One of my favorite things in classic film is getting to see some of my favorite performers playing on film. I’ve been a trumpet player for about 11 years now, and one of the first things I was told when starting was to listen to the great players and start to develop a sound concept from which to begin my own. While I am pretty much a classically trained musician, I’ve loved jazz since before I even started playing, especially Big Band era swing.
Harry James was a fantastic trumpet player who came up through the Big Band ranks, first soloing with the Benny Goodman Orchestra in the 1930s before later leading a band of his own beginning at the end of decade. He gave Frank Sinatra his first start singing with the band in 1939, a partnership that only lasted six months but led to Sinatra’s first recordings, starting with From the Bottom of My Heart.
James had a style that I would describe as beautifully full in all registers, with a trademark wide vibrato. His tone really sings, something that really pops out on slow ballads. But he was just as much an effortless technician, playing the most difficult passages with the appearance of ease.
An early appearance of James on film was in 1937 for Warner Bros’ Hollywood Hotel starring Dick Powell and Rosemary Lane. The film features Powell as a member of Benny Goodman’s Orchestra trying to make it in Hollywood as a movie star after being selected from a contest. This sequence shows Goodman leading the band through the last half of his famous Sing, Sing, Sing. Gene Krupa is on drums, and James is the featured trumpet soloist:
This next clip demonstrates James’ technical ability. From MGM’s Best Foot Foward, Flight of the Bumblebee:
James had another tie to Hollywood after he famously married starlet Betty Grable in 1943. They would have two daughters together, divorcing in 1965. Here they are before marriage in the 1942 film, Springtime in the Rockies:
You Made Me Love You was a huge hit for James and his orchestra, helping to propel him to the stardom he enjoyed beginning in the 1940s. He performs it here in 1942’s Private Buckaroo:
Another interesting film appearance for James wasn’t actually an appearance in a role or as a bandleader. In Michael Curtiz’s 1950 film Young Man with a Horn, James doubled the trumpet playing for Kirk Douglas. The story is said to be loosely based on the life of cornetist Bix Beiderbecke, and if that’s the case, in my opinion you couldn’t have found a player who is more opposite of Bix’s playing style. That aside, I think they did a good job of teaching Douglas to look convincing even if he wasn’t playing, something that oftentimes gets neglected in movies. No matter what, it is easy to pick out James’ signature sound:
Though James mostly played himself on film, he did get credited with a few roles as well (I personally haven’t seen any of them). I’m always tickled when I stumble across a film clip of a famous musician, as it presents a chance to see that person actually play, and in the case of James, Goodman, etc., see them in their prime during the height of their popularity.
This last clip is also from Springtime in the Rockies. It begins with James’ theme song, Ciribiribin, and moves into the beautiful I Had the Craziest Dream before finishing with You Made Me Love You. Yes, that Harry James is solid.