Howard McGhee (1918-1987); A Forgotten Jazz Trumpet Giant

During 1945-50 Howard McGhee was, without doubt, one of the best and most exciting bebop trumpeters in jazz, he was an exciting and very fluent improviser with a sound entirely of his own, and was especially known for his rapid fingering and powerful range.

Some have called him the "missing link" between Roy Eldridge and Fats Navarro (Navarro certainly influenced Clifford Brown who influenced most of the post-1955 trumpeters).

Howard McGhee

Left to right: Fats Navarro, Howard McGhee and Milt Jackson.

McGhee originally played tenor, not taking up trumpet until he was 17. He was with Lionel Hampton in 1941 and then joined Andy Kirk (1941-42), being featured on "McGhee Special." McGhee also featured in the highly noted bop sessions at Minton's Playhouse and Monroe's Uptown House, all the while modernizing his style away from Roy Eldridge and much more towards Dizzy Gillespie. He was with Charlie Barnet (1942-43), returned to Kirk (where he sat next to Fats Navarro in the trumpet section) and had brief stints with Georgie Auld and Count Basie before joining Coleman Hawkins in California in 1945; together they recorded some great swing-to-bop transitional music (including "Stuffy," "Rifftide" and "Hollywood Stampede") which are truly classic.

Howard McGhee stayed in California into 1947, playing with Jazz at the Philharmonic, recording and gigging with Charlie Parker (including the ill-fated "Lover Man" date) and having an influence on aspiring young trumpet players on the West Coast. His Dial sessions were among the most exciting recordings of his career and back in New York he recorded for Savoy and had a historic Blue Note recording meeting with Fats Navarro (1948).

In this video Howard is joined by Sonny Stitt (alto) and J.J. Johnson (trombone).

But like so many jazz musicians of that period, drugs started to adversely affect McGhee's career. He toured during the Korean War, even recording in Guam, and also had sessions for Bethlehem (1955-56) but was inactive during the greater part of the 1950s. Hs long spells of jazz inactivity are surely one reason that his name is not better known today as an early bebop 'great.' But he recorded some strong sides for Felsted, Bethlehem, Contemporary and Black Lion during 1960-63 and a quartet outing for United Artists (1962) but (with the exception of a one-off big band date in 1966) was largely off records again until 1976. He had a final burst of activity during 1976-79 for Sonet, SteepleChase, Jazzcraft, Zim and Storyville but by then Howard McGhee was largely forgotten and few knew about his early link to Fats Navarro, Parker and Clifford Brown.

Robin A. Brace, 2007.

(I acknowledge some debt here to comments about McGhee by Scott Yanow elsewhere on the 'net').

Jazz; A Musical Passion - homepage