Trumpeter Herman Autrey is most closely associated with the delightful pianist, vocalist, and bandleader Fats Waller and was a key member of a small inner circle of musicians who worked frequently in his bands. When Waller's manager, Phil Ponce, decided in 1934 to launch his talented client as a bandleader on the heels of a new recording contract with Victor, Autrey was one of the main players pitched to be part of the new Waller combo, along with drummer Harry Dial, guitarist Al Casey, and the fine reed man Gene Sedric. Prior to this big move, Waller was mostly busy as an accompanist and song plugger for publishers and record label managers such as Joe Davis, his talents as an entertainer bubbling up like lava in an active volcano no matter what the song or setting. Autrey appears on dozens and dozens of Waller recordings and the trumpeter never failed to come up with interesting twists in his solos, always playing with superb tone. Autrey came from a musical family in which both his father and two of his brothers were professional musicians. He began with the alto horn before switching to the much more popular trumpet, gigging as a teenager with a variety of bands in the Pittsburgh area before settling in Florida. He accomplished much of what was possible for a player of his talents in that state's somewhat limited jazz scene, then began working his way north again, putting in time on bandstands in Washington, D.C., then Philadelphia, and finally New York in 1933. His first professional engagement of any repute in the Big Apple was in the group of Charlie Johnson and he went on to become a regular associate of Waller shortly thereafter. Despite the extensive recordings and other commitments of Waller, the trumpeter also had the chance to regularly record with many other leading bands from the period, including Fletcher Henderson and Claude Hopkins.
He continued working as a freelance sidemen through the early and mid-'40s, building a reputation for driving, rambunctious solos played with an enormous tone. Violinist Stuff Smith liked working with him, as did pianist Sammy Price and bluesy bandleader Una Mae Carlisle. Several influential players worked in Autrey's own combos, most noticeably the brilliant pianist and composer Herbie Nichols. In the early '50s, Autrey was involved in a car accident that, although extremely serious, led only to a playing hiatus of a bit more than a year. He toured with Saints & Sinners, a popular swing revival band in the '60s, including European jaunts in both 1968 and 1969. The dreaded losing of the chops, a syndrome that hits trumpeters particularly hard, began to happen toAutrey in the '70s, but he borrowed a page from the Waller book and finished out his career with more of an emphasis on vocals.