Roy Eldridge

From New World Encyclopedia

Roy David Eldridge (January 30, 1911 – February 26, 1989), known as Roy Eldridge and nicknamed Little Jazz, was a foremost jazz trumpet player. He is considered a historical figure announcing the transition between swing and modern jazz.

Roy Eldridge was both an innovator on trumpet and one of the great stylists of that instrument. It is generally acknowledged that he represents the decisive link between the swing style derived from Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie’s bebop. Eldridge counts as the major representative of the trumpet in the late 1930s. He moved jazz trumpet from its initial role as a powerful, triumphant lead instrument to a more flexible style with long and complex lines resembling those of a saxophone, a change that would remain a permanent feature in modern jazz.


Eldridge was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and originally played drums, trumpet, and tuba. He began to play drums in his elder brother Joe’s band at the age of six. He played and sometimes led bands from his early years, first moving to St. Louis, where he played in some obscure, Midwestern “territory bands.” Early on, he absorbed the influence of saxophonists Coleman Hawkins and Benny Carter, specifically setting himself the task of learning Hawkins’ 1926 tenor saxophone solo on "The Stampede" and developing an equivalent trumpet style. [1]

Eldridge would next move to New York and play in several bands in Harlem, including that of Teddy Hill. He also made records and radio broadcasts under his own name. By the mid 1930s, Eldridge had become a fully matured trumpet player. In 1935-1936, he became the lead trumpet in the legendary Fletcher Henderson band that had just been recreated. Eldridge plays an outstanding solo on the band’s hit, “Christopher Columbus” (1936), and shines on other recordings as well, reaching real fame as the new trend-setter on jazz trumpet. In the late 1930s, Eldridge led his own combo (small band), producing some memorable recordings featuring his adventurous playing, most notably “Wabash Stomp” (1937). He also recorded with other artists, including Billie Holiday.

By the early 1940s, Eldridge had become the acknowledged leader on his instrument. By that time, it had become fashionable for white swing bands to hire top African-American soloists. Benny Goodman had hired trumpeter Cootie Williams away from Duke Ellington’s band. Similarly, Eldridge was hired by Gene Krupa to become the star of his new band in 1941. With him, he made several famous recordings, including his classic “Rockin’ Chair.” As a singer, he also duetted with Anita O'Day on the song, "Let Me Off Uptown," which became a novelty hit. In 1944, Eldridge joined the band of Artie Shaw, which increased his fame even further. However, this form of racial integration, even in the 1940s, caused trouble on various occasions.

After briefly leading his own big band, he again worked in a small group setting and began a collaboration with the Jazz at the Philharmonic concert tours in 1948.

By then, Roy Eldridge’s once revolutionary style was itself considered dated when compared with the developments of the bebop era. Suddenly lacking confidence, Eldridge moved into voluntary exile in France where, like many jazz greats before him, he was enthusiastically received. Upon his return to the United States, he continued playing and recording in a revived swing style with top musicians of that era, most notably Coleman Hawkins, for whom he had had a lifelong affinity, and Ella Fitzgerald.

After a stroke in 1980, Eldridge continued performing on piano and as a singer for the remainder of his life. He passed away on Feb. 26, 1989, in Valley Stream, New York.

Style and influence

When Roy Eldridge began to appear prominently on the jazz scene in the mid-1930s, jazz trumpeters had created a swing style essentially based on Louis Armstrong’s pioneering breakthrough of the 1920s. Along with Louis himself, a number of excellent trumpet players gave that initial style additional ease and refinement, while maintaining the horn’s triumphant nature. Examples are Cootie Williams, Jonah Jones, and Bunny Berrigan. With the sophistication added by the swing era to the New Orleans style of the 1920s, some trumpet players also began to play less straightforwardly, in a rhythmically and harmonically more complex manner. The trumpet began to sound less and less like the lead instrument in the old marching bands, primarily stating the melody, or “proclaiming” it with powerful assurance. More and more, the trumpet began to use flexible melodic lines, mimicking the saxophone.

Roy Eldridge is universally recognized as having played the key role in this transformation, leading to the even more complex and turbulent bebop style of Dizzy Gillespie. Sometimes, a lineage leading from Armstrong to Jabbo Smith, Henry “Red” Allen, Roy Eldridge, Howard McGhee, and finally Gillespie has been suggested, though there is something artificial and unfair in such simplified statements. Undoubtedly, however, Eldridge developed the playing of unevenly stretched patterns that had made Henry Allen’s solos sound modern already in the early 1930s. By the time Eldridge began recording with Fletcher Henderson in 1936, something really new had emerged.

Eldridge’s rhythmic power to swing a band was a dynamic trademark of the jazz of the time. So was his sophisticated use of harmony, including the use of tritone substitutions. He was very versatile on his horn, not only quick and articulate with the low to middle registers, but the high registers as well. The high register lines that Eldridge employed were one of many prominent features of his playing, another being blasts of rapid double time notes followed by a return to standard time (most typical perhaps is his 1936 solo on Henderson’s “Christopher Columbus,” where one set of high-pitched double notes towards the beginning literally project the entire band forward). It has been said that "from the mid-Thirties onwards, he had superseded Louis Armstrong as the exemplar of modern 'hot' trumpet playing."[2]

Eldridge's increasingly acrobatic style caused him to take many chances. Occasionally, his playing bordered on the stylistically outrageous, but he was never dull. In addition, he greatly changed the sound of his instrument as compared to the strong, largely straight tone of most earlier trumpet players when playing the open horn. Eldridge began to squeeze notes, at times producing tortured sounds to great expressive effect. Emotional impact, rather than classic beauty, seemed to be his primary aim.

These stylistic points were heavy influences on Dizzy Gillespie, who, along with Charlie Parker, brought bebop into existence. Gillespie has acknowledged that his own style came into being partly through his early efforts to imitate Eldridge’s style. Eldridge participated in some of the early jam sessions at Minton's Playhouse. A careful listening to bebop standards, such as the song “BeBop,” will reveal how much Eldridge influenced this genre of Jazz.


  1. Humphrey Lyttelton, The Best of Jazz (Robson Books, 1998). ISBN 1-86105-187-5
  2. Lyttelton, p. 414

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Balliett, Whitney. American Musicians Ii: Seventy-Two Portraits In Jazz. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. ISBN 9780195095388
  • Chilton, John. Roy Eldridge, Little Jazz Giant. London: Continuum, 2003. ISBN 9780826465351
  • Dance, Stanley. The World of Swing. New York: Da Capo Press, 2001. ISBN 9780306810169
  • Evensmo, Jan. The Trumpet of Roy Eldridge, 1929-1944: With a Critical Assessment of All His Known Records and Broadcasts. Hosle, Norway: J. Evensmo, 1979.
  • Giddins, Gary. Visions of Jazz: The First Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. ISBN 9780195076752
  • Lyttelton, Humphrey. The Best of Jazz. Robson Books, 1998. ISBN 1-86105-187-5
  • Schaap, Phil. Roy Eldridge Festival Handbook and Discography: A Lot of Little Jazz on 89.9: WKCR-FM's 123-Hour Marathon Tribute to Roy Eldridge, January 14, 1978 6 PM-January 19, 1978 9-PM (Unknown Binding). Publisher: P. Schaap, 1987.

External links

All links retrieved December 16, 2022.


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