"Every time he's on he does the best he can, no matter what the conditions are. And Roy is so intense about everything, so that it's far more important to him to dare, to try to achieve a particular peak, even if he falls on his ass in the attempt, than it is to play safe. That's what jazz is all about." Norman Granz
Known to his peers as "Little Jazz" due to his short stature, Eldridge was to be one of the most important trumpet players in jazz in a career that spanned five decades. I first heard him on the aforementioned Lester Young recordings that were made for the Verve label in the mid-late1950's. His range was spectacular and his tone was a little raspy - yet his riffs were never tasteless. He was steeped in the swing tradition, as was Young, but his style continued to evolve so that he was never outdated by the sweeping changes that occurred in the music with the advent of bebop and beyond.
Eldridge's trumpet playing is odd in that he was a musician who was not directly influenced by Louis Armstrong. This probably set him apart as he gained popularity playing with various swing outfits in the 1930's. Stylistically Eldridge himself stated that he was far more influenced by sax players than by trumpet players. It is argued that as Armstrong's playing became more predictable and less players were adapting to the decline of swing, Eldridge was probably the top trumpet player to come out of the 30's into the bebop 40s. His big breakthrough came with his association with Benny Goodman alumnus, drummer Gene Krupa, with whom he was to make many remarkable recordings in the early 40s.
One such recording was "Rocking Chair", a fantastic example of Eldridge's chops, recorded in July 1941. Stylistically the song really is a connect the dots in terms of jazz lineage - a "sweet" horn section makes the song flow while the swing beat is held up by Krupa on the brushes (a sound which I personally have evolved a real like for since hearing Buddy Rich on "The Lester Young Trio" album). Eldridge goes through the entire register of the trumpet and hits some dizzying high notes - all without losing an ounce of soul that the song calls for. Apparently Eldridge was "blind drunk" during this recording. After sobering up he begged Krupa never to release it. Two months later his pal Ben Webster played the song back to him. Eldridge remarked, "Who's that? It's not Louis, it's not Diz." It blew his mind after he discovered it was actually him on the record. Check it out:
There is probably something in the theory that he was the musical link between Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie. His style was innovative - he could play extremely fast - and Gillespie stated that "he was the messiah of our time." The song "Heckler's Hop" for example was to prove influential in directing Gillespie's style. Recorded in the late 30's with a small combo the song is fast and edgy. It's not hard to see how a song like this would have influenced many of the bebop players searching for a new musical direction in the early 40s.
He toured with many big names throughout the 40's, including a stint leading his own band. He emerged from a crisis of confidence after a successful stop in Paris in the early 1950's and it was around this time that he teamed up with Granz and the Verve label. He was prolific for the remainder of the decade. Health issues slowed him down later in his career. He became the leader of a house band in Manhattan during the 1970s and recorded sporadically. His final recording was the majestic "Montreaux 1977", a fitting album to close a long illustrious career.