LOUIS ARMSTRONG was the paragon of trumpet-players until the emergence of Roy Eldridge in the middle Thirties. Eldridge was a fast, hot player with a phenomenal technique. Johnny Letman took him as his model and, while Letman was not an innovator like Eldridge, nor was he an erratic soloist - Eldridge could be swept into an avalanche of aberrant taste at the drop of a high C.
Not that Letman had so much chance to impress, for he spent most of his life until the Sixties buried in big bands, theatre-pit bands, musical shows and commercial studios.
Although he began his career as a jazz soloist with Nat 'King' Cole's small band as long ago as 1933, it was not until 1959 that British listeners heard him via a powerful performance on a handful of tracks on a Columbia album, Cascade of Quartets. The small band he led in New York at that time included the pianist Dick Wellstood and the bandleader-drummer Panama Francis.
He joined Nat Cole in Chicago and stayed for a year, but continued to work in the city until he went on the road with the Horace Henderson band in 1941, leaving in 1942 to join Red Saunders for a year. In 1943 he worked in a munitions factory in Detroit and played there at night with the altoist Ted Buckner's band.
Letman moved to New York in 1944 and immediately showed himself to be amongst the top ranks of sidemen, working with name bands like John Kirby's and Lucky Millinder's. He joined Cab Calloway's Orchestra in 1947, stayed for two years and rejoined Calloway in both 1950 and 1958. In 1949 he played in Milt Buckner's band and was in the Count Basie Orchestra when it opened at the Savoy Ballroom in 1951.
But his stay with the Count was brief, and he chose instead to work in television and on Broadway, leading his own small groups in the New York clubs at night. He played at Eddie Condon's Club and in the mainstream and Dixieland bands led by the trombonists Wilbur de Paris and Conrad Janis, and for the steam-rolling tenor player Sam 'The Man' Taylor.
Letman soloed on albums by Chubby Jackson, Panama Francis, the violinist Stuff Smith and under his own leadership in 1959-60. Among the Broadway plays he appeared in were Marathon '33 and Never Live Over a Pretzel Factory (1964). By 1968 he was sufficiently well-known to appear regularly at US jazz festivals and to tour France, where he recorded another album under his own name with the organist Milt Buckner and the guitarist Tiny Grimes.
Amongst the leaders he recorded for in the Seventies were Lionel Hampton, Earl Hines and the drummer Cozy Cole. He came to Europe again for an extended visit in 1985-86, when he toured with the New Orleans Blues Serenaders (actually the band and singers from the musical One Mo' Time) and appeared at jazz festivals throughout Europe and the United States. He continued with his studio work and in 1990 toured Europe with the Harlem Jazz And Blues Band.
Letman's playing was inspired and consistent, and it was probably his choice of the secure but more mundane studio jobs which kept him from individual fame.