Thursday, April 29, 1999

Trumpeter's life a long Mardi Gras


The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Lambasted by jazz critics but admired by Miles Davis for the prodigious technique he learned at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, Al Hirt, who died Tuesday at 76, was second only to Louis Armstrong in popularizing traditional jazz trumpet.

        Both men were natives of New Orleans. But though Mr. Armstrong is as well remembered for his early jazz innovations as for his later pop hits, Mr. Hirt was always a crossover artist. He spent a lifetime making Dixieland music part of the American soundtrack.

        In 1964, the year of the Beatles, the trumpeter's Top 40 hits, “Java,” “Cotton Candy” and “Sugar Lips,” battled the Fab Four for the top of the charts.

        He recorded more than 50 albums, including the million-selling Honey in the Horn. “Java” won a Grammy for best non-jazz instrumental, one of 21 Grammy nominations Mr. Hirt received in 70 years of trumpet playing.

        Alois Maxwell Hirt got his first trumpet at 6, but it was at CCM that he gained the skills that would earn him the title, “King of the Trumpet.” After graduating in 1941, he spent World War II as an army bugler.

        On his discharge, he caught the end of the big band era, joining the Benny Goodman Orchestra in 1946.

        He honed his classical chops with occasional symphony orchestra gigs, but most of his early postgraduate work came in the trumpet sections of both Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey's bands as well as Horace Heidt's more commercial group.

        In the '50s, he frequently worked with New Orleans clarinetist Pete Fountain. In 1960, leading Al Hirt's Dixieland Six in Las Vegas, his mix of musicianship and showmanship landed him regular appearances on national television. He was such a success there that he was invited to perform at John Kennedy's inauguration.

        In 1962, despite his insistence that he was “a pop commercial musician” rather than a jazz man, he won trumpet honors in Playboy magazine's annual jazz poll, the first of 15 straight wins.

        He became a regular at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, which will honor him in Sunday's closing ceremonies. He was at ease in any performing situation, even at Farm Aid VII in 1994 when he shared the stage with Willie Nelson, Neil Young & Crazy Horse and the Gin Blossoms.

        In recent years he reunited with his old friend Mr. Fountain for summer tours that included the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. But failing health made him cancel last year's tour.

        He did make it back to his old college town, though. He returned to Cincinnati last fall to serve as grand marshal of the 22nd annual Oktoberfest-Zinzinnati. Here, the King of the Trumpet joined the King of the Kazoo, Rick Hubbard, to lead 25,000 kazoo-wielding Cincinnatians in “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

        That tongue-in-cheek performance was, in its quirky way, a fitting coda to Mr. Hirt's career. A disciplined, well-trained trumpeter who worked hard at refining his sound, he knew that it takes more than technique to be a professional musician.

        A true son of Mardi Gras, Al Hirt never forgot that music was a celebration of life and that the audience is an integral part of the performance. And most of all, he never forgot that music should be fun.


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