Roy Eldridge is one of the most important virtuoso trumpeters in the history of jazz. As a solo artist and featured soloist his widely acclaimed style strongly influenced a generation of swing trumpeters in the 1930s and 1940s and paved the way for bebop innovators Dizzy Gillespie, Kenny Dorham and Dexter Gordon. Roy Eldridge is ranked as one of the top three most important jazz trumpeters with Louie Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie. He was a technical master who played with fiery emotion. His dazzling virtuosic improvisational solos are described as fast thematic pyrotechnics with crisp high-note attacks, valve bending notes, and vivacious vibrato. Roy extended the range of the trumpet. Before Roy trumpet players struggled to squeak out a few high notes during the climax of a solo. Roy launched into solos in the high register playing rich full tones with ease. He swung from low to high octaves quickly like a trapeze artist. His countless hours of relentless practice gave him the best chops in jazz. He developed his trade mark style combining the fast technically proficient solo style of saxophonist Coleman Hawkins' with the thematic approach of Louis Armstrong. Fellow musician Otto Hardwick christened him “Little Jazz” as he was barely over five foot tall but could play many instruments, sing, and compose. Having an intense drive to out-perform other musicians, he practiced for hours and fought in musical duels at late night jam sessions trying the whip the pants off other trumpet players. With his intense drive and great talent he was highly respected by the masters of jazz.
"And there's no use wondering how high Roy can go on his trumpet, because he can go higher than that."- Louis Armstrong
"He was a bitch of a player, and everybody in the band loved him” – Artie Shaw
"Once there was Louis Armstrong blowing his beautiful top in the muds of New Orleans; before him the mad musicians who had paraded on official days and broke up their Sousa marches into ragtime. Then there was swing, and Roy Eldridge, vigorous and virile, blasting the horn for everything it had in waves of power and logic and subtlety - leaning into it with glittering eyes and a lovely smile and sending it out broadcast to rock the jazz world." - - Jack Kerouac, On the Road, Part 3, Ch. 10
His first major solo album, “Roy Eldridge, Little Jazz Trumpet Giant” released in 1935 made him a much in demand swing trumpeter. He led several of his own bands and was a member of the bands of Gene Krupa, Artie Shaw, Bennie Goodman, Count Basie, Fletcher Henderson, Teddy Hill, McKinney's Cotton Pickers, and more. He became a national celebrity as the soloist of the Gene Kruppa band with the huge hits Rocking Chair", "After You’ve Gone.", and the novelty song “Let Me Off Up Town”. Over his career he performed and recorded with a who’s who of jazz history including Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Dizze Gillespie, Oscar Peterson, Coleman Hawkins, Billy Holiday, Stan Getz, Earl Hines, Benny Carter, Johnny Hodges, Art Tatum, Charles Mingus, Max Roach, and Sonny Stitt.
Roy won the Down Beat poll for top jazz trumpeter in 1942 and ’46, the Metronome poll from 1944-46, and an Esquire Silver Award in 1945. He was named as one of first three “Jazz Masters” by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in 1982. He is an honored member of the Downbeat Jazz Hall of Fame, the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame, and one of only thirty artists in the Nesuhi Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame at Jazz at Lincoln Center.
Learning Trumpet in Pittsburgh
David Roy Eldridge, who was born on January 30, 1911 in Pittsburgh, grew up on the North Side with his older brother Joe. His father was a business man who owned rental properties, a restaurant, and ran a contracting business. At age six Roy began playing drums and was quickly able to accompany his amateur pianist mother playing by ear. He joined a drum and bugle corps where he learned the bugle. Joe, a saxophonist, convinced Roy to switch to trumpet, saying he would be too small to carry a big set of drums around. Joe persuaded his parents to buy Roy a trumpet for Christmas. Roy took trumpet lessons from a barber named P.M. Williams. P.M., who played in many parades, was known in Pittsburgh for his ability to be heard 10 blocks away. Roy practiced his horn for several hours a day learning technical exercises from his brother’s saxophone books. He developed fingering fluency, speed, and was able to jump from low to high registers with ease. Joe working as professional saxophonist took his brother Roy to a rehearsal session with future Duke Ellington cornetist Rex Stewart and saxophonist Benny Carter in 1925. Rex Steward became Roy’s earliest trumpet influence. Roy learned Stewart’s rapid execution and half-valve effects. Coleman Hawkins was another of Roy’ influences, who’s sax solo “Stampede” Roy mastered. Roy started playing in Pittsburgh clubs with his brother around age 14.
Roy attended Oliver High School but was expelled in ninth grade for dating a white girl. Without telling his father he left home at 16 in 1927 joining a joining a touring company called Rock Dinah. The band folded stranding him in Sharon, Pa. In Sharon he joined the Great Sheesley Carnival. He played trumpet, tuba, and drum touring the South with the carnival. The carnival left him stranded in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Returning home to Pittsburgh in 1928, he started his own band under the name of Roy Elliott and his Palais Royal Orchestra. Driven to succeed he practiced his horn around the clock - including on band breaks in the bathroom. Throughout his career he would practice for eight hours a day, work a gig, and then jam all night at after-hours clubs. After a few weeks at home he went on the road for second time. He played in several territory bands from 1928 to 1930 touring the Midwest with Horace Henderson’s Dixie Stompers, Zach Whyte’s band the Chocolate Beau Brummels, Speed Webb, and Johnny Neal’s Midnight Ramblers.
In 1930 he moved Harlem to play in the hot dance bands. He joined Cecil Scott’s Bright Boys playing at the Savoy and the Roseland Ballroom. He later played with Charles Fess Johnson’s band at the Small Paradise club in Harlem. It was at Smalls that the sax player Otto Hardwick said to Eldridge “You really are Little Jazz” and the name stuck. In 1932 while playing in Elmer Snowden’s band Roy appeared on trumpet in the film “Smash Your Baggage”.
In 1932 Roy was humbled when he saw Louis Armstrong's play live for the first time at the Lafayette Theater. Roy, who had spent his early career playing fast and loud, was awakened by Armstrong’s solos which had thematic beginnings, middles, and climatic high note endings. Roy returned to Pittsburgh spending many more hours in practice honing his style to incorporate Armstrong’s ability to tell stories with his horn. Trying out his new style he worked in Pittsburgh for a while. In 1934 Roy and his brother Joe went on the road with Will McKinney’s Cotton Pickers. Joe taught Roy how to read music while they were with the Cotton Pickers.
Moving back to New York in 1935 he joined Teddy Hill's Savoy Ballroom band as the principal soloist. He made several recordings with Hill’s band with the cutting edge modern swings tracks "When Love Knocks At Your Heart" and "Lookie, Lookie, Lookie Here Comes Cookie." Roy next became the headliner at the Famous Door on 52nd Street. He recorded his first major solo album, “Roy Eldridge, Little Jazz Trumpet Giant”.
In 1936 Roy formed his own eight-piece band in Chicago with his brother, and Zutty Singleton. They played at the Three Deuces club in the Loop and recorded six songs for Vocalion Records in 1937 including Wabash Stomp, Florida Stomp, and Heckler’s Hop. The band performed nightly on the CBS radio affiliate station WBBM during 1936 and 1937. A young 18 year old Dizzie Gillespie discovered his trumpet hero listening to those broadcasts. Upset that white swing bands were earning all the money, Roy dropped out the music scene and studied to become a radio engineer in 1938. But the big bands eventually came calling. Moving once again to New York Eldridge put together a ten piece band with his brother that performed long residencies at the Arcadia Ballroom, the Apollo, and Kelly's Stable. They also made eight recordings on the Varsity label. The band’s Arcadia shows were broadcast around the East coast three nights a week.
Now widely acknowledged as the most outstanding jazz trumpet soloist around, he received offers to join the white swing bands. Charlie Barnet tried to sign him as featured soloist in 1940. Roy joined Gene Krupa’s band as the featured soloist in 1941, becoming one of the first black jazz musicians to be a permanent member of a white big band. He became a nationwide celebrity with his solo performance on the Krupa band recordings of “Rockin' Chair” and the novelty hit “Let Me Off Up Town” with singer Anita O'Day. Krupa's band broke up in 1943 when Gene was busted for marijuana. Eldridge led another band in New York before he joined Artie Shaw's band in 1944 Tired of touring he left Shaw’s band in 1945 to work in New York again. During the late 1940’s he performed in the city with his own bands and continue to record on the Decca label. While in New York in the 40’s Roy played regularly in jam sessions at Minton’s in New York. During Minton's Monday Celebrity Nights he jammed with Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and fellow Pittsburgher Kenny Clarke among others. Those jam sessions led to the development of Be Bop. In 1948 he joined Norman Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic.
Touring Europe with Benny Goodman in 1950, Roy decided to stay in Paris. He became a jazz hero in France and made several recordings there. In the 1950’s and 1960’s he played mainstream jazz recording and appearing with Benny Carter, Johnny Hodges, Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, and his hero Coleman Hawkins. As an elder statement’s of Jazz he took up residence at Jimmy Ryan’s club in New York performing there in the 1970’s and 1980’s. He played trumpet until he was incapacitated by a stroke in 1980. He continued to perform as a singer, drummer, and pianist until his death in 1989, three weeks after his wife passed away..