in February. Harry James began a flourishing career as a trumpeter and bandleader.
In May 1939, James was hired by Glenn Miller to play trumpet in the Glenn Miller Orchestra for several weeks. James played with Benny Goodman, then left Goodman to form his own band.
He also played with Miles Davis and Stan Kenton before retiring in 1964. James composed many popular standards, including “What Kind of Fool Am I?” “Sing it, Sing it, Sing it” and “Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me”. James was inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame in 1978.
What were Harry James’s influences?
Harry James was surprisingly open to influences. His main influence was Louis Armstrong, whom he took as his musical model and source of inspiration.
But he also cut his teeth in Benny Goodman’s band, which he eventually left to form his own.
Stylistically, he was deeply swinging, but also remained open to bop, which by the late 1940s had overtaken swing in popularity.
Bear in mind that swing is an American genre, so it’s likely that James was exposed to jazz through Benny Goodman.
What impact has Harry James had on music?
Harry James was one of the most remarkable instrumentalists of the swing era. His bravura playing made his trumpet work instantly recognizable. This made him the third most popular artist of 1945, behind Bing Crosby and Sammy Kaye.
Above all, Harry James left a rich discography of famous hits such as:
- I’m Beginning to See the Light
- I Don’t Care Who Knows It;
- If I Loved You ;
- 11:60 P.M.
- Top 5 I’ll Buy That Dream It’s Been a Long, Long Time Waitin’ for the Train to Come In and more.
Harry James’ most popular albums
After Glenn Miller, Harry James was the most popular artist of 1942. In that year, seven of his recordings peaked in the Top 10:
- the Top 5 I Don’t Want to Walk Without You, with the voice of Helen Forrest ;
- the instrumental number one Sleepy Lagoon
- the Top 5 One Dozen Roses, with vocals by Jimmy Saunders;
- the Top 5 instrumental Strictly Instrumental
- He’s My Guy, the Top 5 Mister Five by Five and Manhattan Serenade with vocals by Helen Forrest.
His next hit, I Had the Craziest Dream, with Helen Forrest’s voice, appears in Springtime in the Rockies; it reaches number one in February 1943.
James performed regularly until the early ’80s. He was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer in 1983, but continued to play, making his last appearance just nine days before his death at 67.
He died on July 5, 1983 in Las Vegas.