Some musicians are just misunderstood, especially pop instrumentalists. The most recent example of this is probably Kenny G. Constantly lambasted by jazz critics, he claims they don’t get it. “I wouldn't say I'm a jazz player…I'm a sax player that has a style that I made up. Nobody else can play like me.”
Al Hirt is clearly one of Kenny G’s forefathers. An instrumental pop phenomenon during the 60s, he managed to draw the ire of many in the “jazz community” who admired his chops and thought he wasted them. Miles Davis probably expressed this best: “He’s a very good trumpet player, but that’s some corny [stuff] he plays.”
To which Hirt would probably have countered: “I’m a pop, commercial musician, and I’ve got a successful format. I’m not a jazz trumpet and never was a jazz trumpet.”
Born in New Orleans in 1922, his father, a policeman, got him his first trumpet when little Alois was six. This was probably the last time he was called either Alois or little. He grew up to be a big man, teetering around 300 pounds and earning the nicknames Jumbo and the Round Mound of Sound.
By his 13th birthday, New Orleans newspapers hailed Hirt as a “child prodigy.” At 18 he attended the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music (on a scholarship, natch), studying with former Sousa lead trumpet player Dr. Frank Simon, until entering the Army during WWII (as his unit bugler, of course).
Beginning his pro career after his hitch, he worked in the big bands of both Dorsey Brothers and Benny Goodman before going solo in the mid 50s. He started recording in the late 50s, and by 1962 he began a 15-year stint atop Playboy’s annual jazz poll. He also opened his own club in New Orleans’ French Quarter. His 1964 version of Alan Toussaint’s “Java” brought him to an even broader audience, hitting #4 on the pop charts.
A decidedly wide-ranging musician, he seemed as comfortable on TV as in a small club, playing Rimsky-Korsakov with the Boston Pops as playing “When The Saints Go Marching In” with his life-long buddy Pete Fountain. He worked with other trumpeters including Dizzy Gillespie to Wynton Marsalis. Among his earliest jobs was blowing the horses to post at a local track and one of the high-points of his career was playing “Ave Maria” solo before Pope John Paul II and 150,000 others at a Papal mass in New Orleans – an moment the book commemorating the event described as sounding “like a solitary trumpeter on judgment day.”
“Jumbo could play anything,” Fountain remarks.
Hirt passed on of liver failure in 1999, but – despite lots of health problems that forced him to play from a wheel chair – he continued to perform until just weeks before his death. “He’s part of New Orleans,” Fountain told the New York Times at the time Hirt’s death. “When you say Al Hirt, you say New Orleans. When you say New Orleans, you say Al Hirt.”