The Circus Around Harry James

Harry James Picture

Harry James was one of the most popular trumpet players and bandleaders of the Big Band Era.  He was constantly performing, recording and touring.  You can say his life was a bit of a circus!  But Harry was no stranger to a good circus, he spent his childhood travelling with them. 

Born to circus performer parents, James spent the majority of his youth on the road traveling with the Mighty Haag Circus. His father Everette was the circus bandmaster and the featured trumpet player.  His mother Myrtle was a trapeze artist and horse rider.  It has been reported in the past that she kept performing her high-wire routines until a month before Harry was born. 

Harry himself performed with the circus working as a contortionist when he was only 4 years old.  By the age of 5, he was a featured drummer and by age 9, he was trained by his father to play trumpet.  All of us fans of Harry's trumpet playing should be thankful that his father steered him away from the drums and to the trumpet.  It's also said that his father was a strict taskmaster. so it's no surprise that Harry developed his disciplined approach to his playing.  By the age of 12, he took over leadership of the second band in the Christy Brothers Circus, for which his family was then working. 

There's no question that Harry's childhood in the circus molded him into the great trumpet player and bandleader that he was.  But it came at a cost.  Harry James never got close to people.  Many of the members of his bands have commented later that they really didn't get to know him.  

James’ stunted personality most likely stemmed from the loneliness and insecurity of a childhood spent on the road with the circus. Starting at a young age, Harry needed an audience to feel special, important and loved. Without it, he believed he really wasn’t worth much. According Helen Forrest, who sang in Harry's bands for years, “He was at peace and he knew he was loved when he was playing the trumpet."

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