Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Eldridge, Roy (David)

              Roy Eldridge in Harlem (1952)
                     Photo by Marcel Fleiss

Roy Eldridge's bold and harmonic bounce tested the trumpet's limits during the Swing Era, and sparked a new appreciation for the horn: his rhythmic passages laced with tritone substitutions forged the link between Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie.

Born David Roy Eldridge on January 30, 1911 in Pittsburgh, Roy had developed a musical ear by the age of six, playing drums to his mother’s piano renderings. An amateur pianist, she passed away in 1922 when he was eleven years old.

Roy’s older brother Joe, a budding saxophonist, took the young drummer under his wing, and in 1925 included Roy in a rehearsal session that he had organized, a session that included future Duke Ellington cornetist Rex Stewart and saxophonist Benny Carter. After observing Roy’s fascination with Stewart’s playing, Joe convinced Roy to pick up the trumpet.

Rex Stewart’s half-valve effects and powerful stylings had a major influence on Roy. But he was attuned to other players as well, like saxophonist Coleman Hawkins. Eldridge memorized a set of Hawkins’ solos, including his solo on the hit stomp, The Stampede, recorded in 1926 by the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra by Columbia Records. Stewart also performed a solo on the tune.

Eldridge delighted local audiences with his ability to perform sax solos note-for-note on the trumpet and was soon asked to join a touring carnival band. He’d already been expelled from high school in Pittsburgh for dating a white girl. So at 16, accompanied by his friend and future swing percussionist, Alvin Burroughs, he was more than ready to hit the road. Working the carnival circuit had its ups and downs, during 1927 Eldridge was stranded twice, the second time in Little Rock, Arkansas.

He returned to Pittsburgh in 1928, where he led his own band under a pseudonym, Roy Elliott and his Palais Royal Orchestra. Restless, ambitious and competitive, he practiced around the clock - including on band breaks - and left his hometown a second time within weeks.

He tore through a series of gigs from Ohio to Michigan and onto Wisconsin. Among the most significant was an eight-month stint with bandleader, pianist Horace Henderson and the Dixie Stompers. Sadly the band was never recorded although Horace’s older brother, bandleader Fletcher Henderson, later performed many of their arrangements. Eldridge’s stint with the Dixie Stompers, led directly to a short spell with a close friend of Horace Henderson, banjo player and bandleader Zach Whyte and his territory band called the Chocolate Beau Brummels.

Throughout 1929 and the first half of 1930, Eldridge performed for drummer and bandleader Speed Webb. He closed this early chapter of his life with one final gig in Milwaukee with Johnny Neal’s Midnite Ramblers, where he was run out of town after being heard cussing in the background of a live radio broadcast.

In November 1930, Eldridge headed straight to Harlem where he gained work with a number of dance bands starting with bandleader and reedman Cecil Scott, who like the Henderson brothers originated from the rich jazz cradle connected to Wilberforce University in Ohio. Cecil Scott’s Bright Boys headlined at the Savoy and Roseland ballrooms with a variety of hot dance arrangements, a precursor of mainstream swing with which Eldridge and his versatile range quickly excelled.

Over the next two years he preformed pianist bandleader Charlie “Fess” Johnson in a ten-man ensemble that headlined at Small’s Paradise, considered to be one of the Big Three Clubs in Harlem. It was during one of the performances at Small’s when saxophonist Otto Hardwick quipped to Eldridge, “You really are Little Jazz,” and the name took.

Playing a year later with Hardwick and banjo-playing bandleader, Elmer Snowden, Eldridge appeared in a 1932 short film called “Smash Your Baggage.” The film featured a smoking dance scene that also revealed the “Little Jazz” showmanship of five-foot-four, 118-pound, Roy Eldridge, which can be Googled on YouTube.

The watershed event of Eldridge’s life came in 1932 at the Lafayette Theater when he first heard Louis Armstrong live on stage. Eldridge was humbled at the way Armstrong could lace together a solo with a beginning, middle, and end that would climax with clear snapping notes in the upper range. Considering this an invaluable lesson, Eldridge returned to Pittsburgh and the proverbial woodshed.

After stints with his brother, Joe and other bands including Will McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, he arrived back in New York in 1935 and signed with Teddy Hill's Savoy Ballroom band as the principal soloist. His jaunty syncopated style pushed the needle of ballroom swing toward a more sophisticated, modern swing that could be heard in Eldridge’s first recordings. Released on CD by Classics in 1996, the album The Chronological Teddy Hill, 1935 – 1937 features Eldridge’s cutting edge style on the tracks, "When Love Knocks At Your Heart" and "Lookie, Lookie, Lookie Here Comes Cookie."

During the depression years Americans had few luxuries other than a radio, and late night remote broadcasts were the only way for most people to hear all-black bands. Young Dizzy Gillespie tuned in nightly to Teddy Hill’s Savoy Ballroom Band and attributed much of his style to Eldridge’s swinging solos.

The demand for Eldridge’s blaring high note performances led to numerous freelance jobs and to the instant success of new band under his name. Headlining at the Famous Door on 52nd Street in Midtown Manhattan, he recorded his first major solo album, Roy Eldridge, Little Jazz Trumpet Giant, which vaulted him into swing band stardom by the end of 1935.

His first stop was with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, producing transitional modern-swing solos like, "Stealin’ Apples and Blue Lou," whichcan be heard on the Sony jazz collection CD set, A Study in Frustration/The Fletcher Henderson Story, Disc. 3. In 1936, Eldridge also recorded with clarinetist-bandleader Benny Goodman, vocalist Billie Holliday and pianist Teddy Wilson.

Driven by his growing ambition, Eldridge packed up for Chicago to headline at the Windy City’s sole equivalent to 52nd Street in New York, The Three Deuces Club. His eight-man ensemble included brother Joe on sax and was featured seven nights a week on radio.

Eldridge staged a comeback in New York in November of 1938 at the Famous Door and was soon recording with composer and tenor saxophonist Leon “Chu” Berry, recording Body and Soul. Eldridge’s solo in the tune turned the heads of uncountable trumpet players who began to imitate Eldridge’s licks. By then, Dizzy Gillespie had taken his chair with the Teddy Hill Orchestra, a gig due to Diz’s similarity to Eldridge in sound, style and range. Amid copycats galore, Roy Eldridge closed the 1930’s as the trumpet king of swing.

In 1941, he became the first African-American member of drummer Gene Krupa's band, in what should’ve been a heady period in Eldridge’s life. Despite masterful instrumental and vocal performances alongside the band’s gifted singer, Anita O’Day, he suffered through numerous racial incidents. To his dying day, Eldridge believed that Gene Krupa’s subsequent marijauna arrest was punishment for having a black man in his band.

Krupa disbanded in 1943, the same year Eldridge won the title for outstanding trumpet player in Down Beat Magazine's Readers' Poll.

Touring with clarinetist Artie Shaw’s band from 1944 to 1945, he recorded the hit tribute "Little Jazz," which can be heard on Disc 4 of the Roy Eldridge Little Jazz Trumpet Giant box set, which spans the peak of his career.

For the next few years Eldridge continued freelancing and leading small ensembles, but with the post World War II emergence of bebop his style began to wane in popularity. Then in 1948, promoter Norman Granz enlisted Eldridge to tour with Jazz at the Philharmonic series. In 1950, Benny Goodman cajoled Eldridge out of a funk by inviting him to tour in Europe.

Eldridge stayed on in Paris for a year, recording a series of mainstream jazz albums that won acclaim in Europe and the U.S., which effectively carved out his legacy in jazz. He returned to New York in 1951, and for the next two decades recorded with his early inspirer, saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, his childhood friend Benny Carter, pianists Count Basie" and Oscar Peterson, sax masters Stan Getz, Johnny Hodges and Sonny Stitt, and vocalist Ella Fitzgerald.

Celebrated for his speed, his crisp high-note attack and valve bending solos, Roy Eldridge earned a reputation as a perpetual battler on stage. He loved to jam against other trumpeters, never satisfied until he felt certain that he had whipped their pants off. He jammed, freelanced and led bands in the 1970s and ended up headlining at Jimmy Ryan's club in New York until a stroke ended his playing career in 1980. He died three weeks after his wife of 52 years on February 26, 1989.

In 1982, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) named Roy Eldridge a Jazz Master, the United Sates' highest honor for a jazz musician. He is also one of only thirty greats to be inducted into the Nesuhi Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City.

Select Discography

The Chronological Roy Eldridge 1935-1940, Classics 1996

After You've Gone, GRP/Decca, 1936-46

Roy Eldridge Little Jazz Trumpet Giant, Proper 2004

Roy Eldridge in Paris, RCA 1950

Little Jazz: The Best of the Verve Years, Verve, 1951-60

Roy and Diz, Verve, 1954

Just You Just Me, Stash, 1959

Montreux ‘77, Original Jazz Classics, 1977

Contributor: Dave Krikorian