As a teenage jazz fan in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, I always had my eyes – and ears – open for any piece of music that became popular enough to cross over from jazz to pop. Since not many teenagers at that time were into jazz, I think I was a little (OK, a lot) defensive about it, and I felt validated when a tune made that transition.
There were a number of crossover hits, but if you were around at that time you might remember an addictive trumpet piece that not only hit number one on the charts but also won a Grammy for the burly trumpeter. That horn-blower’s name was Alois Maxwell Hirt, and the song was his biggest hit, “Java.”
Al Hirt was yet another product of the musical Mecca of New Orleans but as he neared adulthood he left home, first to study music and then to serve in the wartime Army — as a bugler. Following his service time he began to work professionally, but although he was classically trained, the supremely talented young musician began working in some of the big swing bands of the 1940’s.
He eventually returned to New Orleans and settled into a long and productive musical career, mostly centered around his favorite type of music — Dixieland jazz. It was also the kind of music he loved to play with his lifelong friend, clarinetist Pete Fountain. (The subject of another of my articles.)
Although Al steadily sold records and was a popular and well-known entertainer for years, it was in the 1960’s that he really hit his stride and became a national star. He appeared on the charts with a number of songs in addition to the previously mentioned coffee-flavored one. They were mostly bouncing pop tunes such as “Cotton Candy” and “Sugar Lips,”
He also sold a lot of records with novelty tunes like “Theme From The Green Hornet,” based on “Flight Of The Bumblebee” and given new life by Tarentino. In fact, in spite of Al’s preference for Dixieland he recorded every type of music from country-pop to jazz. (Although he was quoted as stating that he was not a jazz trumpeter — but some of his recordings say otherwise. Try this clip of “I Can’t Get Started.”)
He spent decades as a regular fixture on the New Orleans music scene, until his death in 1999. He was a virtuoso with a technical brilliance that could be dazzling, and he left behind a musical legacy that is heavily weighted toward his main love — Dixieland. A lot of music fans will always wonder if he should have spent more time with traditional jazz, or even classical music, but it was his choice to make and that’s as it should be.