Personalities | Roy Eldridge | Thirties | Jazz & Blues

While Louis Armstrong remained a pre-eminent jazz symbol in the public mind through the 1930s, and inspired many imitators (Taft Jordan, Hot Lips Page, Wingy Manone), younger and better-schooled musicians were coming up who could navigate the trumpet with great agility and dexterity.

They would break through the perimeters that Armstrong had established in the 1920s and take the music to new places. In the 1930s no player consolidated those advances or expanded their possibilities more spectacularly than Roy Eldridge, known throughout his career as ‘Little Jazz’ because of his short stature and high power.

Eldridge’s Heroes

Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on 30 January 1911, David Roy Eldridge came to music with great youthful exuberance, first on drums and then trumpet. In his eagerness to progress, he played by ear at first. It was his older brother Joseph who disciplined his progress and instructed him in matters of theory and the logic of chord sequences, which the young trumpeter acquired by learning the basics of the piano. During his formative years in the late 1920s he avoided the influence of Armstrong, preferring instead to master the speed and precision of saxophonist Coleman Hawkins. Although he began playing professionally around 1927, Eldridge’s development as a player is not documented until 1935, when he recorded with Teddy Hill and on three Teddy Wilson-Billie Holiday sessions. Here he emerges as a seasoned player with a big, clean sound and sharp attack.

An Exuberant Playing Style

In 1935 he joined Fletcher Henderson in Chicago and not only showed what he could do, but let loose unimagined possibilities for the trumpet. Starting with Armstrong’s sense of dramatic pacing, Eldridge added a wildly exuberant recklessness that threw fast, complex phrasing and penetrating high notes together with meticulous precision. Eldridge was a competitive player and thrived on the stimulation of the encounter. The Henderson band gave him his first important foil: tenor saxophonist Chu Berry. On a simple riff piece, ‘Jangled Nerves’, Berry solos with swift, glancing eighth notes, setting a rapid pace. Then Eldridge bores in with a ferociously suppressed intensity that soon explodes into stabbing high notes, seasoned with a striking dissonance. In the late 1930s it made musicians’ heads spin, including that of a young Dizzy Gillespie, who soon showed Eldridge’s impact in his first recorded solos.

Faster, Higher!

After leaving Henderson, Eldridge remained in Chicago and formed his own band, which unleashed the full force of his virtuosity. A number of live radio performances from the Three Deuces in Chicago (1937) and the Arcadia in New York (1939) have survived, which offer some of the most breathtaking trumpet solos ever recorded. Interestingly, he performed several Armstrong showpieces, including ‘Shine’ and ‘Mahogany Hall Stomp’. They were homages to the past but also parodies, serving notice that a new generation of elite virtuosos, eager for risk, was now in charge.

Eldridge broke up his band in late 1939, freelanced on record dates, then...

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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Jazz & Blues, founding editor Howard Mandel


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