Jazz trumpeter, vocalist
When Otto Hardwick, a reed player with Duke Ellington’s orchestra, gave Roy Eldridge the lasting nickname “Little Jazz,” he was referring to Eldridge’s physical stature, not his standing as a jazz performer. Although Eldridge’s name may not be as familiar to the general public as those of fellow trumpeters Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie, his immense talent had a profound effect on the history of jazz. In addition to playing an important role in jazz’s transition from the swing styles of the 1930s to the bebop styles of the 1940s and 1950s, Eldridge was an exceptional soloist in his own right. He combined a somewhat abrasive personality with a deep sensitivity and created a musical style that, as drummer Phil Brown told Musician’s Burt Korall, “went directly to the heart.”
Korall described Eldridge as “a crucial link on trumpet between Armstrong’s New Orleans-inflected ‘hot jazz’ and the bebop innovations Gillespie helped pioneer.” The musical succession from Armstrong to Eldridge to Gillespie is audible on recordings; yet, seeing Eldridge as merely a transitional figure does him a great disservice, for he was one of the most gripping performers jazz has produced. Gary Giddins maintained in Rhythm-a-ning: Jazz Tradition and Innovation in the 80s that, of the trumpeters of his generation, “Eldridge was the most emotionally compelling, versatile, rugged, and far-reaching.” He had a tone like no other, which Giddins described as holding “an urgent, human roughness that gave his music an immediacy of its own. You felt you could hear the sound start in the viscera and work its way through his small body, carving a path in his throat, and bursting forth in breathtaking release.”
Eldridge first heard Armstrong in 1932, and he learned much from the trumpeter’s sense of logic and climax. Unlike Armstrong, however, he played uptempo numbers with a passion and relentless energy that sometimes verged on the demonic; as Whitney Balliett described in American Musicians: Fifty-Six Portraits in Jazz, “He would work so hard and grow so excited that he would end up caroming around his highest register and sounding almost mad.” However, though Eldridge was undoubtedly Gillespie’s most important early influence—indeed, the younger musician’s first recordings sound almost like a carbon copy of Eldridge’s playing—he never completely assimilated the bebop techniques that Gillespie later used to such advantage, remaining at heart a swing-era player.
Eldridge began playing drums at the age of six; he later learned to play the bugle, and then the trumpet, receiving some early training on that instrument from his
For the Record…
Born January 30, 1911, in Pittsburgh, PA; died February 26, 1989, in Valley Stream, NY; son of Alexander and Blanche (Oakes) Eldridge; married Viola Lee Fong, 1936; children: Carole Elizabeth.
Jazz trumpeter, c. 1927-80. Using pseudonym, formed own band Roy Elliott and His Palais Royal Orchestra, 1920s; played with Greater Sheesley Shows carnival band and “Rock Dinah” revue, c. 1927; played with Horace Henderson’s Dixie Stompers, 1928; made recording debut with Teddy Hill orchestra, 1935; soloist with Fletcher Henderson orchestra, 1935-36; led own band at Chicago’s Three Deuces club, site of numerous radio broadcasts, 1936-38; briefly studied radio engineering, 1938; formed ten-piece group that became resident band at New York City’s Arcadia Ballroom, 1939; played with Gene Krupa, 1941-43, and Artie Shaw, 1944-45; featured with Jazz at the Philharmonic ensemble during group’s first national tour, 1949, and continued to perform with group, 1950s; performed with small groups that variously included Benny Carter, Johnny Hodges, and Coleman Hawkins, 1950s; accompanied Ella Fitzgerald, 1963-65; played with Count Basie, 1966; led group at Jimmy Ryan’s, New York City, 1970-80; made occasional guest appearances, usually as vocalist, 1980-89.
Selected awards: Westinghouse Trophy Award; Citation of Merit, Muscular Dystrophy Association.
brother Joe, a fine musician in his own right. As he became proficient on the trumpet, Eldridge turned for inspiration not just to brass players such as Rex Stewart and Red Nichols, but also to saxophonists, whose work he admired for its speed and fluidity. In fact he was given one of his first jobs—in a carnival—because he could play note-for-note saxophonist Coleman Hawkins’s solo on Fletcher Henderson’s recording of “The Stampede.” Eldridge’s fascination with sax playing would continue to be an important influence on his style; later he would come under the spell of such players as Lester Young and Chu Berry.
Eldridge formed his first band in Pittsburgh while he was still a teenager, using the pseudonym Roy Elliott. During the 1920s he played with several important groups, including Horace Henderson’s Dixie Stompers and Zach White’s band. In 1930 he moved to New York City, and soon carved out a niche for himself with many of Harlem’s finest ensembles, including those led by Cecil Scott, Charlie Johnson, Teddy Hill, and Elmer Snowden. The trumpeter came to national prominence in the mid-1930s, when he was a featured soloist with Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra. In 1936 Eldridge began a two-year residency at Chicago’s Three Deuces club, with an ensemble that included his brother Joe on alto sax. According to Stanley Dance in The World of Swing, Eldridge called this group, which was featured on a radio broadcast seven nights a week, “the best little band I ever had.”
During the 1940s Eldridge played with the ensembles of two important white band leaders, Gene Krupa and Artie Shaw. At a time when integration of musicians on the bandstand was still a subject of great controversy, Eldridge’s presence in the brass section of these groups represented an important step forward. Yet, Eldridge himself had to face frequent humiliation from club owners and the managers of restaurants and hotels. A sensitive and proud man, this wounded Eldridge deeply, and the scars never entirely healed.
As an example, Eldridge once recalled an episode that took place at a club in San Francisco while he was on tour with Artie Shaw’s orchestra. Having just played a successful job at a ballroom in Oakland, across the bay, he was excited about the upcoming performance, and showed up early. However, he found that, because he was black, he was not allowed in the front door, even though his name was on the marquee. Although he was eventually allowed to enter, he was so upset he couldn’t perform. As he told Musician’s Korall, “I threw my mutes and things around; I began to cry. I knew it wasn’t my fault. Finally I was told to take the evening off. And all I wanted to do was play my horn!”
In 1950 Eldridge went to Europe with a sextet that featured clarinetist Benny Goodman, tenor saxophonist Zoot Sims, and pianist Dick Hyman. Because of the relative lack of racial tensions in Europe and the immense appreciation that audiences there showed him, Eldridge decided to settle in Paris. He lived there for almost two years, during which he played, recorded, and wrote a music column for the Paris Post.
After returning to New York in 1951, Eldridge made a highly acclaimed appearance at Old Stuyvesant Casino, and then spent much of the 1950s playing with Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic, an ensemble founded to present jazz performances in a concert setting. For two years he was a member of the group that accompanied singer Ella Fitzgerald; he also played briefly with Count Basie’s orchestra in 1966.
In 1970 Eldridge began what was to become a ten-year run at Jimmy Ryan’s, a club that featured Dixieland—a style of jazz playing that revived the instrumentation, repertory, and playing styles popular in jazz of the teens and the 1920s. Although many jazz fans viewed this type of music as archaic, Eldridge approached each evening’s performance with typical enthusiasm and inventiveness.
A heart attack in 1980 brought Eldridge’s run at Ryan’s, as well as his trumpet playing career, to a close. Thereafter he performed only occasionally, usually as a singer, drummer and even pianist. Tired of the demanding life of a full-time musician, he began to spend more time at home with his wife, Vi, and focus on his hobbies of carpentry, radio engineering and electronics. Eldridge died in 1989, just three weeks after his wife.
After You’ve Gone (recorded in 1936, 1943-46), Decca Jazz, 1991.
Roy Eldridge at the Three Deuces, Chicago—1937, reissued, Jazz Archives, 1975.
Roy Eldridge at the Arcadia Ballroom—1939, reissued, Jazz Archives, 1973.
At Jerry Newman’s (recorded in 1940), Xanadu.
Roy Eldridge and the Swing Trumpets (recorded in 1944), Mercury, 1987.
Roy and Diz, Clef, 1954.
The Urbane Jazz of Roy Eldridge and Benny Carter, Verve, 1955.
At the Opera House, Verve, 1957.
Tour de force, Verve, 1957.
The Nifty Cat (recorded in 1970), reissued, New World, 1986.
(With Paul Gonsalves) Mexican Bandit Meets Pittsburgh Pirate (recorded in 1973), Fantasy, 1986.
Happy Time (recorded in 1975), Fantasy/OJC, 1991.
The Art Tatum Group Masterpieces: Tatum/Eldridge, reissued, Pablo, 1975.
Roy Eldridge Four: Montreux 77, reissued, Fantasy/OJC, 1989. All the Cats Join In, reissued, MCA, 1982.
Louis Armstrong—Roy Eldridge/Jazz Masterpieces, reissued, Franklin Mint Record Society, 1982.
Roy Eldridge: The Early Years, reissued, Columbia, 1982.
Little Jazz, Columbia Jazz Masterpieces, 1989.
Uptown, reissued, Columbia, 1990.
Hawkins! Eldridge! Hodges! Alive! At the Village Gate!, reissued, Verve, 1992.
The Best of Roy Eldridge, Pablo.
Loose Walk, Pablo.
Oscar Petersen and Roy Eldridge, Pablo.
Roy Eldridge, GNP Crescendo.
Balliett, Whitney, American Musicians: Fifty-Six Portraits in Jazz, Oxford University Press, 1986.
Collier, James Lincoln, The Making of Jazz: A Comprehensive
History, Dell, 1978.
Dance, Stanley, The World of Swing, Scribner’s, 1974. Giddins, Gary, Rhythm-a-ning: Jazz Tradition and Innovation in the 80s, Oxford University Press, 1985.
Gillespie, Dizzy, with AI Fraser, To Be or Not … To Bop: Memoirs, Doubleday, 1979.
Shapiro, Nat, and Nat Hentoff, The Jazz Makers: Essays on the Greats of Jazz, Rinehart, 1957.
Down Beat, February 4, 1971; May 1989.
Jazz Journal International, April 1989.
Musician, November 1987.
Eldridge, Roy 1911–1989
Roy Eldridge 1911–1989
During his active career as a jazz musician, trumpeter Roy Eldridge was often overlooked in favor of his contemporaries Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong, who cultivated more flamboyant public personas. Even Eldridge’s nickname, “Little Jazz,” seemed to highlight his more modest reputation in jazz circles. Yet the very length and versatility of his career demonstrated Eldridge’s talent and drive to make great music. First coming to prominence in the late 1920s and early 1930s as the leader of his own band, Eldridge’s early career also saw him working with Gene Krupa and Artie Shaw. After a brief, self–imposed exile in Europe in the early 1950s, Eldridge returned to the United States and worked with some of the biggest names in jazz, including Ella Fitzgerald, Coleman Hawkins, and the Count Basie Orchestra. Through the 1970s his recorded output remained impressive, and Eldridge took up residence at Jimmy Ryan’s, a jazz club in New York City. After suffering a heart attack in 1980, Eldridge was forced to cut back on his performing schedule at the very time that his reputation as a legendary jazz musician was growing. In 1982, seven years before his death, Eldridge was named an American Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts.
Born to Alexander and Blanche (Oakes) Eldridge in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on January 30, 1911, David Roy Eldridge showed an interest in music from an early age. His older brother, Joe, played the alto saxophone and violin, while Eldridge himself was first attracted to the drums. Before he was ten years old, he picked up the bugle and then the trumpet, which became his primary instrument. He also played the piano and flugelhorn. Able to pick up almost any tune and play it back by ear, the 16–year–old Eldridge was good enough on the trumpet to earn a spot with the touring carnival band the Nighthawk Syncopators after an impromptu audition. While he was still in his teens, Eldridge formed the first of several bands, Roy Elliott and His Palais Royal Orchestra. Prior to 1930 he also played brief stints with Horace Henderson’s Dixie Stompers and other bands led by Zach White and drummer Laurence “Speed” Webb.
Relocating to New York City in 1930, Eldridge continued to play in a number of bands. Clarinetist Cecil Scott, pianist Charile Johnson, saxophonist Teddie Hill, and banjo and guitar player Elmer Snowden were just a few of the band leaders Eldridge worked with during his stay in the city. While he was in New York.
Born David Roy Eldridge on January 30, 1911, in Pittsburgh, PA; son of Alexander and Blanche (Oakes) Eldridge; died on February 26, 1989, in Valley Stream, NY; married Viola Lee Fong, 1936 (died, 1989); children: Carole Elizabeth Eldridge.
Career: Jazz trumpeter, 1927–80; recording artist, 1936–80; albums: After You’ve Gone, 1936; Live at the Three Deuces, 1937; Little Jazz, 1950; Roy and Diz, 1954; Swingin’ On the Town, 1960; Nifty Cat, 1970; Roy Eldridge and His Little Jazz, Volumes 1 and 2, 1998; wrote music column for Paris Post (France), 1950–51.
Awards: Named American Jazz Master, National Endowment for the Arts, 1982.
Eldridge earned a regular spot with a band led by composer and arranger Fletcher Henderson. He also earned the nickname “Little Jazz,” a reference to his relatively short stature of five–foot, three inches tall. According to various sources, the name was given to him either by Otto “Toby” Hardwicke, a saxophonist with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, or by Earl Snowden. The nickname was not an indication, however, of Eldridge’s stature within the jazz community. Indeed, during his time in New York, Eldridge became renowned for engaging in “cutting” contests with other musicians in late–night musical duels to see who was the superior performer.
Eldridge married Viola Lee Fong in 1936, and the couple had one daughter, Carole Elizabeth. The couple’s 53–year marriage lasted until Viola’s death in early 1989. The couple took up residence in Chicago as newlyweds and stayed there for the next two years while Eldridge played at the Three Deuces Club. Eldridge’s band made live broadcasts from the club every night, making him one of the best–known jazz band leaders in the Midwest. Eldridge also began his recording career around this time, and several of his live, Three Deuces performances from 1937 were later reissued by the Jazz Archives label. During his career Eldridge would release more than fifty albums of live performances, studio sessions, and compilations of his work.
Eldridge later reminisced that his days as a bandleader in residence at the Three Deuces were some of the best of his career. In 1938 he left Chicago and returned to New York City, where he played at some of the city’s most fashionable clubs, including the Famous Door, the Arcadia Ballroom, and the Savoy Ballroom. Around this time, Eldridge considered leaving his career in music for something more stable, and pursued an education in radio engineering before deciding to resume his musical career. After a brief return to Chicago in 1941, Eldridge joined the band led by drummer Gene Krupa, where he often accompanied singer Anita O’Day. Although the pair were electrifying on stage, the two performers never got along, and Eldridge ended his stint with the band after a year.
Eldridge joined clarinetist Artie Shaw’s band in 1944 and remained there until a nervous breakdown forced his departure in 1945. As one of the few African–American musicians in the big bands of the era, Eldridge was traumatized by the racist treatment he encountered on the road. During one tour with Shaw, Eldridge was barred from entering through the front door of the San Francisco concert hall where he was scheduled to perform. The experience upset him so much that he was unable to play the trumpet that night. Eldridge was routinely exposed to this kind of treatment, which caused him to remark to a Down Beat interviewer (later reprinted in his New York Times obituary), “One thing you can be sure of. As long as I’m in America, I’ll never in my life work with a white band again.”
With the rise of bebop jazz in the mid–1940s, Eldridge began to be viewed by some younger musicians as old–fashioned, although he worked with some of the best–known big bands of the day. Leaving for Europe in 1950, Eldridge settled in Paris, where he wrote a music column for the Paris Post and continued to play in various bands across the continent. Revived by the experience, Eldridge returned to the United States in 1951 and joined Norman Granz’s acclaimed Jazz at the Philharmonic group, which toured across the country playing jazz in a concert–like setting. His recorded output in the 1950s was prolific and included the 1950 release Roy Eldridge in Paris for the Vogue label, Roy’s Got Rhythm, for EmArcy in 1951, Roy and Diz for Verve in 1954, and That Warm Feeling for Verve in 1957.
In the 1960s Eldridge played with his own quintet and joined Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie for tours. His notable albums from the period included Swingin’ on the Town (1960), Comin’ Home Baby (1965), and Nifty Cat (1970). In 1969 Eldridge started to play at Jimmy Ryan’s, a New York City Dixieland jazz club, and occasionally played in Chicago as well. A 1980 heart attack stopped Eldridge from playing the trumpet in public, but he continued to appear as a singer, drummer, and pianist through the 1980s. In early 1989 Eldridge’s wife, Viola, died; Eldridge followed her just weeks later, on February 26, 1989. Having been named an American Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts in 1982, Eldridge was mourned as a legend of the jazz world. His New York Times obituary quoted Ella Fitzgerald on Eldridge’s talent: “God gives it to some and not others. He’s got more soul in one note than a lot of people could get into the whole song.”
After You’ve Gone, Decca Jazz, 1936; reissued, 1991.
Live at the Three Deuces, Jazz Archives, 1937; reissued, 1975.
Roy Eldridge in Paris, Vogue, 1950.
Roy’s Got Rhythm, EmArcy, 1951.
Dale’s Wail, Verve, 1952.
The Roy Eldridge Quintet, Clef, 1953.
Battle of Jazz, Volume 7, Brunswick, 1953.
Roy and Diz, Verve, 1954.
That Warm Feeling, Verve, 1957.
Little Jazz Live in 1957, Jazz Band, 1957.
Swingin’ on the Town, Verve, 1960.
Comin’ Home Baby, Pumpkin, 1965.
Nifty Cat, New World, 1970; reissued, 1986.
Happy Time, Original Jazz, 1975.
Roy Eldridge Four, Pablo, 1978.
The Big Sound of Little Jazz, Topaz, 1995.
Roy Eldridge and His Little Jazz, Volume 1, BMG, 1998.
Roy Eldridge and His Little Jazz, Volume 2, BMG, 1998.
Carr, Ian, et al, editors, Jazz: The Rough Guide, The Rough Guides, 1995.
New York Times, February 28, 1989, p. B7.
All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com/ (September 14, 2002).
BBC Radio 3, http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio3/jazz/jazzprofiles/ (September 14, 2002).
International Association of Jazz Education, http://www.iaje.org/ (September 14, 2002).