Born January 30, 1911, in Pittsburgh, PA; died February 26, 1989, in Valley Stream, NY; son of Alexander and Blanche (Oakes) Eldridge; married Viola Lee Fong, 1936; children: Carole Elizabeth.

When Otto Hardwick, a reed player with Duke Ellington's orchestra, gave Roy Eldridge the lasting nickname "Little Jazz," he was referring to Eldridge's physical stature, not his standing as a jazz performer. Although Eldridge's name may not be as familiar to the general public as those of fellow trumpeters Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie, his immense talent had a profound effect on the history of jazz. In addition to playing an important role in jazz's transition from the swing styles of the 1930s to the bebop styles of the 1940s and 1950s, Eldridge was an exceptional soloist in his own right. He combined a somewhat abrasive personality with a deep sensitivity and created a musical style that, as drummer Phil Brown told Musician 's Burt Korall, "went directly to the heart."

Korall described Eldridge as "a crucial link on trumpet between Armstrong's New Orleans-inflected 'hot jazz' and the bebop innovations Gillespie helped pioneer." The musical succession from Armstrong to Eldridge to Gillespie is audible on recordings; yet, seeing Eldridge as merely a transitional figure does him a great disservice, for he was one of the most gripping performers jazz has produced. Gary Giddins maintained in Rhythm-a-ning: Jazz Tradition and Innovation in the 80s that, of the trumpeters of his generation, "Eldridge was the most emotionally compelling, versatile, rugged, and far-reaching." He had a tone like no other, which Giddins described as holding "an urgent, human roughness that gave his music an immediacy of its own. You felt you could hear the sound start in the viscera and work its way through his small body, carving a path in his throat, and bursting forth in breathtaking release."

Eldridge first heard Armstrong in 1932, and he learned much from the trumpeter's sense of logic and climax. Unlike Armstrong, however, he played uptempo numbers with a passion and relentless energy that sometimes verged on the demonic; as Whitney Balliett described in American Musicians: Fifty-Six Portraits in Jazz, "He would work so hard and grow so excited that he would end up caroming around his highest register and sounding almost mad." However, though Eldridge was undoubtedly Gillespie's most important early influence--indeed, the younger musician's first recordings sound almost like a carbon copy of Eldridge's playing--he never completely assimilated the bebop techniques that Gillespie later used to such advantage, remaining at heart a swing-era player.

Eldridge began playing drums at the age of six; he later learned to play the bugle, and then the trumpet, receiving some early training on that instrument from his brother Joe, a fine musician in his own right. As he became proficient on the trumpet, Eldridge turned for inspiration not just to brass players such as Rex Stewart and Red Nichols, but also to saxophonists, whose work he admired for its speed and fluidity. In fact he was given one of his first jobs--in a carnival--because he could play note-for-note saxophonist Coleman Hawkins's solo on Fletcher Henderson's recording of "The Stampede." Eldridge's fascination with sax playing would continue to be an important influence on his style; later he would come under the spell of such players as Lester Young and Chu Berry.

Eldridge formed his first band in Pittsburgh while he was still a teenager, using the pseudonym Roy Elliott. During the 1920s he played with several important groups, including Horace Henderson's Dixie Stompers and Zach White's band. In 1930 he moved to New York City, and soon carved out a niche for himself with many of Harlem's finest ensembles, including those led by Cecil Scott, Charlie Johnson, Teddy Hill, and Elmer Snowden. The trumpeter came to national prominence in the mid-1930s, when he was a featured soloist with Fletcher Henderson's orchestra. In 1936 Eldridge began a two-year residency at Chicago's Three Deuces club, with an ensemble that included his brother Joe on alto sax. According to Stanley Dance in The World of Swing, Eldridge called this group, which was featured on a radio broadcast seven nights a week, "the best little band I ever had."

During the 1940s Eldridge played with the ensembles of two important white band leaders, Gene Krupa and Artie Shaw. At a time when integration of musicians on the bandstand was still a subject of great controversy, Eldridge's presence in the brass section of these groups represented an important step forward. Yet, Eldridge himself had to face frequent humiliation from club owners and the managers of restaurants and hotels. A sensitive and proud man, this wounded Eldridge deeply, and the scars never entirely healed.

As an example, Eldridge once recalled an episode that took place at a club in San Francisco while he was on tour with Artie Shaw's orchestra. Having just played a successful job at a ballroom in Oakland, across the bay, he was excited about the upcoming performance, and showed up early. However, he found that, because he was black, he was not allowed in the front door, even though his name was on the marquee. Although he was eventually allowed to enter, he was so upset he couldn't perform. As he told Musician' s Korall, "I threw my mutes and things around; I began to cry. I knew it wasn't my fault. Finally I was told to take the evening off. And all I wanted to do was play my horn!"

In 1950 Eldridge went to Europe with a sextet that featured clarinetist Benny Goodman, tenor saxophonist Zoot Sims, and pianist Dick Hyman. Because of the relative lack of racial tensions in Europe and the immense appreciation that audiences there showed him, Eldridge decided to settle in Paris. He lived there for almost two years, during which he played, recorded, and wrote a music column for the Paris Post.

After returning to New York in 1951, Eldridge made a highly acclaimed appearance at Old Stuyvesant Casino, and then spent much of the 1950s playing with Norman Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic, an ensemble founded to present jazz performances in a concert setting. For two years he was a member of the group that accompanied singer Ella Fitzgerald; he also played briefly with Count Basie's orchestra in 1966.

In 1970 Eldridge began what was to become a ten-year run at Jimmy Ryan's, a club that featured Dixieland--a style of jazz playing that revived the instrumentation, repertory, and playing styles popular in jazz of the teens and the 1920s. Although many jazz fans viewed this type of music as archaic, Eldridge approached each evening's performance with typical enthusiasm and inventiveness.

A heart attack in 1980 brought Eldridge's run at Ryan's, as well as his trumpet playing career, to a close. Thereafter he performed only occasionally, usually as a singer, drummer and even pianist. Tired of the demanding life of a full-time musician, he began to spend more time at home with his wife, Vi, and focus on his hobbies of carpentry, radio engineering and electronics. Eldridge died in 1989, just three weeks after his wife.

by Jeffrey Taylor

Roy Eldridge's Career

Jazz trumpeter, c. 1927-80. Using pseudonym, formed own band Roy Elliott and His Palais Royal Orchestra, 1920s; played with Greater Sheesley Shows carnival band and "Rock Dinah" revue, c. 1927; played with Horace Henderson's Dixie Stompers, 1928; made recording debut with Teddy Hill orchestra, 1935; soloist with Fletcher Henderson orchestra, 1935-36; led own band at Chicago's Three Deuces club, site of numerous radio broadcasts, 1936-38; briefly studied radio engineering, 1938; formed ten-piece group that became resident band at New York City's Arcadia Ballroom, 1939; played with Gene Krupa, 1941-43, and Artie Shaw, 1944-45; featured with Jazz at the Philharmonic ensemble during group's first national tour, 1949, and continued to perform with group, 1950s; performed with small groups that variously included Benny Carter, Johnny Hodges, and Coleman Hawkins, 1950s; accompanied Ella Fitzgerald, 1963-65; played with Count Basie, 1966; led group at Jimmy Ryan's, New York City, 1970-80; made occasional guest appearances, usually as vocalist, 1980-89.

Roy Eldridge's Awards

Westinghouse Trophy Award; Citation of Merit, Muscular Dystrophy Association.

Famous Works

Further Reading


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