‘Tribute to Harry James’ sets Lamarissimo! stage swinging in March 4 Lamar Jazz Band concert
Harry James grew up in Beaumont , the son of circus performers. He started his musical career by learning to play drums, and then he moved on to trumpet. By age 12, he was leading the circus band. He started playing with dance bands as a teen, launching a career that led to fame as an orchestra leader, instrumentalist and film star.
The trumpet has never been the same. At the height of the Big Band era, it was James who brought trumpet playing to levels of popularity it had never enjoyed before. He was known for his colorful playing – and brought the instrument to life with an enthusiasm few others displayed.
On March 4, Lamar University’s award-winning Jazz Band will shine the spotlight on the legendary bandleader and trumpet virtuoso in “A Tribute to Harry James,” sure to be a highlight of the 2007-2008 Lamarissimo! season.
Show time is 7:30 p.m. in the Julie Rogers Theatre , 765 Pearl St. in downtown Beaumont . Bo-Mac Contractors Ltd. is the concert sponsor.
Wayne Dyess, director of jazz studies, will take on the role of the famed bandleader, and Lamar students will take the spotlight for James’ trumpet solos. Lamar President Jimmy Simmons will be featured on saxophone, joined by Dyess, on trombone, and vocalist Sarah Scoggins, a December 2007 Lamar music graduate from Silsbee.
“I am excited about presenting the music of Harry James,” Dyess said. “This is going to be plenty of fun.”
The evening promises to be a trip down memory lane – a collection of James’ greatest hits, including “You Made Me Love You” and “I’m Beginning to See the Light,” million-sellers for the band during the World War II era, as well as signature tunes like “Two O’Clock Jump.”
“In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning,” one of the few non-James pieces on the program, will feature Simmons. Scoggins will perform on a Harry James vocal medley and Dyess on trombone in “Sleepy Lagoon,” joined by student Cameron Wolfe of Houston on trumpet. Also performing on trumpet, students Amber Martell, of Dayton , will be featured on “Cherry” and Kerry Coleman, of Beaumont , on “Wild About Harry.”
The “Tribute to Harry James” theme was an easy – and timely – choice for Dyess, now in his 31st year as a band director at Lamar. The veteran trombonist returned recently from touring with the new Harry James Orchestra.
“I did the Texas ‘leg’ of their several-month tour that takes the orchestra from west coast to east coast and all points in between, with a European tour coming up in March,” Dyess said. “I was thrilled to be a part of it, even if for just four concerts – all sold-out houses.”
Dyess performed in Greenville and Kilgore before returning to his teaching duties at Lamar for a day. Then it was off to South Texas, where he played Harlingen and McAllen dates.
Instrumentalists with the Lamar Jazz Band hail from across Southeast Texas .
Because this is a Harry James tribute, this concert will showcase the entire trumpet section, including Matt Byars of Lumberton and Kirby Tanner of Nederland , in addition to Coleman, Martell and Wolfe.
Performing on saxophone are Monica Schmidt, Greta Brannan and Dina Bordelon of Nederland ; Kara Phillips, Vidor; Clayton Estepp, Kountze; and Robert Hallam, Jasper.
Members of the trombone section are Austin Wolfe, Houston; Joshua Safar, Vidor; Patrick Conn, Kountze; and Brandon Rhodes, Channelview .
The rhythm section features Michael Moore of Lumberton and Khan Thai, Port Arthur , guitars; Jarvis Bennett, Lufkin , piano; Patrick Todd, Port Neches-Groves, bass; and Tyler Henderson, Nederland , drums.
Besides the James hits, the performance will feature tunes made famous by Count Basie – “A Switch in Time,” the concert opener – and by one of James’ followers, Maynard Ferguson – “Cruisin’ for a Bluesin.’”
Harry James was born March 15, 1916, in Albany , Ga. His mother, Maybelle, was a star trapeze artist, and his father, Everette, the bandleader, for the traveling
Mighty Haag Circus. Harry began performing for the circus at age 4 as a contortionist – billed “the youngest contortionist in the world.” In 1923, the family moved to Beaumont , where young Harry showed an early affinity for music.
He played drums by age 7, began taking trumpet lessons from his father when he was 10. By age 12, he was playing trumpet with the Christi Brothers Circus Band. He began playing for local dance bands while still in high school.
Soon, James was performing nationally with various bands, most notably with Benny Goodman, and he became popular with the jazz crowd for his colorful, ear-shattering stage turns. He left to form his own band, Harry James and his Music Makers, which debuted in February 1939 at the Benjamin Franklin Hotel in Philadelphia . In June of that year, James hired an inexperienced Frank Sinatra – then working as a waiter in a New Jersey restaurant – as his male vocalist. In later years, Dick Haymes, Kitty Kallen, Connie Haines and Helen Forrest would thank him for giving them their big breaks. James’ band quickly earned a large following, producing several best-sellers throughout the 1940s.
“I want to have a band that really swings and that’s easy to dance to all the time,” he said in explaining his musical objective.
His success as a bandleader led to opportunities in Hollywood films, where he performed with his band and landed supporting and leading roles. While working in Hollywood , James met actress Betty Grable, and the two were married more than 20 years.
James continued to tour regularly in the 1950s, then retired for a brief time before returning for special engagements in Las Vegas , New York and other venues. In addition to playing trumpet and leading bands, James has cut soundtracks for numerous movies and is considered a pioneer in the jazz genre. He plays trumpet in the 1950 film “Young Man with a Horn,” dubbing Kirk Douglas. His recording of “I’m Beginning to see the Light” is part of the sound track for “My Dog Skip,” and his music is also featured in Woody Allen’s “Hannah and Her Sisters.”
James died in Las Vegas July 6, 1983, at age 67 – just nine days after his last performance.
In the trivia department, one of James’ sons, Rick James, was an assistant Texas attorney general who became responsible for enticing television personality Marvin Zindler of Houston to investigate the Chicken Ranch brothel in La Grange , eventually closing it down.
Coincidentally, last season’s Lamarissimo! jazz concert featured a soloist whose first trombone teacher was James’ father. Gordon “Early” Anderson, who drove from High Island to Beaumont for lessons, recalls the elder James as a “stern taskmaster.” Only later did he meet his teachers’ famous son. Anderson attended Beaumont High School and performed with Jimmy Simmons during the 1950s.
The March 4 concert is open to Lamarissimo! season ticket-holders. Individual tickets, $12 for adults and $8 for students, will be available in the box office beginning at 6:45 p.m. before the performance. Admission is free to students of Lamar University in Beaumont , with valid LU identification. The season will conclude Thursday, April 24, with the Cardinal Singers and Lamar Dance Company. The Lamarissimo! Concert Series is presented by the Lamar University Department of Music, Theatre & Dance. Call (409) 880-8144 for additional information.