In the world of jazz, high-note trumpeters are much admired — not just for their skill, but for their audacity. It takes a lot of courage to specialize in a type of playing that is very appealing to most listeners but is reminiscent of fingernails on a blackboard to others. One of the best at staying on the right side of that equation was Cat Anderson, who was for many years a mainstay of the Duke Ellington band.
William Alonzo Anderson grew up in an orphanage in Charleston, South Carolina, but as tough as that might have been — and it was there that he picked up the nickname ‘Cat’ for his fighting style — it also gave him the opportunity to learn to play the trumpet. By the time he was in his teens he was already beginning to use that talent professionally.
By the mid-1930s Anderson was showing up in bands led by established stars like Claude Hopkins, Erskine Hawkins, and eventually Lionel Hampton, but the biggest break of his career came along a little later. It occurred during the war years, when he joined up with the Duke Ellington band for the first of what would be several stints. Ellington enjoyed writing songs that showcased Anderson, who was a master with a muted trumpet in addition to his high-note skills.
In the post-war years and later, Anderson would occasionally venture out and lead groups of his own, and some of the records he made during those periods are still available, but he returned to Ellington’s outfit again and again. However, by the time the Duke died in 1974 Anderson was into the later years of his own career, and his increasingly erratic behavior was later proven to have a legitimate cause — he died of a brain tumor in 1981.