Born: January 30, 1911 | Died: 1989 Primary Instrument: Trumpet
Roy David Eldridge was a jazz trumpet player in the Swing era. His sophisticated use of harmony, including the use of tritone substitutions, resulted in him sometimes being seen as the link between Louis Armstrong-era swing music and Dizzy Gillespie-era bebop. Roy's rhythmic power to swing a band was a dynamic tradmark of the Swing Era.
Eldridge was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His nickname was Little Jazz. Eldridge played in the bands of Fletcher Henderson, Gene Krupa and Artie Shaw before making records under his own name. He also played in Benny Goodman's and Count Basie's Orchestras, and co-led a band with Coleman Hawkins.
Also known as “Little Jazz” Roy Eldridge was a fiery, energetic trumpeter who although short in stature was a larger-than-life figure in the jazz trumpet lineage. Stylistically speaking he was the bridge between the towering trumpet stylists Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie. One of a significant number of jazz greats from the city of Pittsburgh, Roy’s first teacher was his alto saxophonist older brother Joe. Some of the great rhythmic drive of Eldridge’s later trumpet exploits could be traced to his beginnings on the drums, which he began playing at age six. His first professional work came at age 16 when he worked with a touring carnival, playing drums, trumpet, and tuba.
As a trumpeter Roy had come under the spell of Louis Armstrong’s irrisistable style. Among his earliest band affiliations were Oliver Muldoon, Horace Henderson, Zack Whyte, Speed Webb, and his own band, under the banner of Roy Elliott and his Palais Royal Orchestra. In 1930 he made the move to New York and headed straight to Harlem, where he gained work with a number of dance bands, among which was the Teddy Hill band. He left New York in 1934 to join the Michigan-based McKinney’s Cotton Pickers alongside such significant players as tenor man Chu Berry. Roy returned to New York to rejoin Teddy Hill in 1935, with whom he made his first recordings as a soloist in 1935. Prior to recording with Hill he toured with the Connie’s Hot Chocolates revue. After he left Hill’s band he became the lead trumpeter in Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra where his upper register abilities were highlighted. It didn’t take long for Eldridge to exert himself as a bandleader, forming his own octet in 1936 in Chicago; a band which included his brother Joe.
Eldridge recorded with the Three Deuces group, then left music for a short time to pursue radio engineering, an interesting twist considering his Chicago group’s nightly radio broadcasts. By the end of the 1930s after freelancing with such a wide array of bands Eldridge had gained notice as one of the swing bands’ most potent soloists. In 1941 he joined drummer Gene Krupa’s band. Not only did he provide trumpet fireworks for Krupa’s outfit he also sang, recording a memorable duet with the band’s female singer, Anita O’Day (NEA Jazz Master 1997) on the tune “Let Me Off Uptown” in 1941. Later, after Krupa’s band disbanded in 1943, and a period of freelancing, he toured with the Artie Shaw band in 1944. After Shaw it was time for Roy to lead his own big band, though economics forced him back to small swing groups.
In 1948 Norman Granz recruited Eldridge for his Jazz at the Philharmonic, an ideal situation for Roy since he was one of the ultimate jam session trumpeters. He toured briefly with Benny Goodman and took up residence in Paris in 1950, where he made some of his most successful recordings. He returned to New York in 1951 and continued freelancing with small bands, including work with Coleman Hawkins, Benny Carter, Ella Fitzgerald, and Johnny Hodges. He made notable albums for Verve Records alongside Hawkins and continued freelancing and leading a house band at Jimmy Ryan’s club in New York. In 1980 he was felled by a stroke but that didn’t cut off his musicality. Disabled from the rigorous demands of playing the trumpet, Eldridge continued to make music as a singer and pianist until his 1989 passing.