Jimmie Lunceford & His Orchestra : Rhythm Is Our Business
CD:PPCD 78111 / CASSETTE: / RUNNING TIME: 59:46
Rhythm Is Our Business << sound clip
Four Or Five Times
Bird Of Paradise
I'll Take The South
Hittin' The Bottle
The Best Things In Life Are Free
Muddy Water << sound clip
He Ain't Got Rhythm
Slumming On Park Avenue
For Dancers Only
Posin' << sound clip
What Is This Thing Called Swing?
Ain't She Sweet?
Life Is Fine
Much of what we know of the personality of James Melvin Lunceford (1902-47) comes from the reminiscences of his musicians rather than from the man himself. Lunceford, it seems, was rarely interviewed and from all accounts appears to have been a reserved, sometimes remote man, noted for his strict codes of behaviour and for a pleasant if unremarkable personality.
Even so, his impact on those who worked with him was long-lasting and profound. There can be absolutely no doubt that his unusual strength of character and high-minded resolve were vital in helping him to create (and maintain) one of the greatest of black swing bands in the USA during the Thirties and Forties.
Born in Fulton, Missouri, in June 1902, Lunceford was the son of a choirmaster and grew up in Denver, Colorado, learning guitar, trombone, flute, clarinet and all the saxophones while in high school. By the age of 20, he was playing alto saxophone at the Empress Theatre with Denver's leading black orchestra, led by violinist George Morrison. Lunceford had studied music while in school under Wilberforce J. Whiteman, father of bandleader Paul Whiteman. His early musical prowess was encouraged when he attended Fisk University, in Nashville, Tennessee, then (as now) a leading educational establishment for blacks seeking professional status. Lunceford graduated with a Bachelor's Degree in Music in 1926 before setting off to New York to test himself further, working there with bands led by Wilbur Sweatman and Elmer Snowden, while continuing his studies at City College.
Lunceford then accepted a post at Manassa High School in Memphis, Tennessee, as band instructor and sports master, this decision leading indirectly to his subsequent national fame. He was fortunate to find a number of promising jazz musicians among his pupils and was soon able to incorporate many of them into his own dance band. This became well-known locally, playing its first engagement at the Hotel Men's Improvement Club in Memphis and broadcasting weekly on the 'Beale Street Hour' for WREC.
This group was augmented by alto-saxophonist Willie Smith (1910-67) and pianist-arranger Eddie Wilcox (1907-68), both friends of Lunceford's from Fisk, who stayed on when Lunceford took his band of youngsters on the road during summer breaks. Lunceford christened this early band the Chickasaw Syncopators and they turned fully professional in 1929. By this time, the personnel not only included Smith and Wilcox, but also trombonist Henry Wells, another Fisk man, plus former Manassa students, bassist Moses Allen and the superb drummer Jimmy Crawford, all crucial to the band's unique quality and spirit.
A Memphis doctor owned a dance-hall at Lakeside, Ohio, and gave the band summer residencies during which time they steadily improved. Confident that they could compete with more established bands, they moved on to Cleveland, falling foul of various crooked promoters along the way, coming in Smith's words, 'as close to starving as anyone did'. In Buffalo, New York, they acquired the tenor-saxophonist Joe Thomas (1909-86), who added valuably to the band's solo capabilities.
Struggling to keep going, the group took a variety of location jobs and toured nationally until they obtained their first New York booking. This engagement, at the Lafayette Theatre in September 1933, was a success and in January 1934 they took over from Cab Calloway at the Cotton Club. This prestigious engagement was probably the making of Lunceford, earning the orchestra valuable publicity, its value cemented when they began to record regularly, first for RCA-Victor and then exclusively for Decca. A key contributor to the band's new prominence was the arranger-trumpeter Melvin 'Sy' Oliver (1910-88), formerly with Zack Whyte's improbably named Chocolate Beau Brummels. Oliver was in the band when they played the Lafayette Theatre and stayed on as principal arranger (and trumpeter) for the next six years, until he was poached by Tommy Dorsey. Oliver was later to say that, 'Lunceford just had something, the minute he walked on the scene. He was a great man. Actually, he made that organisation what it was without contributing a darn thing musically: he was the leader'.
It was Oliver's arrangements, many included on this collection, which gave the Lunceford band its style, based on a swingy rhythmic pattern, usually two-beat, skilful interplay between its instrumental sections and an intuitive feeling for danceable tempos. The success of their recordings, the brilliance of the ensemble performances, particularly those of the saxophone section, and their showmanship contributed hugely to the band's appeal. Lunceford regularly featured comedy numbers, band vocals, vocal trios and rehearsed routines where the trumpeters would throw their horns in the air, catch them in unison, stepping down to perform a dance sequence before taking their bows. The band was always dressed superbly: as Smith said, 'We had the most expensive clothes in the world. If we did seven (theatre) shows a day, we wore seven different uniforms. That included shirts, socks, shoes and ties, all made specially for us'.
Literally the top attraction on the road, where it was known as the 'Harlem Express', the Lunceford band's heyday lasted until 1942 when money differences with the musicians led to the defections of key sidemen like Smith and trombonist Trummy Young (1912-84). Never quite the same again, it stumbled on until Lunceford succumbed to a heart attack while signing autographs in a music store in Seaside, Oregon, in July 1947.
Our opening track, Rhythm Is Our Business, is a jaunty Eddie Wilcox arrangement of a Lunceford tune, with superb alto by Willie Smith who is also the vocalist. Note the easy swing feeling and Smith's cues to his colleagues, including high-note trumpeter Tommy Stevenson and the stalwart tenor man Joe Thomas, later a funeral director in Kansas City. Stratosphere was composed and arranged by Lunceford himself, and is notable for the band's precision and attack. Unsophisticated Sue features the saxophone section, neat muted trumpet (by Eddie Tompkins?) and a trio vocal. Four Or Five Times is a fine Sy Oliver two-beat arrangement at a bouncy tempo. Oliver is the light-voiced vocalist too. Bird Of Paradise is a joint effort between Wilcox and trombonist-guitarist Eddie Durham, another talented arranger. Durham's guitar break precedes Paul Webster's trumpet solo and some typically intricate alto by Smith. Wilcox's stride piano rounds an imaginative track. Oliver is again arranger and vocalist on I'll Take The South, a popular ditty of the day. Hittin' The Bottle by Ted Koehler and Harold Arlen, has Oliver as vocalist again, this time in an arrangement by Durham. Smith's clarinet is featured as is Durham's bluesy guitar. The swingy Oh Boy! by arranger-composer Durham includes some typically blowsy trombone by Durham himself and yet more tricky writing for the saxes.
Wilcox arranged The Best Things In Life Are Free, with its schmaltzy vocal by Dan Grissom, always a favourite with dance hall crowds. Jock Carruthers' baritone sax opens Muddy Water, arranged by Oliver and featuring the vocal trio and some splendid trumpet by Tompkins. The moody Hell's Bells shows off the mature Oliver arranging style. Note the celeste and spooky clarinet figures overlaid onto ensemble passages of considerable complexity. It's Smith on alto. Thomas is the soloist and vocalist on the swingy He Ain't Got Rhythm, arranged by Oliver. Guitar by Durham. Note Crawford's drumming here. Slumming On Park Avenue features the vocal trio (Oliver, Smith & Thompkins) in their slightly vo-de-o-do style. For Dancers Only was a popular hit for the band; it features Smith and stirring high note work by Webster. The swingy Posin' uses the trombones to underpin the theme, with Smith vocalising attractively before a powerful finale. Margie uses Ted Buckner's alto for the melody statement, with Trummy Young's supple, superbly controlled trombone complementing his engaging vocal. The final high note run is a triumph of technique, still admired today. Frisco Fog uses the contrast between the clarinet-led saxes and growl trumpets effectively in an arrangement by one Leon Carr. Oliver's lighter touch with the arranger's pencil is soon evident on the next track, What Is This Thing Called Swing? The vocalist is Joe Thomas. Ain't She Sweet uses Buckner again on an agreeable Oliver chart. Young is added to the usual vocal trio. The final piece, Life Is Fine, dates from 1941, featuring Young as vocalist in Wilcox's sparkling arrangement.
Although solidly focused on entertainment, Lunceford's orchestra never sacrificed musical worth for easy applause. The skills of its arranging team were matched by the band's discipline and commitment to ensemble perfection. They impressed everyone who heard them, not least Count Basie, no mean bandleader himself. His assessment is worth repeating here: 'I think Jimmie Lunceford had one of the greatest swing bands that ever was. They'd start to rock and they'd just rock all night long!'
The World of Swing by Stanley Dance (Charles Scribner's Sons, NYC, 1974) Big Band Jazz by Albert McCarthy (Barrie & Jenkins, London, 1974)