Roy Eldridge

Roy Eldridge

This Thursday, January 30th, marks the birthday of trumpet player Roy Eldridge.  Nicknamed "Little Jazz", Roy was born in 1911 and passed away in 1989.  His solos exhibiting a departure from the dominant style of jazz trumpet innovator Louis Armstrong, and his strong impact on Dizzy Gillespie mark him as one of the most influential musicians of the swing era and a precursor of bebop.

Eldridge, originally from Pittsburgh, led and played in a number of bands during his early years, touring extensively throughout the Midwest United States. He was influenced greatly by Benny Carter and Coleman Hawkins.

At the age of 20, Eldridge led a band in Pittsburgh, billed as "Roy Elliott and his Palais Royal Orchestra".  His agent at the time intentionally changed Eldridge's name because "he thought it more classy."  Roy left this position to try out for the orchestra of Horace Henderson, younger brother of Fletcher Henderson, and joined the band, which was being billed as The Fletcher Henderson Stompers, Under the Direction of Horace Henderson.  Eldridge then played with a number of other territory bands, he drifted from band to band making a name for himself and making strong contacts throughout the industry.

Eldridge moved to New York in November 1930, playing in various bands in the early 1930s.  It was during this time that Eldridge received his nickname, 'Little Jazz', from Ellington saxophonist Otto Hardwick, who was amused by the incongruity between Eldridge's raucous playing and his short stature.  At this time, Eldridge was also making records and radio broadcasts under his own name. He laid down his first recorded solos with Teddy Hill in 1935, which gained almost immediate popularity.  In October 1935, Eldridge joined Fletcher Henderson's Orchestra, playing lead trumpet and occasionally singing.  Until he left the group in early September 1936, Eldridge was Henderson's featured soloist, his talent highlighted by such numbers as "Christopher Columbus" and "Blue Lou."

Eldridge, fed up with the racism he had encountered in the music industry, quit playing in 1938 to study radio engineering. But in April of 1941, after receiving many offers from white swing bands, Eldridge joined Gene Krupa's Orchestra, and was successfully featured with rookie singer Anita O'Day.  In accepting this position, Eldridge became one of the first black musicians to become a permanent member of a white big band. Eldridge and O'Day were featured in a number of recordings, including the novelty hit "Let Me Off Uptown" and "Knock Me a Kiss".

After complaints from Eldridge that O'Day was upstaging him, the band broke up when Krupa was jailed for marijuana possession in July 1943.  After leaving Krupa's band, Eldridge freelanced in New York during 1943 before joining Artie Shaw's band in 1944. Racial incidents that he faced while playing in Shaw's band prompted Eldridge to leave and form a big band, but this eventually proved financially unsuccessful, and Eldridge returned to small group work.

You can hear the influential trumpet playing of Roy Eldridge right here on Swing City Radio.

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