Harry James - trumpet; William Hicks - trumpet; Gino Bozzacco - trumpet; Nick Buono - trumpet; Corky Corcoran - tenor sax; Quinn Davis - alto saxophone; Mel Kunkle - saxophone; Bob Lawson - saxophone; Joe Cook - baritone saxophone; Chuck Anderson - trombone; Alan Kaplan - trombone; Tom Padveen - trombone; Chuck Peterson - trombone; Houston Peterson - bass trombone; Sid Horowitz - piano; Dave Stone - bass; Les DeMerle - drums; Special guest: Jeannie Thomas - vocals
A bona fide trumpet star from the '30s who became one of the most popular bandleaders of the early '40s, Harry James was known for his high-note bravura, impeccable intonation and daring improvisational instincts. For his second Newport Jazz Festival appearance, he thrilled Swing music fans with a retrospective of his biggest hit songs while showing that he was still very much on top of his game at age 67.
Following an introduction from impresario George Wein, James strolled onto the Carnegie Hall stage to the strains of his waltz-time theme song, "Ciribiribin," an old Italian ballad that he converted into a Swing-era hit in 1939 with vocals by Frank Sinatra. Following that schmaltzy overture, James and his orchestra (the same outfit that appeared on 1976's The King James Version) get down to the business of swinging with a streamlined rendition of "Don't Be That Way," a tune that he had played in Carnegie Hall nearly 40 years earlier when he was the star soloist with the Benny Goodman Orchestra. James' swaggering trumpet solo here, full of bold tones and high-note flurries, shows his unwavering confidence and old-school showmanship. Next up, James and his crew dig into the earthy "Blues Stay Away," with the trumpeter once again flaunting his chops and bravado. Then they come out swinging hard with a dynamic version of "Opus One," a big hit for the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra back in 1944. There immediately follows a rather funky arrangement of the Duke Ellington-Juan Tizol tune "Caravan," with drummer Les DeMerle laying down a big, syncopated backbeat for James and his longtime lead tenor saxophonist Corky Corcoran to wail over with fiery abandon. DeMerle is also turned loose here for a raucous drum solo midway through this ambitious, contemporary arrangement of this bit of Ellingtonia from 1937. James then introduces vocalist Jeannie Thomas, who delivers a dynamic reading of Duke's "Don't Get Around Much Anymore."
Jumping genres (and decades), the orchestra seques from Duke to Creedence Clearwater Revival for a spirited reading of "Proud Mary," with Thomas providing sassy vocals on top of the James juggernaut. After Thomas leaves the stage to a rousing applause, the orchestra tackles Thad Jones' "More Splutie, Please," which indulges the bandleader in his love of playing the blues. James turns in a flamboyant solo and is followed by some sizzling trombone solos from Alan Kaplan and Chuck Anderson. Drummer DeMerle is next featured on an extended solo in the middle of "Apples" that places him firmly in the ranks of such previous Harry James Orchestra drumming greats as Buddy Rich, Louie Bellson and Sonny Payne. Singer Thomas returns to join the band on a medley of six songs that were hits for the Harry James Orchestra during the Swing era, including "I Had The Craziest Dream," "You Made Me Love You," "I Cried For You," "It's Been A Long, Long Time" (a tune introduced by Bing Crosby with Les Paul on guitar), "I Don't Want To Walk Without You, Baby" and "I've Heard That Song Before."
They close it out in exuberant fashion with a medley of Count Basie's infectious "Two O'Clock Jump," underscored by DeMerle's flurry on the kit, which segues into a swinging Dixieland-styled rendition of the Tin Pan Alley nugget, "The Sheik of Araby," which was covered by everyone from Django Reinhardt to Spike Jones, Fats Waller to Fats Domino, Leon Redbone, Jimmy Buffet and Harry Connick, Jr.
Born Henry Haag James on March 15, 1916 in Albany, Georgia, he began taking trumpet lessons from his trumpet-playing father at age 10. In 1931, the family relocated to Beaumont, Texas, where a teenaged James began playing with local dance bands. In 1935, he got his first big break with the Ben Pollack Orchestra and in 1937 left to join the Benny Goodman Orchestra, where he became a high-note solo star. James formed his own big band in 1939 and had a hit in 1941 with his sweet instrumental rendition of "You Made Me Love You," a tune introduced 24 years earlier by Al Jolson and later popularized by Judy Garland in a 1937 recording. In 1939, James hired a then-unknown singer from Hoboken, New Jersey named Frank Sinatra (who was lured away later that year by rival bandleader Tommy Dorsey). One of James' later bands included the sensational young drummer Buddy Rich. The trumpeter appeared in several movies during the height of his popularity in the '40s and in the 1950 film Young Man with a Horn, based on the life of trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke, he played the trumpet parts dubbed by the film's star Kirk Douglas.
James remained a relentless road warrior for the next 40 years, playing and touring well into his 60s. His last recordings came in the '70s - 1972's Mr. Trumpet and 1976's live Comin' from a Good Place. In 1983, he was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer but continued to work, playing his last professional job on June 26, 1983, just nine days before his death. Frank Sinatra gave the eulogy at his funeral in Las Vegas. The Harry James Orchestra continues touring to this day under the direction of veteran trumpter Fred Radke. (Milkowski)