Al Hirt; Legendary Dixieland, Pop Trumpeter Made 50-Plus Albums
Al Hirt, the legendary Dixieland trumpeter with a giant sound, died Tuesday in New Orleans at the age of 76.
In a career that ranged over 50 years, the 6-foot-6, 300-pound Hirt recorded more than 50 albums, four of which went gold and one of which went platinum. He was nominated for 21 Grammy Awards and won best non-jazz instrumental in 1964 for “Java.”
In his heyday--the 1960s--Hirt was a frequent guest on television variety programs hosted by the likes of Dinah Shore and Andy Williams. In 1965, he hosted a summer replacement series, “Fanfare,” for Jackie Gleason.
In 1967, Hirt headlined the half-time show at pro football’s first Super Bowl, with Green Bay and Kansas City playing at the Coliseum in Los Angeles. It was the first of five Super Bowl appearances for the entertainer.
“He was one of the best trumpet players all around the world,” clarinetist Pete Fountain, a longtime friend who played with Hirt on and off for more than 50 years, told the Associated Press. “He had everything--technique, stamina and education.”
Hirt, who died at home of liver failure, had been in extremely poor health since falling ill in late February. He was hospitalized for most of March, and his family revealed that he had suffered a stroke.
Fountain said last month that, in addition, Hirt had been in a wheelchair about a year because of knee problems.
The trumpeter was born Alois Maxwell Hirt in the Crescent City on Nov. 7, 1922. His father, also named Alois, was a policeman who gave his son his first trumpet, purchased at a pawn shop, when the boy was just 6. As the story goes, Hirt’s secondhand instrument had a faulty mouthpiece, and that flaw forced him to develop his wind power, which later left crowds and fellow trumpeters in awe.
As a youth, Hirt played in the Police Department Junior Band and studied extensively with many teachers. In 1940, he left New Orleans to study classical music at the Cincinnati Conservatory.
After World War II erupted, Hirt joined the Army in 1942, spending much of his tour of duty playing with the 82nd Army Air Force Band and developing his style. His principal influences were stars of the era, Harry James and Roy Eldridge.
At war’s end, the trumpeter toured with big bands led by Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey and Ray McKinley. Hirt got a break in 1949 when he won the Philip Morris Talent Contest and then joined the Horace Heidt Orchestra for a tour of the United States and Europe, mainly playing lead trumpet.
He went home to New Orleans as often as possible throughout his career. Describing himself as a homebody, he disliked touring and wanted to be in New Orleans with his wife and eight children.
He spent eight years--most of the 1950s--on staff at a New Orleans radio station, playing mainly lead trumpet. He also put his classical training to use performing with the New Orleans Symphony Orchestra.
He then formed a combo with Fountain, and they went to work playing at Dan Levy’s Pier 600 Club, performing Dixieland music.
It was as a Dixieland performer that Hirt first gained wide public attention. With the help of a series of RCA albums, from which he gained most of his financial success, he became a national figure playing in Las Vegas and New York’s Basin Street East, and guesting on TV variety programs.
In the ‘60s, Hirt moved on from Dixieland to produce hit commercial albums like “Honey in the Horn,” “Cotton Candy” and “Sugar Lips,” which brought him Grammy nominations and some scorn from the jazz mainstream.
“I’m a pop commercial musician and I have a successful format,” Hirt once told the New York Times in explaining his move away from Dixieland.
And although there was scorn, there were also critics who knew that underneath the commercial exterior was an accomplished musician.
“Beneath all the show biz bluster, Hirt was capable of vibrant, imaginative playing, executed with amazing virtuosity,” Don Heckman, the L.A. Times’ jazz writer, said Tuesday.
“If he had continued to pursue the first-rate, New Orleans-revivalist music he played with such spirit and enthusiasm in the late ‘50s, he may well have been the catalyst for keeping Dixieland music within the creative jazz mainstream,” Heckman added.
In the 1970s and ‘80s, Hirt stayed pretty close to home, running and headlining a nightclub that was popular with tourists and occasionally going out on tour. But his health started to decline.
When the chronically obese Hirt ballooned to a life-threatening 340 pounds and fell into depression in 1972, he elected to have intestinal bypass surgery to lose weight. That pared 80 pounds, improving his health--and, he insisted, his playing.
Other problems that occasionally forced him to cancel concerts were a numbness in his trumpet-playing arm and hand that required injections, and in 1970, a severely cut lip when he was hit in the mouth with a brick as he rode on a float in New Orleans’ raucous Mardi Gras parade.
During a Southern California tour with Fountain in 1997, Hirt had to bow out of concerts at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts and the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza. He traveled here with Fountain and his own backing quintet but spent the time in La Palma Intercommunity Hospital and a hotel room, recuperating from a kidney infection.
“Despite a rousing, if not inventive, performance,” a Times reviewer said, the group “just could not overcome the loss of its leader’s big, brassy personality.”
Hirt had been a favorite jazz performer in Southern California for four decades. In 1964, he appeared at the Hollywood Bowl with Arthur Fiedler of the Boston Pops Orchestra. The concert was scheduled after the two recorded “Horn a Plenty, Pops Goes the Trumpet.”
“Things went swimmingly,” reported Mimi Clar, a Times critic. “Mr. Hirt fulfilled his assignments with crackling workmanship that gleamed as brightly as his brass horn.
“To those used to the coltish antics of Mr. Hirt in his customary Dixieland role,” she added, “it may have seemed strange to see him stand, the soul of dignity, and primly perform Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto in E flat. But the trumpeter appeared right at home with the orchestra, and he dispatched the three movements of the Haydn composition with assurance and precision.”
In the 1980s and 1990s, Hirt was still being invited to California, offering concerts at Pasadena’s Ambassador Auditorium and Disneyland and sweeping into town frequently to tape television shows on jazz.
Of the many albums he recorded, he told The Times’ late jazz critic Leonard Feather that he liked “Horn a Plenty” and “Trumpet and Strings.”
Hirt played with some of the greats of jazz in New Orleans. He once related a story to Feather of the time he gave a jazz trumpet to the son of his piano player.
The boy “would go down to the club in the daytime and . . . would start banging around on the piano,” Hirt said. “I finally said, ‘Hey, let’s get that kid away from here. Give him this trumpet.’ ”
The piano player was Ellis Marsalis. The son was Wynton.
Hirt is survived by his wife, Beverly, and six children from a previous marriage.
Listen to audio clips of “Java” and other Al Hirt favorites on The Times’ Web site: https://www.latimes.com/hirt