Al Hirt is a favorite son of his native New Orleans, the town that gave America Dixieland Jazz. Known for years as the “Round Mound of Sound,” the genial Hirt is the most popular working Dixieland musician in the country. His original fusion of jazz and rock elements helped to bring the music of New Orleans to the attention of a new generation in the 1960s; since then he and his trumpet have been closely associated with both the city and its signature sound.
Alois Maxwell Hirt was born in New Orleans late in 1922. The son of a police officer, he acquired his first trumpet from a pawnshop when he was six years old. He quickly mastered the instrument and became something of a prodigy with it, so much so that he headed the Sons of the Police Department Junior Police Band before he hit his teens. Hirt’s first professional job came in 1939, when he was hired to call horses to the post at the Louisiana Fairgrounds. The weekly salary of 40 dollars was extravagant for a youth of 17, but the beginnings of a lifelong interest in betting on horse races absorbed some of the wages.
Deciding to pursue a career in music, Hirt enrolled at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music in 1940 and attended classes there until he entered the Army in 1943. At the conservatory he studied classical trumpet and cornet, dabbling in jazz as a sideline. “I always aspired to be a legitimate player,” Hirt told the Richmond News Leader. “That was my training. Now I’m a jazz player. People paid attention to trumpet always. It’s an attractive instrument. It’s got a great sound. Every kid in school wants to play the trumpet.”
Hirt may have chosen a popular instrument, but he played it so well that he suffered little competition for high-paying work. After the war he played with a number of top-ranked big bands, touring America and Europe in grand style with Jimmy Dorsey, Tommy Dorsey, and Benny Goodman. In the early 1950s Hirt decided to form his own group. He settled down in New Orleans and fronted a Dixieland band that soon became the house outfit for Dan Levy’s Pier 600 Club. The band quickly attracted a local following and within a few years it had gained a national reputation for its exuberant horn numbers.
Hirt became a national celebrity after he signed with RCA Records in 1960. Early albums Greatest Horn, He’s the King and Bourbon Street sold very well and RCA began to release new material from the artist roughly every six months. At a time when rock ’n’ roll seemed to hold a monopoly on the air waves, Hirt actually placed Dixieland-flavored band music on the charts with hits such as “Java” and “Cotton Candy.” The rotund performer earned his nickname “Round
Full name, Alois Maxwell Hirt; born November 7, 1922, in New Orleans, La; son of a police officer; married, with eight children and nine grandchildren. Education: Attended Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, 1940-43.
Trumpet player, bandleader, and songwriter, 1946—. Touring trumpeter with big bands, including those led by Jimmy Dorsey, Tommy Dorsey, Ray McKinley, Benny Goodman, and Horace Heidt, 1946-50; leader of his own Dixieland band in New Orleans, 1950-60; recording artist, 1960—; signed with RCA Records and released first major-label album, 1961.
Awards: Grammy Award for single “Java.”
Addresses: Home —New Orleans, LA. Record company —RCA Records, 1133 Ave. of the Americas, New York, NY 10036.
Mound of Sound” when he began appearing on television variety shows in the mid-1960s.
National prominence notwithstanding, Hirt never gave up his New Orleans roots. For years he owned his own club at 501 Bourbon Street; when he sold it, he moved to the J. B. Rivers Club along the Mississippi. He was a minority owner of the New Orleans Saints when the club moved to town and for many seasons played trumpet right behind the team bench at home games. Hirt has performed with a number of America’s largest symphony orchestras as a guest soloist; in 1965 he gave a standing-room-only concert at New York City’s Carnegie Hall.
Despite his popularity, reviewers have not always been kind to Hirt. Even at the height of his success, he was criticized for adding rock elements to his work and for watering down his personal ability to appeal to a mainstream audience. To this day Hirt bridles at such charges. “I couldn’t care less what jazz purists say,” he told the Richmond News Leader. “Who … is a jazz purist? Somebody who doesn’t play an instrument.”
Purists aside, the public still loves Hirt’s playful sound. His affectionate nickname, however, no longer applies as a strict diet has reduced the jazz master’s once legendary weight. Well into his sixties, Hirt plays dozens of concerts a year, both at home in New Orleans and across the country. His performances include not only Dixieland numbers, but Latin, pop, jazz, and classical works as well—though his finale remains the rousing “When the Saints Go Marching In.” A grandfather nine times over, Hirt nonetheless has no plans to hang his trumpet on a peg. “It’s always been fun for me,” he confided to the Richmond News Leader. “I enjoy playing.” He concluded: “There’s more to playing than playing, though. You gotta be a nice person, too.”
Al Hirt at Dan’s Pier 600, Audio Fidelity.
Swingin’ Dixie, two volumes, Audio Fidelity, 1960 and 1961.
Greatest Horn, RCA, 1961.
He’s the King, RCA, 1961.
Bourbon Street, RCA, 1961.
Horn a Plenty, RCA, 1962.
Al Hirt at the Mardi Gras, RCA, 1962.
Trumpet and Strings, RCA, 1962.
Al Hirt in New Orleans, RCA, 1963.
Honey in the Horn, RCA, 1963.
Cotton Candy, RCA, 1964.
(With Ann-Margaret) Beauty and the Beard, RCA, 1964.
Honey Horn Hound, RCA, 1965.
Al Hirt at Carnegie Hall, RCA, 1965.
Sugar Lips, RCA, 1965.
Best of Al Hirt, RCA, 1966.
They’re Playing Our Song, RCA, 1966.
Best of Al Hirt, Volume 2, RCA, 1966.
Happy Trumpet, RCA, 1966.
Horn Meets Hornet, RCA, 1966.
Music to Watch Girls By, RCA, 1967.
Latin in the Horn, RCA, 1967.
Struttin’, RCA, 1967.
Soul in the Horn,, RCA, 1967.
Hirt Plays Kaempfert, RCA, 1968.
AI in’, RCA, 1970.
This Is Al Hirt, RCA, 1970.
Al’s Place, Camden, 1970.
Best of Al Hirt, with Pete Fountain, Ampex.
New Orleans by Night, 1986.
Blues Line (also contains Fountain’s Fountain of Youth ), 1987.
(With Fountain) Super Jazz (reissue), Monument, 1988.
All Time Greatest Hits, RCA, 1989.
Charlotte Observer, February 1, 1989.
Houston Post, March 27, 1988.
Richmond News Leader, July 7, 1988; July 18, 1988.
—Anne Janette Johnson