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a Symbol of New OrleansCopyright © 1999The Scotsman, 1999
Hirt, AlAl Hirt was inextricably associated with the city of New Orleans and the so-called Dixieland jazz style, but his long and very successful career spanned a wide range of music, from overtly commercial work through to performing a Trumpet Concerto by Haydn with Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops Orchestra.
Hirt lived up to his nickname of Jumbo, and not just on account of his portly frame. His colourful personality was accompanied by an unusually big, powerful sound on trumpet, an attribute which he ascribed to learning to play on his first instrument, a trumpet acquired in a local pawn shop which had been badly repaired, and required excess blowing power which remained with him.
He was born Alois Maxwell Hirt, and acquired that instrument at the age of six. He made his professional debut as a sixteen year old when he was hired to blow fanfares at a local race track, a job which also fostered a lifelong (and often financially injurious) attraction to horse-racing.
He attended the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music from three years from 1940 to 1943, an experience which laid down a solid musical foundation, and left him with a breadth and flexibiity which he put to good use. He served in the Army until 1946, then began his musical career in earnest after the war.
Hirt's impressive technical command of the horn made him an ideal band player, and he worked for a variety of name bandleaders, including Horace Heidt, Ray McKinley, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, and Benny Goodman. He returned to New Orleans, where he formed his own jazz band with the clarinetist Pete Fountain in 1950 (a later version of his band in the mid-Sixties also featured his brother, Gerald Hirt, on trombone), and worked on occasion with the New Orleans Symphony Orchestra.
Although he is primarily regarded as a major exponent of Dixieland, a robust and popular style based on a simplification of the original polyphonic New Orleans tradition pioneered by the likes of King Oliver and Louis Armstrong in the 20s, Hirt was by no means a strict traditionalist.
His own style revealed significant influences from the playing of great swing era trumpet players like Roy Eldridge and one of his acknowledged models, Harry James, and he often employed sophisticated band arrangements as well as the more free-wheeling Dixieland approach.
His fame in the USA reached well beyond the jazz audience. He was regularly featured on television, including the popular Lawrence Welk Show, and had his own network show for a time in the 60s, the peak decade of his fame. He played at President Kennedy's inauguration in 1961, and enjoyed several pop hits, including the country and western-flavoured Java (1963) and Cotton Candy (1964).
Many of these ventures aroused disapproval in jazz circles, but he said that he considered himself to be a commercial pop musician rather than a real jazz soloist. While there is some truth in that claim, his best jazz work, notably on albums like Our Man From New Orleans (1962) and Horn-A-Plenty (1963), reveals it to be rather too self-effacing. He was a powerful and rousing jazz soloist when the mood took him.
The trumpeter suffered a setback in 1970 during a Mardi Gras parade when he was struck on the lip by a stone thrown at a float on which he was playing, and it took some time to recover his full power on the horn. He remained a fixture of the New Orleans scene, and ran a club on the city's Bourbon Street until 1983, when he closed it down, blaming rising crime figures for scaring away tourists, a claim that brought him into conflict with the Mayor's office.
He was forgiven the slur, however, and was invited to perform a solo trumpet version of Handel's Ava Maria to mark the visit of Pope John Paul II to the city in 1987, an event he considered a highpoint of his career.
Hirt is also credited with introducing the best known of the current generation of American jazz musicians, Wynton Marsalis, to the trumpet. Marsalis recalled that Hirt gave him his first instrument as a youngster while sitting in his club with two more famous trumpeters, Clark Terry and Miles Davis (his father, pianist Ellis Marsalis, was playing in Hirt's band at the time). Wynton also recalled that Miles advised him against taking the gift, saying that trumpet was too difficult an instrument to learn.
Hirt continued to play until recently, often sitting in at the club run by Pete Fountain in the city, although failing health led to his using a wheelchair in the final year of his life. He died at home after being released from hospital, where he had been treated for liver complaints.