Obituary: Al Hirt

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The Independent Culture
JAZZ PURISTS tend to scorn success and although the trumpeter Al Hirt came from New Orleans, the very cradle of jazz, his world-wide acclaim placed him outside the pale as far as most critics were concerned.

The son of a New Orleans policeman, Hirt was born in the Crescent City in 1922. He was six years old when his parents bought him his first trumpet at a local pawn shop. At high school he studied classical music before entering the Cincinnati Conservatory in 1940.

He spent his Second World War army service as a bugler and on his discharge worked with the big bands of Benny Goodman, the Dorsey Brothers and Ray McKinley. In 1950 he won second place in Horace Heidt's National Youth Opportunity Contest and became solo trumpet in Heidt's own band for a time.

In the 1950s, he returned to New Orleans, working by day as a pest exterminator, then leading his own band in the evenings at local jazz venues. One of his rat-poisoning colleagues was the clarinettist Pete Fountain and a lifelong friendship developed. The two would share responsibility for fronting the group, as Fountain explained: "Whoever had the bow tie got to lead the band. There was never any jealousy."

Hirt made his first recordings as a bandleader for the small Southland label in 1955 but three years later was signed up by the Audio Fidelity company, which specialised in producing technically perfect albums with a broad musical appeal. The coverage of these releases in hi-fi magazines with world-wide circulations did a great deal to boost Hirt's career and by 1960 he had been snapped up by the prestigious RCA Victor organisation.

Hirt's first album under his new contract, He's the King (1961), was soon followed by Al Hirt - Greatest Horn in the World, Horn A-Plenty and Al Hirt at the Mardi Gras and then, in 1963, his first million-selling LP, Honey in the Horn. He also had a gold disc award in 1964 for his popular single "Java".

In 1961 Hirt had opened his own club on Bourbon Street called simply "Al Hirt". It became one of the most popular music locations in New Orleans. The Duke Ellington Orchestra played two residencies there in 1970, at the first of which Ellington premiered, in "workshop" form, his New Orleans Suite commissioned by the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Hirt played at the festival alongside other New Orleans notables, his music contrasting with the playing of such traditional units as the Onward Brass Band.

At that time, Hirt's own group contained the pianist Ellis Marsalis, father of the trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, who was destined to take the jazz world by storm a decade later. For Hirt, the 1960s seemed to consist of a series of memorable career peaks. He played for John F. Kennedy's inauguration as US President, was the star attraction at Carnegie Hall in New York and headlined many television variety shows.

He also worked on a number of films, appearing in some as well as providing the music. His band appeared in a New Orleans sequence in the 1961 film Il Mondo Di Notte Numero Duo ("World By Night No 2") and Rome Adventure (1962). He was involved with four films in 1969, Un Homme Qui Me Plait (one sequence was set in his club), The Man Hunter, Viva Max and the Charlton Heston film Number One, in which he was seen in a night-club sequence.

Hirt was affectionately known as "The Monster" or "The Round Mound of Sound", on account of his stature and weight; he stood six feet two inches and weighed around 20 stone. He was full bearded and on the bandstand his big trumpet looked like a toy instrument in his big hands. His style was dynamic and explosive; one associate described it as "blowing down the throat of a hurricane".

In the late 1960s, he suffered a temporary setback when his lip was injured while he was taking part in a New Orleans street parade, but he came back to form when the injury healed. He was immensely popular with audiences and musicians alike and was indeed, at one time, the best-known trumpet player in the United States. In 1987 he was proud to be chosen to play the solo on Handel's Ave Maria for Pope John Paul II during the pontiff's visit to New Orleans.

In 1983 Hirt closed his Bourbon Street club after 23 years because, he said, "the area has become too dangerous and dirty", but he continued to produce a regular stream of albums, over 50 in all. He also achieved 21 Grammy nominations during his half-century career. He explained his success with disarming simplicity: "I'm a pop commercial musician, and I've got a successful format. If you have the ability to perform your musical idea, you become a good jazz player. Any performer can think of a musical idea. Only a well-schooled artist can produce the idea on his horn."

New Orleans played a major part in Hirt's life and he tried to arrange his career into short tours in order to stay at home as frequently as he could, to be near his wife and six children. He was a keen angler and knew the best fishing grounds for sea trout.

Hirt's health began to deteriorate a year ago. George Stegman, a friend and associate, explained that Hirt "was ageing and things were starting to fall apart". Pete Fountain said: "There will never be another like him; he was loved by trumpet players all over the world."

Alois Maxwell Hirt, trumpeter, bandleader and club owner: born New Orleans 7 November 1922; twice married (one son, five daughters); died New Orleans 27 April 1999.