My last post about Roy Eldridge and Dizzy Gillespie’s electrifying version of “Blue Moon” got me to thinking about another surprising encounter with “Little Jazz” on a record, some 25 or 30 years down the road. If there’s one sure thing to be learned about Roy from various sources – reading about him in books, listening to his records or hearing other musicians tell stories about him – it’s that he was probably the most competitive trumpeter who ever lived, especially around other trumpet players.
Even on his own, Roy was generally an intense and aggressive player, but often leavened the fireworks with some control, showing a lyrical and melodic side. Put another trumpeter next to him though, and look out. He saw red, his hackles rose and he went for the jugular, hitting the other guy with all the speed, power and range he had, trying to win a contest even if there wasn’t one. As Gillespie put it, “Roy just didn’t know how to behave around other trumpet players.”
Part of it may just have been his personality, and the fact that he was a little guy probably contributed a bit to the chip on his shoulder as well. He also came up when Louis Armstrong was paramount and cutting contests were the norm, there were guys around every corner in Harlem trying to cut you down to size or steal your gig. His bitter first-hand experiences with racism as the sole black player – and a star soloist at that – travelling with the bands of Artie Shaw and Gene Krupa wouldn’t have done much to soften his edge either. And then there was bebop to deal with.
Eldridge was one of the key, innovative trumpet stars of the Swing Era and an acknowledged inspiration to Gillespie, but, unlike his good friend Coleman Hawkins, who took the new music in stride and embraced it with some success, Roy felt betrayed and hurt by bebop, confused and left behind. His confidence badly shaken and feeling out of step, Eldridge took himself off to Paris around 1950 and extended his stay. He got himself together there and, realizing he still had lots left and that people still loved his playing, he returned stateside with a vengeance. Stepping into a key role in Norman Granz’ gladiatorial JATP format – often pitted against Gillespie – didn’t exactly douse Roy’s competitive flames any.
Cornettist Warren Vaché once told me this story which shows that Roy still had that fire in his belly even late in life when he had nothing left to prove to anyone. In the late ’70s a very young Warren played in the house band at the last incarnation of Eddie Condon’s in New York. Right next door was Jimmy Ryan’s, a club with a similar trad-Swing music policy, where Roy led the band for some years. Warren felt a little intimidated playing so close to such a legend, but early in his stint he thought he should pop round to pay his respects. He went by after his first set and arrived in the middle of Roy’s – the sets were staggered for obvious reasons. Roy got mad at him for showing up so early – “Vach, whatcha doin’ here on my first set? Shit man, I’ve barely even broken a sweat, come back later when my chops are warmed up!” Even well into his sixties, and having suffered a stroke some years earlier, Roy wanted to be in top shape in case he had to take the young man on.
Having learned all of this about Roy over time, about fifteen years ago I came across a Ruby Braff CD called THIS IS MY LUCKY DAY in a used bin. It was a compilation of two sessions from the ’50s, one an octet with Pee Wee Russell and the other a sextet with Eldridge on trumpet. Huh? Wait a minute, back up. I inhaled sharply and just about keeled over – Ruby Braff and Roy Eldridge, together? Oh my, oh dear…….there was bound to be blood.
Ruby was, like Roy, a very short man with something of a Napoleon complex and, while he didn’t quite share Roy’s extremely competitive nature as a trumpeter, he did have a well-earned and extensive reputation for being, well……….difficult. Prickly, volatile, acerbic, a tad paranoid with a hair-trigger temper. Not to mention downright crazy at times.
Setting aside my own fairly memorable first-hand experiences with Ruby, some of the stories I’d heard about his wild temperament ran through my mind. Like the wonderful quartet he co-led with guitarist George Barnes, which had Wayne Wright on rhythm guitar and various bassists, including Michael Moore. It was a great success musically, but eventually fell apart when the co-leaders regularly came to blows, or close to it. I’d heard they did a whole record date where Braff and Barnes didn’t speak or even look at each other.
Braff, Boston-born of Russian-Jewish parentage, once did a tour in Germany with a band that included Jake Hanna. Mid-way through it, Jake sent a postcard to Toronto booking agent and trumpeter Paul Grosney, himself a great fan and admirer of Braff’s. It said: “Groz, I’m in Germany with Ruby Braff. Tell all your Jewish friends Ruby’s getting EVEN!”.
Or the fact that Ed Bickert, who loved Ruby’s playing – the feeling was mutual – would no longer accept work with him, because he just couldn’t handle the eccentricity. Then there was the time when Toronto drummer Jerry Fuller gave Ruby a lift to his hotel after their gig at Bourbon St. and, as they pulled up to the door, Ruby bit Jerry’s hand, hard enough to break the skin. Not out of malice or anger, but just …..because.
So the thought of Ruby and Roy being in the same room at the same time – let alone actually playing music together – filled me with no small wonder. It was a bit like imagining Captain Queeg with Sugar Ray Robinson as his first mate. I would have bought the CD anyway because I love Braff’s playing and his records are all at least very good, but I had to have this one just to find out how this inauspicious face-off worked out.
Out of curiosity I skipped past the octet stuff to the Ruby-Roy tracks and imagine my surprise to discover that not only was no blood spilled, but nary a punch was thrown. Not only was there cooperation between them, but real sympatico, their tones and approaches dovetailed beautifully, they sounded like old buddies who’d been playing together for years. And even more amazing, while Braff plays like his usual self, this is some of the most measured and melodic playing I’ve ever heard from Eldridge – still swinging and intense as ever, but very lyrical and relaxed, almost – dare I say it? – gentle. He plays some very long, flowing lines and stays mostly in the middle register, something I wish he did more often, as he has such a beautiful sound there. All this in the company of not just another trumpeter, but the tempestuous Braff of all people, who is the more aggressive player here at times. You could have knocked me over with a feather.
If you don’t believe me, here are three sample tracks, with the exemplary rhythm section of Hank Jones on piano, Mundell Lowe on guitar, Leonard Gaskin on bass, and the great Don Lamond on drums. My only criticism is that I wish Roy and Ruby stretched out more and traded some, but perhaps that’s tempting fate.
I wish I’d known about this record when I played with Ruby in the 1980s, I would have loved to ask him about it and how it all went down. How did he manage to put Roy so at ease? Did he treat him with kid gloves, defer to him? I don’t know what kind of relationship they had, if any, if they were friends or just colleagues who respected each other. Maybe Ruby didn’t have to do or say anything, maybe there was just good natural chemistry between them, personally and musically. Perhaps Roy relished the role of being the more “modern” stylist here for a change, though l say that with tongue mostly in cheek, as both are timeless, very creative players.
Ruby Braff in the role of peace maker…..I know it sounds absurd, but something happened here to make Roy more civilized than was his wont in the company of a fellow trumpeter. It just goes to show that in jazz, you may think you know, but you never really do. That’s part of what makes it so great.
© 2016, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.