Roy Eldridge Biography

David Roy Eldridge, 30 January 1911, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA, d. 26 February 1989, Valley Stream, New York, USA. One of the chief figures in the established lineage of jazz trumpet playing, Eldridge paid his dues with territory bands in the Midwest, such as those of Speed Webb and Horace Henderson, before moving to New York in 1930. He then played with a number of bands, including that of Teddy Hill and one that he co-led with his brother, Joe Eldridge. In 1935 he joined Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra, then formed his own group, which was reasonably successful but not so much so that he could afford to refuse an offer to join Gene Krupa in 1941. The engagement brought Eldridge to great prominence thanks to extensive tours of the USA and numerous recordings, notably solo features on ‘Rockin’ Chair’, ‘After You’ve Gone’ and ‘Let Me Off Uptown’ (on which he partnered Anita O’Day).

Despite the enormous boost to his popularity that resulted from the exposure he gained with Krupa, this was a very trying time for Eldridge who, as the only black member of the band, suffered racial harassment that brought him to the brink of a nervous breakdown. When Krupa was jailed in 1943, Eldridge briefly fronted the band before it broke up. He then formed his own band before giving a second chance to the white big band scene with Artie Shaw and once again he encountered discrimination and abuse. After briefly trying another big band of his own, Eldridge settled on leading a small group. In the late 40s he worked again with Krupa and also joined Jazz At The Philharmonic. In the 50s he played with Benny Goodman, spent some time in Europe and continued his association with JATP. This period coincided with a personal crisis during which Eldridge began to doubt his place in jazz as the new generation of trumpeters, led by Dizzy Gillespie, forged new ideas. The stay in Europe convinced him that his place was in the mainstream of jazz, and that it was a place in which he was respected by musicians and admired by fans. In the 60s, Eldridge played with Ella Fitzgerald, Coleman Hawkins and Count Basie and co-led a band with Richie Kamuca. In 1970 he began a residency at Ryans in New York City that lasted into the second half of the decade.

A fiery, combative player, Eldridge is often cited as a link between trumpeters Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie. Although there is an element of logic in this assessment, it overlooks the important role in jazz trumpet history of Henry ‘Red’ Allen; and it implies that Eldridge was a proto-bop trumpeter, which is far from being the truth. He was the outstanding trumpet stylist of the 40s, performing with daring aggression, his high register playing achieved with apparent ease and his verve and enthusiasm were such that he invariably brought out the best in his fellow musicians. His suggested link to bebop stems largely from a tiny handful of records which show that he was aware of the changes taking place around him and was unafraid to dabble even if he chose never to take the plunge. He was, however, undoubtedly a goad to Gillespie, with whom he played in many after-hours sessions at Minton’s and other New York clubs where bebop was nurtured. In the late 50s and afterwards, having settled back into a swing-based groove, Eldridge showed his mastery of the form and of his instrument. Nicknamed ‘Little Jazz’, Eldridge was a giant who became an elder statesman of jazz without ever losing the fire and aggression that had always marked his playing. His career came to an end when he suffered a stroke in 1980, after which he never played again.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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