Roy Eldridge was born David Roy Eldridge on January 30, 1911 on the North Side of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His mother was a gifted pianist with a talent for reproducing music by ear, a talent inherited from her. He began playing piano at age five, took up drums at six, played bugle in church and by eleven began seriously honing the instrument, especially the upper register. Though lacking a proficiency at sight-reading, he could replicate melodies by ear effectively.
Eldridge’s early years had him leading and playing in a number of Midwest bands and absorbed the influence of saxophonists Benny Carter and Coleman Hawkins in developing an equivalent trumpet style. Leaving home after expulsion from high school in ninth grade he joined a traveling show at sixteen until it folded in Youngstown, Ohio. He then joined a carnival, returned home and found work in another traveling show. By 20, he led an orchestra, auditioned for Horace Henderson, played in a number of territory bands, formed his own short-lived band once again, moved to Milwaukee and took part in a cutting contest with Cladys “Jabbo” Smith.
Eldridge moved to New York in 1930, playing in Harlem dance bands, and got the nickname “Little Jazz” from Ellington saxophonist Otto Hardwick. He laid down his first recorded solos with Teddy Hill in 1935, led his own band at the reputed Famous Door nightclub and recorded a number of small group sides with singer Billie Holiday. He would join Fletcher Henderson’s band, becoming his featured soloist because of his ability to swing a band. He would move to Chicago to form a band with his older brother, playing saxophone and arranging. In the 40s he joined the Gene Krupa Orchestra, staying until the band broke up after Krupa was jailed for marijuana possession.
Over the course of his career, Little Jazz would play with Anita O’Day, Jazz At The Philharmonic, Coleman Hawkins, Ella Fitzgerald, Earl Hines, Abbey Lincoln, Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy, Kenny Dorham, Max Roach, Count Basie, Artie Shaw and the list goes on and on. His sophisticated use of harmony, including the use of triton substitutions, his virtuosic solos exhibiting a departure from the smooth and lyrical style of earlier jazz trumpet innovator Louis Armstrong, and his strong impact on Dizzy Gillespie mark him as one of the most influential musicians of the swing era and a precursor of bebop.
In 1971 trumpeter Roy Eldridge was inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame. After suffering a heart attack in 1980, he gave up playing. He died at the age of 78 on February 26, 1989 at the Franklin General Hospital in Valley Stream, New York, three weeks after the death of his wife, Viola.
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Kay Davis was born Katherine McDonald on December 5, 1920 in Evanston, Illinois. She studied voice and piano at Northwestern University, earning bachelor and master’s degrees.
In 1944 Kay joined Duke Ellington’s orchestra, singing alongside Joya Sherrill and Al Hibbler. She is best known for her wordless vocals in pieces such as “Transblucency” and “On a Turquoise Cloud” but also sang many lyrical compositions and is the only person Ellington ever allowed to reprise Adelaide Hall’s famous wordless vocal on “Creole Love Call”.
Although she never recorded as a solo artist, Davis’ tenure with Ellington’s band coincided with their increasing exposure on film, especially for Universal Pictures. She performed with Billy Strayhorn on the very first performance of his composition “Lush Life” at Carnegie Hall in 1948, though he wrote the song in the Thirties.
Kay toured England with Ellington alongside Ray Nance in 1948 and two years later with the full orchestra throughout Europe. In 1950 vocalist Kay Davis left the Ellington organization, got married and retired to Florida. After a long and full life, the vocalist passed away on January 27, 2012 in Apopka, Florida.
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Edward “Corky” Cornelius was born in Indiana on December 3, 1914 but was raised in Binghamton, New York. Learning music from his father who worked as a drummer in regional Texas dance bands, he began his professional career in the early 1930s.
The trumpeter was first hired by Les Brown, Corky would go on to play with Frank Dailey and Buddy Rogers but by 1039 was playing alongside Gene Krupa in Benny Goodman’s band. Following his short tenure Cornelius left with Gene Krupa when the later decided to form his own band.
It was during this period that Cornelius met and married popular vocalist Irene Daye and left Krupa for the Casa Loma Orchestra from 1941 until his sudden death from kidney failure at age 28 on August 3, 1943.
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Benny Moten was born on November 30, 1916. A solid and supportive bassist, he had a long career as a sideman for decades. He began seriously playing professionally in 1941 and quickly developed relationships with top players of the time.
Over the course of his career Benny played and recorded with such artists as Hot Lips Page, Henry “Red” Allen, Stuff Smith, Arnett Cobb, Ella Fitzgerald, Wilbur DeParis, Roy Eldridge and Dakota Staton, just to name a few. He toured Africa from 1956 – 1957.
Bassist Benny Moten, often confused or mistaken for pianist and bandleader Bennie Moten, was never a leader however he remained musically active as a sideman until the time of his death at the age of 60 on March 27, 1977.
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Billy Strayhorn was born William Thomas Strayhorn on November 29, 1915 in Dayton, Ohio but the family moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania shortly after his birth. Protecting him from his father’s drunken sprees his mother sent him to live with his grandparents in North Carolina, which is here he first became interested in music. He learned to play hymns on the piano and listening to records on her Victrola.
By high school he was back in Pittsburgh and began his music career studying classical music, writing a school musical, forming a trio that played daily on the radio and composing Life Is Lonely (renamed Lush Life), My little Brown Book and Something To Live For while still in his teens.
When the harsh reality of a black man making it in the white classical world shattered his 19-year-old ambitions, Strayhorn turned to the music of Art Tatum and Teddy Wilson and was guided into jazz. In 1938 he met Ellington, impressed him with an arrangement of a Duke piece, went to New York and collaborated with Ellington for the next quarter century. He composed Take The “A” Train, Chelsea Bridge, Day Dream, Such Sweet Thunder and A Drum I A Woman among others and the landmark score to the film Anatomy Of A Murder.
Billy was openly gay, participated in many civil rights causes, was a committed friend to Dr. Martin Luther King, influenced and help propel the singing career of Lena Horne, embarked on a solo career and continued to compose and arrange for Ellington.
Billy Strayhorn, composer, pianist and arranger whose compositions are known for the bittersweet sentiment and classically infused designs that set him apart from Duke succumbed to esophageal cancer on May 31, 1967. His final song “Blood Count”, composed while in the hospital, was the first track on Ellington’s memorial album for Strayhorn, …And His Mother Called Him Bill. The final track is a solo version of Lotus Blossom performed by Duke for his friend while the band was packing up.