Trumpeter Roy Eldridge: Nifty Cat

Trumpeter Roy Eldridge: Nifty Cat

Written by Anne E. Johnson

Trumpeter Roy Eldridge used to tell people that he got his incredible ear for music from his mom, who could reproduce anything at the piano. Ironically, while his mother was alive, he only wanted to play drums. It was only after her death when he was 11 that he started to take the trumpet seriously. Although he never learned to read music well, he grew up to be a respected innovator of jazz harmony. This big talent was known by the nickname “Little Jazz.”

Eldridge was born in Pittsburgh in 1911. By 1925 he had dropped out of school and was on the road, trying to make it as a musician. Fascinated by Fletcher Henderson, the young trumpeter mimicked his style as closely as he could, but he was quickly finding his own sound. He also had a natural gift for musical directing, and by age 20 was an experienced bandleader. But he gave up one regular musical director position to be just a player in the band led by Harold Henderson, Fletcher’s brother.

As with most up-and-coming jazz musicians of the day, Eldridge set his sights on New York City. He moved there in 1930, taking the Harlem clubs by storm. Duke Ellington thought he was one of the best young trumpeters around. But Eldridge also spent a lot of time in Chicago, often playing with his brother, saxophonist Joe Eldridge. Over the years he would tour with Gene Krupa, Teddy Hill, and Artie Shaw, as well as sitting in gigs and sessions with many of the biggest names in jazz. After a long career, Eldridge died in 1989 at the age of 78.

Two main factors characterized Eldridge’s style: intense energy and harmonic experimentation. He was especially imaginative when it came to phrase endings, focusing on a type of chord called a tritone substitution to lead back to the home, or tonic, chord.

Enjoy these eight great tracks by Roy Eldridge.

  1. Track: “Yard Dog”
    Album: [Released as a single]
    Label: Decca
    Year: 1946

The big band playing on this 10-inch single was a small group known as Roy Eldridge and His Orchestra. It was the B-side to Hoagy Carmichael’s “Rocking Chair.”

This is Eldridge’s first recording of his own tune, “Yard Dog,” which he would later re-record for Mercury, eventually released on Verve. The later 1951 version was conceived at a much faster tempo, as a bebop number.

  1. Track: “The Heat’s On”
    Album: Roy’s Got Rhythm
    Label: EmArcy
    Year: 1955

Compiled from tracks recorded in 1951 for a couple of other labels, Roy’s Got Rhythm was finally released four years later on EmArcy. Besides Eldridge, it’s an all-Swedish lineup, including Carl-Henrik Norin on tenor saxophone and the wonderful bass trumpet sound of Lende Sundevall.

There are lots of fun tracks on this album, such as Ellington’s “Echoes of Harlem” and Parts 1 and 2 of Louis Jordan’s “Saturday Nite Fish Fry.” For a condensed definition of Eldridge’s signature sound, absolutely hopping with energy, you can’t beat “The Heat’s On.”


  1. Track: “Une Petite Laitue”
    Album: French Cooking
    Label: Vogue
    Year: 1951

On the Vogue Records album French Cooking, Eldridge joins with 10 European players – mostly French and German – to play swing tunes. Among his colleagues here is the outstanding and innovative pianist/composer Claude Bolling.

There’s no trumpet part on “Une Petit Laitue”; instead, Eldridge sings. In French, sort of. It’s less about meaningful lyrics and more about using nonsense French syllables as a bridge to more standard scat sounds.


  1. Track: “Embraceable You”
    Album: The Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge, Pete Brown, Jo Jones All Stars at Newport
    Label: Verve
    Year: 1957

Verve founder Norman Granz was a staunch advocate for Eldridge, providing him with many opportunities to perform and record. In the late 1940s he invited Eldridge to join his Jazz at the Philharmonic project, a stable of musicians who were put together in various combinations on tour and in the studio. JATP lasted for over 30 years.

Although this Granz-produced album does not bear the JATP imprimatur, Granz put it together in a similar way. Eldridge is part of a world-class ensemble group performing at the Newport Jazz Festival. Coleman Hawkins plays tenor saxophone, Pete Brown plays alto, and Jo Jones is on drums. Jones’ “All Stars” are Ray Bryant on piano and Al McKibbon on bass.

Eldridge’s muted trumpet solo that starts Gershwin’s “Embraceable You” barely acknowledges the famous melody, instead meandering around its expected notes.


  1. Track: “Jolly Hollis”
    Album: The Nifty Cat
    Label: Master Jazz/New World
    Year: 1970

Eldridge got the nickname Little Jazz when he first moved to Harlem because he was so short. Decades later, his friends in the New York jazz scene gave him another affectionate name: Nifty Cat. This album is evidence of just how nifty that cat was in 1969, when Eldridge recorded it live.

What’s notable is where he made this album. It was a place called Jimmy Ryan’s, which specialized in Dixieland, an area of jazz that Eldridge hadn’t shown much previous interest in. He was an innovator, not given to retro styles. He described his modernizing approach as “wanting to build a bridge from Louis Armstrong to something.” It worked, and he kept playing at the club until 1980.


  1. Track: “Bad Hat Blues”
    Album: Oscar Peterson and Roy Eldridge
    Label: Pablo
    Year: 1974

After Norman Granz sold the Verve catalogue, he started a new venture, Pablo Records. One of the artists he managed to re-sign was Eldridge, who ended up cutting quite a few discs for Pablo. Pianist Oscar Peterson also followed Granz.

Oscar Peterson and Roy Eldridge is a real treat, an intimate and intricate duo album. It’s just trumpet and piano, with Peterson occasionally switching to organ, as he does on this track. “Bad Hat Blues” is one of two original tunes they wrote specifically for these sessions.


  1. Track: “On the Sunny Side of the Street”
    Album: Happy Time
    Label: Pablo
    Year: 1974

Another incredible lineup graces this album. Eldridge and Peterson have a rhythm section this time. Not just bass (Ray Brown) and drums (Eddie Locke), but also the golden touch of Joe Pass on guitar.

Granted, the versions of “On the Sunny Side of the Street” that have been recorded by jazz greats are legion. This one features Peterson and Pass sharing two full choruses of gentle bop decoration before Eldridge comes in to sing at 2:17. His third time through becomes a scat-and-guitar conversation, followed by a couple of choruses on trumpet.


  1. Track: “Montreux Blues”
    Album: The Trumpet Kings at Montreux
    Label: Pablo
    Year: 1975

The Trumpet Kings were a combo fronted by Roy Eldridge, Dizzy Gillespie, and Clark Terry, playing both together and separately. They made several live albums. This one, recorded at the Montreux Jazz Festival, was produced by Granz.

Eldridge was an admirer of Gillespie from his youth (Eldridge was six years older). The two giants wrote “Montreux Blues” in collaboration with Louis Bellson, who played drums on the album. The rest of the rhythm section was just as heavenly: Oscar Peterson on piano and Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen on bass. (You can read more about NHØP in an earlier Copper column in Issue 155.


Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/public domain, cropped to fit format.

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