David Roy Eldridge was born in 1911 on the North Side. His dad, Alex, was a master carpenter and his mother, Blanche, played piano by ear.Â Piano was his first instrument. He began taking lessons at five and was playing drums a year later.Â Older brother Joe was already known locally for his skills on violin and sax.
Going from bugle to trumpet at Joe's suggestion, Roy discovered a gift much like his mother's: he could play by ear.Â He worked fervently to develop strength and a skill for blowing high notes that made him competitive with other players, a trait that continued for the rest of his career.
Rex Stewart, a Philly native later known for his work with Duke Ellington, briefly worked in Pittsburgh with the Eldridge Brothers. Â Â Roy eventually left town and worked with carnival and circus bands before returned to Pittsburgh, briefly leading his own orchestra.Â His playing gained notice when he joined Horace Henderson (younger brother of bandleader-arranger Fletcher Henderson). By 1933 he was with a band led by banjoist Elmer Snowden and with them made his first film appearance.
1933: The film short Smash Your Baggage.Â The Snowden group was known as the "Small's Paradise Entertainers. Members were drummer Sid Catlett, trombonist Dicky Wells, saxophonists Wayman Carver and Otto Hardwick and Eldridge. True to the mentality of the time, the band wore Pullman Porter uniforms. On the first tune, :Bugle Call Rag," Roy plays a brief break at 0:24Â Â Hardwick gave Eldridge the nickname "Little Jazz."
Eldridge worked in other bands, including the Teddy Hill Orchestra, the Cotton Pickers (not McKinney's Cotton Pickers, but a splinter group).Â His brief time in Mal Hallett's orchestra was his first time employment with a white bandleader (and not the last.)Â In 1936 he joined swing architect and arranger Fletcher Henderson's Orchestra.Â
1936: A quintessential 1930's swing favorite: Fats Waller's "Stealin' Apples" by the Henderson Orchestra. Soloists in order,: Leon "Chu" Berry, tenor sax, Eldridge, clarinetist Buster Bailey.
Roy left Henderson soon afterward and worked in Chicago and in 1939 relocated to New York and did some touring but the band wasn't gaining the prominence he'd hoped for.Â Better luck came his way in early 1941 when an old friend, drummer Gene Krupa, hired him for his swing orchestra.Â The fiery Eldridge trumpet added a layer of excitement to the band as did the hiring of singer Anita O'Day.Â The song below was a hit that made both of them famous.
1942: "Let Me Off Uptown."
"Little Jazz" galvanized audiences with his high notes and trumpet pyrotechnics, and was equally beloved by Krupa and his bandmates. Onstage, if Krupa stepped to the front to conduct the band,Â Roy moved to the drums automatically. Even so, being the only African-American member exposed him to blatant racism on the road. Krupa and the band resisted it. The drummer was even arrested for a causing fracas at a York, PA diner when the owner refused to serve Roy.Â All of it wounded him deeply.
The Krupa band dissolved in 1943 after Krupa was arrested on a questionable marijuana charge, but Eldridge had established himself and reorganized a small band of his own. His playing inspired others. Dizzy Gillespie, who like all the bebop pioneers began as Swing players, lionized Eldridge and became a lifelong friend.Â In 1944 he began making his own records for Decca. Around that time star bandleader Artie Shaw offered him a job.
1945: "Little Jazz," written by Eldridge and arranger Buster Harding during his days with the Artie Shaw Orchestra (note that Shaw doesn't blow a note on clarinet). This is one of my personal favoritesâ"both solo and arrangement.Â On piano: Pittsburgher Dodo Marmarosa (look for a future Jazz Legends entry on him).
Eldridge faced more discrimination during his days with Shaw. Again, bandleader and band fiercely defended him but he carried the scars beneath the surface for the rest of his life.Â
Leaving Shaw late in 1945, he briefly led his own band and became a featured act with Jazz at the Philharmonic (JATP),Â a traveling all-star concert featuring a revolving group of musicians and some regulars. Creator, Norman Granz paid well and tolerated NO bigotry or segregated audiences. He later recorded for Granz's Clef label (later known as Verve Records).
Despite inspiring Dizzy Gillespie and other beboppers, Roy was ambivalent about bop, though on warm terms with Dizzy and other boppers. During an interlude working in Europe, he marveled at the absence of racism there.Â He resumed touring with JATP in 1951, and had some some great moments onstage.Â Here's one, captured on film.
1957: With the Oscar Peterson Trio: Oscar, piano, Herb Ellis, guitar and fellow Burgher Ray Brown on bass on a bluesy "Willow Weep For Me."
The following is a landmark jazz moment from an important TV special: The Sound of Jazz, featuring Billie Holiday singing "Fine and Mellow." Soloists in order are Ben Webster, Lester Young (note Billie's delight at his simple eloquence), Vic Dickenson, Gerry Mulligan, Coleman Hawkins, Roy and finally, Doc Cheatham,Â The rhythm section: Mal Waldron on piano, guitarist Danny Barker, bassist Milt "The Judge" Hinton and drummer Osie Johnson.
1958â"Art Ford's Jazz Party- an early jazz-focused live TV show with Johnny Guarnieri (ex-Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw sideman) and again, drummer Osie Johnson. This version of "I Can't Get Started" demonstrates his brilliance with a ballad.
Between JATP tours (which continued into the 70's), Eldridge toured and worked long-term engagements at Manhattan clubs like the Metropole CafÃ© and Jimmy Ryan's.
1961: Here's an idea how he could tear if up in a club, even if it's really a TV studio, doing an explosive, take no prisoners TV rendition of "Sunday" with Coleman Hawkins, with whom he spent years recording and touring. The guitarist: McDonald, PA's Barry Galbriath (saluted here previously). Other musicians: Guarnieri, bassist Milt Hinton and drummer Cozy Cole.
Mid-1970's: At Disney World singing the blues with bassist Ted Strugis, pianist Johnny Morris, trombonist Bobby Pratt, Joe Muryani on clarinet and drummer Eddie Locke.
1980: TV appearance, doing "Sometimes I'm Happy" with Strugis, Morris and Locke.
Later in 1980 a severe heart attack forever ended Eldridge's trumpet days though he was able to resume performing as a vocalist. His health declined slowly, but the 1989 death of Vi, his wife of 53 years, proved too much. He died three months after her passing. Dizzy Gillespie soloed on "Round Midnight" at his funeral.
Pittsburgh's contributed more than its share of jazz trumpet greats. Sean Jones follows that tradition today earning worldwide acclaim. Before him came the late Tommy Turrentine, Chuck Austin, Danny Conn and Billy May. That marvelous continuum all began with the diminutive kid from the North Side.
Reference: Roy Eldridge: Little Jazz Giant by John Chilton (Continuum, 2002)