Eldridge actually played drums first, at age 6, then took up the trumpet at 12.
He won the Down Beat poll as top jazz trumpeter in 1942 and ’46, the Metronome poll from 1944-46, and an Esquire Silver Award in 1945.
With his exuberant personality and keen sense of competition, he played his horn with precision, crackle, and speed. Inspired more by jazz saxophonists than other trumpeters, he would practice for eight hours a day, work a job that night, then go jam at an after-hours club.
“Your horn . . . is like a woman,” Eldridge once remarked. “If you’re not in shape, you better not mess with it.”
given name David Roy Eldridge
birth Jan. 30, 1911, Pittsburgh, PA
death Feb. 26, 1989, Hempstead, NY, “cardiopulmonary arrest”
father Alexander Eldridge, a contractor
mother Blanche Oaks, d.1922?
siblings 12 [ sic ] incl. Joe, an alto saxophonist and violinist, b.Oct. 1907, and Michael
school David B. Oliver High School, Pittsburgh, PA
wife Viola Lee Fong, a dancer and hostess, b.Feb. 20, 1912, m.Jan. 24, 1936,
d.Feb. 1, 1989, “after a lingering illness”
daughter Carole Elizabeth Eldridge, b.Mar. 23, 1945
hobbies photography; working around his home, incl. gardening, carpentry; electronics
Before forming his own group, Eldridge worked as a musical sparkplug for various leaders.
While he was with Elmer Snowden’s band at Small’s Paradise in Harlem in 1931, the saxophonist Otto Hardwicke gave him the nickname “Little Jazz,” because Eldridge so enjoyed playing and seemed to be “blowing all the time.” (Of course, the description also fit because Eldridge was not much over 5 feet tall.)
From October 1935 to early September 1936, Eldridge was lead trumpeter and occasionally sang with Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra, which was working at the Grand Terrace on the South Side of Chicago.
His feature numbers with Henderson included Stealin’ Apples, Christopher Columbus, Jangled Nerves, and You Can Depend On Me.
“We had Chu Berry, and Buster Bailey, Joe Thomas and, of course, Big Sid Catlett. That band was school,” Eldridge remarked years later to jazz historian Dan Morgenstern.
When Eldridge left Henderson, he organized his own 8-piece group to play at the Three Deuces, a small club in Chicago’s “Loop.”
Members of his band included his brother, Joe, and Scoops Carey (on alto saxophones), Truck Parham (bass), and Zutty Singleton (drums).
They recorded six sides for Vocalion in January 1937, including Wabash Stomp, Florida Stomp, and Heckler’s Hop, and broadcast on a frequent basis over radio station WBBM, a CBS affiliate.
On February 9, 1937, Eldridge was a guest on Red Norvo’s coast-to-coast radio show from the Blackhawk on S. Wabash Ave.
Eldridge and his band took time off from the Three Deuces to go on a lengthy tour of eastern and southern cities late in the summer, including a limited engagement at the Hotel Sterling in Cincinnati, OH. They returned to the Three Deuces in October, once Eldridge recovered from a bout of pneumonia.
It was Fletcher Henderson’s brother, Horace, who suggested that Eldridge move to New York City, considered the "Big Apple,” meaning the "big time."
“He would tell me stories about how you’d go into a club and begin playing and think you were doing really well,” Eldridge recalled to writer Bob Karlovits. “And then this guy who had been asleep over in the corner would get up, pick up his horn, start at low G and not stop until he was up at high G. And that was something in those days. Those kinds of stories were all very romantic and intriguing and made me want to work.”
In 1939 Eldridge formed a new, 10-piece group for a residency that began in March of that year at the swanky Arcadia Ballroom in New York City and went on to last some six months.
His brother, Joe, remained on alto sax, joined by some different sidemen including Franz Jackson (tenor saxophone) and Panama Francis (drums).
Soon, they were heard broadcasting from the Arcadia.
“In addition to his triumph with the dancers in the ballroom, Eldridge is one of the leading radio lights in the east,” it was stated in the Chicago Defender newspaper. “His programs, reaching the waves thrice weekly, are rated among the best over the ether.”
Eldridge and his band opened at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem for a week starting October 7, 1939.
Shortly afterwards, they made eight recordings, including You’re a Lucky Guy and Pluckin’ the Bass, for the Varsity label. Ken Kersey was the pianist for the session held in December.
During March and April 1940, Eldridge and his band worked for five weeks at the Golden Gate Ballroom in New York City, then switched to Kelly’s Stables on 52nd St. there.
According to jazz critic Leonard Feather, in 1940 Charlie Barnet wanted to hire Eldridge “to be featured as a solo artist and possibly incorporated later in the regular brass section with the full band.” (Although the deal fell through, Eldridge got to play trumpet in Barnet's band on the two days in February 1944 when it recorded a bunch of sides - some were released by Decca, others were used on an AFRS "Downbeat" program, and a few were included on World transcriptions.)
But in April 1941, Eldridge did join Gene Krupa’s orchestra, sitting in the brass section and playing on all tunes, thereby becoming what was reported as the first African-American to join a white band as a regular, full-time sideman.
Eldridge's trumpet was featured with the Krupa band on the instrumentals After You've Gone and Rockin’ Chair. He sang and soloed on Knock Me a Kiss and, most famously of all, with Krupa’s female vocalist Anita O’Day, on Let Me Off Uptown.
Krupa disbanded in June 1943.
Eldridge remained around New York City, recording some transcriptions with a septet for World on November 16 of that year and beginning a series of commercial recordings with a big band for Decca in June 1944, including a new version of After You've Gone, and two tunes closely identified with other musicians, I Can’t Get Started, which was Bunny Berigan's theme, and Body and Soul, Coleman Hawkins' most requested tune.
In September 1944, Eldridge joined the new band of Artie Shaw, which Shaw assembled following service in the Navy. The band played in theaters and at military bases, and made recordings for Victor, including Little Jazz, Summertime, The Man I Love, and A Foggy Day, each of which featured Eldridge to good effect.
Eldridge stayed with Shaw for a year and, while with him, was allowed to continue to make recordings under his own name at Decca, including Fish Market, Little Jazz Boogie, and Embraceable You.
After leaving Shaw, Eldridge put together a touring big band, which, for example, along with co-star Dorothy Donegan, a boogie-woogie pianist, wowed patrons at the Regal Theatre in Chicago during the first week of June 1946.
But he later admitted to writer Morton Cooper, “I’d had my share of touring with big bands; I’d left Artie Shaw and lost my shirt in shepherding 22 musicians on the road. The whole idea of hitting the road again big hit me as just too much trouble. I’d played enough one-nighters.”
So Eldridge gave up his orchestra and agreed to become a featured player with
Norman Granz’s “Jazz At the Philharmonic” concert group, which opened a tour of the west coast and midwest at the Geary Theatre in San Francisco on October 6, 1946. It must not have been hard to convince Eldridge to join the package, since a couple of his early idols, cornetist Rex Stewart and saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, were also part of the ensemble at that time.
Otherwise, Eldridge led his own combos off and on during the late ‘40s, and returned to Krupa’s band for a 7-month period from January to July 1949.
“You don’t get to stretch out in a big band. And things kind of get set,” Eldridge later observed to Dan Morgenstern.
But didn’t he supposedly say at one point that he would never again work with a white band?
“What I did say was, ‘I’ll never in my life work with a big band again,” Eldridge explained. “Yes, I know, there’ve been a lot of writeups about my hassles with Jim Crow, and that makes a dandy headline. The point is, I never said it. Down Beat said I said it, and the book ‘Hear Me Talkin’ To Ya’ said I said it, but I never said it. And it’s rankled in me all this time.”
In fact, he even re-united with Krupa once more, for the 1956 Verve hi-fi album “Drummin’ Man,” which also featured Anita O’Day.
Roy Eldridge in His Own Words:
“I am a competitive type person.”
“I like to hear a note cracking . . . A real snap. It’s like a whip when it happens.”
“. . . one of my tunes now that I get money from now but that it is a thousand years too late, was
‘Drum Boogie’, that I wrote for Gene Krupa. I get a little taste of that now, but I should have got a
taste way back when and I would have been straight on that, just that one alone . . . Who got the
money? The publisher got the money, the band leader got the money, his manager got his share
and that was it.”
“I very seldom play any tapes of mine. I got boxes and boxes of tape in the house where a friend
of mine every time I go to Chicago he says, he gets them from all over, wherever they go, he puts
them on tape. For instance, I played a couple, like I played some tapes with Gene Krupa back in
the 40s, you know. They are fantastic.”
“It’s not the same as it was then. There was always some place to play then. If you couldn’t
play in one club, you could go down the street and play in another. Now, the clubs that are
around don’t want any jamming in them, no way.”
“But as far as slowing down, I figure it like this. I work four nights a week and I think that is
enough. I play hard, you come and catch me play hard and I played strongly 20 years ago, you
know. So I haven’t lost anything, except for a few teeth. Age hasn’t got nothing to do with it man.”
“I don’t run all over my horn like I used to, you understand what I mean. When I came to New
York I was the fastest cat, fast as grease lightening [ sic ].”
For about three decades from 1950 on, Eldridge fronted his own small combos at clubs like the Metropole in New York City and the London House in Chicago, did concerts now and then with “Jazz At the Philharmonic” or in other all-star settings, and recorded for labels including Clef and Verve.
“When the money didn’t happen, I’d split,” he commented to Bob Karlovits. “And the money never did happen, so I split a lot.”
Eldridge also made several appearances on Mutual’s “Bandstand” radio program, including a guest shot with Johnny Richards’ 18-piece unit on August 17, 1957; was featured soloist with Ella Fitzgerald from late 1963 to March 1965; and worked with Count Basie’s band from July to September 1966.
For about ten years starting in 1969, Eldridge played a lot of Dixieland (and other) music with a quartet at Jimmy Ryan’s on W. 54th St. in New York City.
In 1980, Eldridge was incapacitated by a stroke.
Even if afterwards he had to completely give up blowing his trumpet, he was still able to sing, and he returned to playing the drums and even the piano.
Besides, he could relax a little at his home outside New York City.
“Eldridge’s living room has a thick greenish rug, a fireplace with a mirror over it, a television set, a sofa, two wide-shouldered leathers chairs, a picture window that looks out on the street, and a stairway to the second floor. A kitchen is visible beyond the stairway, and to its left is a dining room,” jazz author Whitney Balliett reported. “In a small alcove-den between the dining room and the front door are some of Eldridge’s trophies-a down beat award for placing first in the 1946 trumpet poll, an Esky statuette from Esquire in 1945, a certificate of appreciation from Mayor John Lindsay, a letter of appreciation from President Carter for playing at the White House.”
Around 1935, while with Teddy Hill's band at the Savoy Ballroom, Eldridge had met the woman who would become his wife, “Vi.” They were married for over a half-century, and she was content to be a homemaker and raise their daughter.
Just three weeks after Vi died in 1989, Eldridge passed away.
Perhaps that was one solo he just couldn’t play.
“Article 3-No Title,” Chicago Defender, Feb. 13, 1937, p.20.
Whitney Balliett, “Little Jazz,” in American Musicians II: Seventy-one Portraits in Jazz
(New York City: Oxford University Press, 1996), pp.172-178.
John Chilton, Roy Eldridge: Little Jazz Giant (New York City: Continuum, 2002).
Morton Cooper, “Roy Eldridge Still Top Trumpeter,” Chicago Daily Defender, Feb. 18,
---, “Eldridge Found Jim Crow Bitter Foe,” Chicago Daily Defender, Feb. 19, 1963, p.16.
Dept. of Health, Hempstead, NY, “Certificate of Death” for David Roy Eldridge.
Dept. of Health, New York, NY, “Certificate of Death” for Viola Eldridge.
“Eldridge Ork: Roy’s Aggregation Returns to Famed Kelly’s Stables,” Chicago Defender,
Oct. 26, 1940, p.21.
Leonard Feather, “Eldridge, David Roy,” in The Encyclopedia of Jazz (New York City:
Horizon Press, 1955), pp.189-190.
“’Greatest’ Jazz Unit On Another Tour,” Chicago Defender, Oct. 5, 1946, p.10.
George I. Hall, Gene Krupa and His Orchestra (Laurel, MD: Jazz Discographies Unlimited,
Bob Karlovits, “Ex-trumpeter Eldridge ‘blew it’ and is happy,” Chicago Tribune, Sept. 27,
1984, p.N A11B.
---, “Tempo/Arts: Eldridge’s trumpet is muted, but with no regrets,” Chicago Tribune,
Sept. 20, 1984, p.E7.
Tom Lord, “Eldridge, Roy,” in The Jazz Discography: Volume 6 (West Vancouver, British
Columbia, Canada: Lord Music Reference Inc., 1993), pp.E74-83.
Dan Mather, Charlie Barnet: An Illustrated Biography and Discography (Jefferson, NC:
McFarland & Company, Incorporated, 2002), pp.51 and 82.
Dan Morgenstern, “Little Jazz Goes a Long Way,” Down Beat, Mar. 19, 1959, p.18+.
---, “Little Jazz: The Fire Still Burns,” Down Beat, Feb. 4, 1971, p.14+.
J. Bradford Robinson, “Eldridge (David) Roy,” in The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz,
Second Edition: Volume 1 (New York City: Grove’s Dictionaries Inc., 2002), pp.691-693.
“Roy Eldridge, 1911-89,” Down Beat, May 1989, p.11.
“Roy Eldridge Bandstand Radio Aug. 17,” Chicago Defender, Aug. 14, 1957, p.17.
“Roy Eldridge Held Over At Golden Gate,” Chicago Defender, Mar. 23, 1940, p.20.
“Roy Eldridge Opens Apollo This Friday: First Trip to Harlem After Triumph On Broadway,”
Chicago Defender, Sept. 30, 1939, p.21.
“Roy Eldridge Ork In Frisco,” Chicago Defender, Nov. 20, 1948, p.17.
“Roy Eldridge Returns From Eastern Tour,” Chicago Defender, Sept. 4, 1937, p.11.
“Roy Eldridge Seriously Ill At Hospital,” Chicago Defender, Oct. 2, 1937, p.11.
“Roy Eldridge Shines Again At N.Y. Dance,” Chicago Defender, Sept. 23, 1939, p.21.
“Roy Eldridge Stars At ‘Plugged Nickel,’” Chicago Defender, Sept. 5, 1963, p.10.
“Roy Eldridge To C. Barnett [ sic],” Chicago Defender, Aug. 3, 1940, p.20.
“Roy Eldridge to play at the London House,” Chicago Daily Defender, Mar. 1, 1971, p.11.
Jim Standifer, interview with Roy Eldridge, May 19, 1980.
“Sweet and Bitter,” Down Beat, Apr. 1989, p.11.
“Tops Here,” Chicago Defender, June 1, 1946, p.10.
John S. Wilson, “Roy Eldridge, 78, Jazz Trumpeter Known for Intense Style, Is Dead,”
New York Times, Feb. 28, 1989, p.B7.
I would like to expand this tribute with, if possible, a new interview of someone who was important to Roy Eldridge's life or career. Are you an alumnus of his band, a member of his family, or a collector who is knowledgeable about his accomplishments? Please contact me via e-mail