Roy Eldridge’s style is universally recognized as the all-important link between the playing of Louis Armstrong and the achievements of modernist Dizzy Gillespie. Roy’s daring harmonic approach and his technically awesome improvisations provided guidance and inspiration for countless jazz musicians, but he was also a star performer in his own right, whose recordings as a bandleader, and with Gene Krupa and Artie Shaw, gained him a durable international reputation. The indignities he experienced and overcame during the 1940’s while working in otherwise all-white ensembles proved he was as bold a social pioneer as he was a performer.
Eldridge was one of the first trumpeters to improvise convincingly in the extreme high register, a skill that always added a thrilling edge to his solos. From the late 1940’s through the 1970’s he continued to develop his world-wide reputation by playing an important part in the famous Jazz at the Philharmonic tours.#
John Chilton, who knew Eldridge for years, writes the first biography of Eldridge, Roy Eldridge: Little Jazz Giant, and speaks with Jerry Jazz Musician publisher about the life of this celebrated musician in a January, 2004 interview.
photo by Bob Parent
Roy Eldridge, with bassist Slam Stewart
New York, 1953
“All my life I’ve loved to battle. And if they didn’t like the look of me and wouldn’t invite me up on the bandstand I’d get my trumpet out by the side of the stand and blow at them from there.”
Listen to Roy Eldridge play Let Me Off Uptown, (with vocalist Anita O’Day)
JJM Roy Eldridge is quoted as saying, “All my life I’ve loved to battle. And if they didn’t like the look of me and wouldn’t invite me up on the bandstand I’d get my trumpet out by the side of the stand and blow at them from there.” How would you characterize Roy Eldridge?
JC “Ceaselessly competitive” is how I would describe him. He was small in stature but full of battle, like a fighting cock. If he shared a bandstand with another trumpet player, he would literally try and blow him into the next parish — he couldn’t resist. There was nothing personal about it. He and the trumpeter Charlie Shavers would engage in epic battles, but they remained very good friends. It was just a competitive thing that was part of his nature. I had the pleasure once of having been shown up by him on stage. I was visiting New York and attending a performance of his when he invited me up to the bandstand. I felt it was going to be a fiasco and resisted at first, but he assured me that it would be a good experience. He said he wasn’t blowing very well that night, basically egging me on. Well, I got on the bandstand and he proceeded to cut me, slice me, and mince me up into small packages. Afterwards, we had a drink together and all was well, but while we were on stage, he was absolutely determined to come out on top.
JJM How old was he at the time?
JC He was about sixty-five at the time, but he could still blow. He always had a marvelous command of the trumpet, and unlike many trumpet players, he wasn’t playing just for effect. He was a very lucid improviser.
JJM Who was his first major influence on the horn?
JC There were a variety of people. One, curious enough, was the white cornet player Red Nichols, but he was also a devotee of Louis Armstrong. He used to copy his records note for note, but he very quickly moved into his own territory. While he may have been inspired by Louis, he took the style and developed his own individual concepts. He then became the link between Louis and Dizzy Gillespie.
JJM Yes, he is often defined as the link between those two. How did he feel about that?
JC He was a bit touchy about that link because it sort of made him a transitional figure. As he was coming to the end of his life, I had a conversation with him about what he had accomplished in his life. He was a bit down, actually, and I told him not to fret, because there were very few geniuses in jazz. I certainly meant to include him among them, but he misunderstood and said that yes, he supposes that Louis Armstrong is a genius. It was a very curious moment, but in it he displayed his respect for Armstrong. As for Dizzy Gillespie, he had a great respect for Eldridge. Dizzy used to say that he would get up every morning of his young life and play Roy’s recording of “After you’ve Gone,” which is a basis for the Gillespie style — a style that began with Armstrong, was carried on by Eldridge, and then passed on to Dizzy.
JJM The trumpeter Joe Wilder is quoted as saying, “I think we should all bow our heads to Roy because he’s the one that made us take risks playing the trumpet. He did things that nobody would ever dare to do.” What recordings marked the emergence of Eldridge’s genius?
JC I would say the ones he made in Chicago in the late thirties in 1937 and beyond — because he had a very free wheeling, improvising band. They only had head arrangements, and the most important feature of the band was their unrestricted improvisation. They took the most amazing chances, even on broadcasts. They just had a chord sequence to work with and improvised from there. I would say “Wabash Stomp” and “Hecklers Hop” show how he was extending chords and extending the range of the trumpet. He had a marvelous command in the upper register, and not just for starting out notes, because he could play long, flowing phrases in the top register. So, his genius started to become apparent by 1937.
JJM How did he get to be known as “Little Jazz?”
JC Roy’s desire to play the trumpet virtually every available moment amazed Otto Hardwick, who at times was a saxophonist in Duke Ellington’s band. He would witness Eldridge play four or five hours in an evening, and even during intermission he would practice. Hardwick told him that you really are “Little Jazz,” and he meant it as a compliment. It was a curious nickname, but somehow it stuck as these things often do, and from that point, he was called “Little Jazz.” Another great musician, the trombonist Trummy Young, remembered how Eldridge would play on the bandstand while the rest of the band would be having dinner or relaxing during intermission. He just couldn’t resist doing that — he was that keen on playing the trumpet all of his waking hours. He had been that way since he was a lad of about fourteen, when he would develop this marvelous technique by five or six hours of practicing, every night. Even though he enjoyed baseball and other things that young men like, his goal in life was to be a great trumpet player.
JJM Some of his most memorable recordings took place with the saxophonist Coleman Hawkins. How did he get to know him?
JC In 1926, he learned to play one of Hawkins’s solos off of a friend’s Fletcher Henderson recording called “Stampede.” Playing a sax solo with a trumpet was spectacular and quite unusual. It enabled him to have a remarkable party piece in his repertoire. People were stunned when they heard this saxophone solo being played on trumpet. So, his admiration for Coleman Hawkins started as early as 1926. When Eldridge moved to New York, Hawkins was still in Europe, but Eldridge would keep up with his work by ordering the recordings Hawkins made there. He made many recordings while he was over in Europe from 1933 through 1939, and Roy kept up with everything Hawkins was doing. While in Europe, Hawkins was hearing of the up and coming reputation of Roy Eldridge, so it was inevitable that they would link up quickly when he returned from Europe. They fell into a very easy groove with one another, and it was the basis of a working relationship that went on for over twenty years. They were good friends, although they weren’t as close as people imagine. They were a formidable team when they worked in tandem, and Eldridge always had the greatest respect for Hawkins.
JJM Also among the best known work of Eldridge’s career is in the small group recordings he made with Billie Holiday. Maybe you could talk a little bit about the relationship he had with her?
JC He met up with her when she was a teenager, but they had never worked together until she came to New York. Eldridge and Chu Berry — another of his tenor sax playing sidekicks — would go to the club where Holiday sang in New York and sit in, where they developed the greatest admiration for Billie, and she for them. So, when Billie got her recording career launched, she used Eldridge as an accompanist on many occasions. Notably, their first get together was a fiery, swinging version of “What a Little Moonlight Can Do.” Moving ahead to 1956 and 1957, Roy was often featured with Holiday, including the spectacular Timex television show they performed on late in their careers. He said she was a great artist who wasn’t attached to fame and who had a marvelous, natural gift.
JJM Were they lovers?
JC Yes, for a very brief period, and then I think Billie had bisexual urges and she went off with a gal. Roy said he didn’t mind that, and that he understood it, but that was the end of their love interest in one another. But they remained good friends thereafter.
JJM What hand did marijuana play in his life?
JC No gigantic force. If you compare his use of marijuana to that of Louis Armstrong’s, there really is no comparison. It wasn’t a great factor in his life.
JJM He titled some of his songs while he was high on marijuana?
JC Yes. This is going back to his Chicago period, when guys used to buy marijuana by the shoebox full for a very small amount of money — maybe five dollars. It was so plentiful and so readily available at that time. While Roy may have smoked it regularly, it never took control of his life. He was open minded about it, and if it was there, he would smoke it, but he never carried it with him or anything like that. It was not a dominant part of his life, but it was an enjoyable part of it.