Jimmie Lunceford will long be remembered as the leader of a powerful, swinging big band that rivaled on record, and exceeded in person, the orchestras of Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman and Count Basie. His band differed from many of the other big bands of the 1930s and 1940s in that Lunceford’s group was noted less for its soloists (although they boasted several outstanding ones) than for its incomparable sax section and sterling ensemble work. Additionally, most bands of the period used a four-beat rhythm while the Lunceford orchestra also developed and added, a distinctive two-beat swing, often played at medium, eminently danceable tempos. Finally, they pioneered (as an ensemble) playing slightly “behind the beat” which imparted a truly compelling drive to their outstanding arrangements -and proved irresistible to the dancers. Altogether, these components produced a unique sound that became known during the Swing Era as the “Lunceford beat”. Jimmie Lunceford recruited the nucleus of his band while an athletic and music instructor at Manassas High School in Memphis, Tennessee. It was here, in 1927, that he organized a student jazz band called the Chickasaw Syncopators. By 1933, after five often despairing years of scuffling, trumpeter, vocalist and most importantly, arranger Sy Oliver joined the band - and they were now poised for greatness. The final, key element to the success equation was white manager Harold Oxley who’d partnered with Lunceford late in 1932. In January, 1934, through Oxley’s relentless efforts (Lunceford was his sole client) and the orchestra’s undeniable talent, they secured an all important long-term booking at NYC’s already legendary Cotton Club, which included nightly coast-to-coast radio broadcasts. Further propelled by popular, new RCA victor recordings (switching to Decca that Summer) - by 1935 Jimmie Lunceford’s Orchestra had achieved a national reputation and earned the enduring nickname: the “Harlem Express”. Always recognized as one of the top swing bands throughout the Swing Era, homage was paid by many other famous bands as they attempted to imitate the trademark showmanship (they traveled with there own lighting/spotlighting specialist) and magnificent appearance (as many as seven, totally different custom-tailored uniforms per day for theater appearances, such as the Paramount & Loews State on Times Square, for example) of the Lunceford Orchestra -Lunceford’s good friend and chief admirer Glenn Miller coming closest. Jimmie rehearsed his outfit endlessly and was receptive to new, young arrangers who constantly (so enamored were they with the band) came to him with fresh ideas (George “The Fox” Williams brought in “The Morning After”, Margie Hyams “Take It!” and Bud Estes “I’m Alone With You” & “Indian Summer”, just in 1940) with the most important of these being his own trumpet player Gerald Wilson, who had joined the band in June, 1939 at age 20. His pioneering, progressive charts which included Hi Spook, On The Alamo, Jersey Bounce, Rockin’ Chair and the timeless Yard Dog Mazurka were the catalyst for the greatest period of the Lunceford aggregation -from the beginning of 1941 until July, 1942. The raw power (presaging later Kenton orchestras) and polish of this most potent edition of the Lunceford powerhouse is clearly evident on all of the Decca recordings from this period (which unfortunately are all too few) but most notably on Strictly Instrumental, Impromptu, You’re Always In My Dreams, Blue Prelude, 24 Robbers and Chocolate -the latter three penned by the excellent, but often overlooked Roger Segure. Further adding to the appeal of the band were the personable vocals by several of Lunceford’s men and the use of truly exceptional vocal trios and quartets. The finest discs by the latter are arguably Rain, Since My Best Gal Turned Me Down and It Had To Be You -but the biggest selling and most famous were My Blue Heaven, Ain’t She Sweet and Cheatin’ On Me. The two stand-out individual vocalists, were trombonists Henry Wells (1934-1935) and the vastly underrated Trummy Young (1938-1942). Highlights for Wells, were Stardust, Solitude (one of the best ever), Jealous, and Remember When. Trummy sang the big Lunceford hits Margie, T’ain’t What You Do and stellar renditions of I’m In An Awful Mood, I Wanta Hear Swing Songs, Watcha’ Know Joe and Easy Street. There are dozens of superb Jimmie Lunceford records, that are still great listens today, most importantly Pavanne, Wham, Hell’s Bells, By The River St. Marie, Sweet Sue(Just-You), Mix-up, Down By The Old Mill Stream, Blues In The Night (another of their big hits), scintillating renditions of Dinah, The Lonesome Road and Put On Your Old Grey Bonnet, plus their haunting closing theme, Uptown Blues. Unfortunately, because so many of Lunceford’s discs were purely commercial and overall, Jimmie didn’t record nearly as much as all of the other famous, jazz-oriented big bands -Lunceford may never receive his just due as a leader. Not only is the orchestra’s phenomenal showmanship lost on the recordings we do have, but most of their best tunes were never recorded due both to the length of the arrangements and the penchant Lunceford & manager/partner Oxley shared for making money on the commercial music which was accorded high priority in the recording studios. A few of the greatest “lost” Lunceford performances were Edwin Wilcox’s brilliant South Of The Border, Sy Oliver’s spectacular Bugle Call Rag (featuring a lengthy “trumpet battle”), a marvelous saxes and Freddy Webster feature of Embraceable You from the pen of Roger Segure and Bud Estes’ glorious Indian Summer.
Composer and arranger Billy Moore Jr. spent a year with the band (Sy Oliver personally brought him in as his “replacement” in June, 1939) and left a vital impression with his Belgium Stomp, Monotony In Four Flats, and the hits Chopin’s Prelude #7 and What’s Your Story Morning Glory? He quit over acrimonious monetary disputes. A handful of Lunceford men followed over the next 16 months for similar reasons. The wonderful Freddie Webster had joined on trumpet in late April, 1942 and the orchestra reached a short-lived peak that Summer in Los Angeles, during engagements at the Orpheum Theater and the Trianon Ballroom in nearby South Gate, California. However, one of two essential (to the distinctive Lunceford “sound”) and irreplaceable members left on July 19th -stellar soloist, vocalist, arranger and leader of the saxophone section -Willie Smith. Again it was about money. From that moment forward, the great Lunceford orchestra was never again deserving of that moniker. Dynamic drummer Jimmy Crawford (the other irreplaceable musician) was gone six months later, as were Trummy Young and Freddie Webster… Pianist and key Lunceford arranger Edwin Wilcox, who’d been with Jimmie in 1928 (and was still there at the time of Lunceford’s untimely death nearly 20 years later) said in 1967: “We blamed Jimmie for the problems, because we told him what the trouble was…later, those of us that stayed, he treated better (financially) -but by then, it was too late…” Ironically, the final edition of the band was probably the best since the Summer of 1942, and Jimmie had plans to bring back certain key people, but his sudden death (at just 45 years of age) while fulfilling a personal appearance obligation -ended those hopes, which had been long anticipated and hoped for by Jimmie’s legions of fans.
The hallmark Lunceford style, generally identified with Sy Oliver (although many other arrangers contributed to the band’s vast book), influenced several bandleaders and arrangers right up to the 1960s. Glenn Miller was highly influenced by EVERYTHING Lunceford, Stan Kenton’s early (1940), four-part “Suite For Saxophones” (e.g. Tribute To A Flatted Fifth, Reed Rapture, Elegy) bore the unmistakable imprimatur of Lunceford’s saxes and also included Opus In Pastels which ( although after 1943 dropped the direct Lunceford “quote” of severe staccato passages), remained in Stan’s book as a personal favorite right up until his 1978 death. Stan’s monster 1945 hit, Intermission Riff was a very close “cousin” to Yard Dog Mazurka. Tommy Dorsey, after Sy Oliver joined his band in late 1939, borrowed much from the Lunceford tradition. Many albums described as tributes to Lunceford have been recorded including those by Sy Oliver, George Williams, Billy May, The American Jazz Orchestra, The Jimmie Lunceford Legacy Orchestra and others. The much-esteemed Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra carries Lunceford chart restorations in its books, such as Swingin’ On C, Yard Dog Mazurka and For Dancer’s Only -in fact their 2000 touring schedule was promoted as “For Dancer’s Only - A Tribute To Jimmie Lunceford”.
There are two fundamental reasons why an orchestra that was so transcendently extraordinary is, (unlike most of Lunceford’s Swing Era contemporaries) largely under-recognized today. First, Jimmie led a decidedly sub-standard (for him) orchestra for five all-too-long years after July of 1942 - thus tarnishing the hard-earned, near mythic earlier reputation of the Harlem Express. Secondly, Jimmie died young and with his once magnificent orchestra diminished. Artie Shaw once opined that this “was a great career move for Glenn Miller”, but Miller was both white -and he “went out on top”. Lunceford’s chief rivals today for top acclaim as “black” band leaders are of course, Basie and Duke -who outlived Jimmie by 37 and 27 years respectively, and were thus able to continue to build on their reputations -literally thousands of later recordings and innumerable surviving film and television appearances attest to this salient point. Lunceford by contrast made one, 10 minute “Short Subject” film in 1936 (before the orchestra reached its peak) and then appeared in just a single feature length movie. Filmed in the Summer of 1941 (when the band WAS at its’ peak) on the Warner Brothers lot in Burbank, California. Unfortunately, Blues In The Night had the Harlem Express in just one, short sequence and tune, behind highly intrusive dialog. “They wanted us in another shot”, remembered Gerald Wilson in the Spring of 2007, “and it was to do my Yard Dog Mazurka, uninterrupted, in our best uniforms -we even recorded the music in their sound studio for it. But this was right at the end of our month-long engagement at the Casa Manana in Culver City, and our band was fully booked up months in advance”. Gerald paused wistfully, and then continued “Jimmie and Harold Oxley made the decision to leave the movie behind and go on to our next job in Oakland at Sweet’s Ballroom where we always packed in 4,000 people…” Today at 91, as one ot just two surviving members of the original Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra (along with star trumpeter and close friend, Snooky Young), Gerald Wilson still composes, arranges, teaches (at UCLA, no less) and continues to actively lead his own, now legendary big band. Wherever he goes, Detroit’s annual Jazz Festival (every year now since its’ inception), NYC (Rose Hall at Lincoln Center in 2007), Monterey and many others annually -“Yard Dog Mazurka” always breaks it up! I brought it back actually, by demand from the fans for my ‘Orchestra of the ’80s’ band”, Gerald recalls, “but I’m really thrilled the people still dig it”
Edited by arthurfarrar on 22 Mar 2010, 20:39
Sources (view history)
http://www.swingmusic.net/Big_Band_Music_Biography_Jimmie_Lunceford.html. Personal interviews with 13 original Lunceford musicians.
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