Back in the late 1930s and early 1940s, big bands weren't meant to be listened to on record or in front of a radio. To fully appreciate a band in all its swinging glory, you had to be standing smack in front of the bandstand.
There, you could hear the brilliance of a great arranger, feel the impact of the instruments playing together and apart, and see the polished moves of a band's section or soloist.
I've seen many big bands over the years in concert, in clubs and on video, but only once did I feel what it must have been like to be front and center back in those hungry pre-war years. In August 1974, I was in front of the stage when Duke Ellington and his band played a benefit up in Tarrytown, NY.
The gig was a benefit arranged by Stan Getz to help the14-year-old son of a neighbor who lost both arms and part of his foot in a power line accident. Yeah, the same Stan Getz who takes so much heat for being a nasty piece of work. Stan asked Duke and Dizzy Gillespie to come up to Irvington, NY, where he and the kid's family lived, to play for free.
As you can imagine, Stan and Dizzy were sensational that sweltering afrternoon—they played together (with a rhythmn section that included Dave Holland on bass)—and both hung around afterward backstage and gabbed while only a handful of fans listened.
But the real highlight was seeing and hearing Duke up close. The effect was staggering. Russell Procope, Harry Carney and Paul Gonsalves were still with the band, giving the ensemble plenty of soul and swing. What I remember most was the power of that band and the slick click of the instruments falling into line and churning out an hour's worth of hits. I still remember the sensation. The only way to describe the feeling was being swept up by musical surf. You became excited from inside out, and lost control of your inhibitions, one by one.
Based on my listening and reading of the big band era, the orchestra that beat all others in the rush department between 1936 and 1941 was Jimmie Lunceford's.
Jimmie's secret was a team of fantastic arrangers, including Sy Oliver, and the ability to stir up the competitive juices of his reed and brass sections. The saxes would try to outdo the trumpets, who would try to put one over on the trombones, who were taken to task by the trumpets.
Lunceford's sections even excelled in showmanship—with saxes all turning to play in one direction while the trombones turned to play the other way, with the trumpets waving derby hats. Musicians could sing and dance as well as they played, and the image was as spectacular as the sound and punch delivered.
To give you a sense of how great this band was, George T. Simon describes a night in his book, The Big Bands (1967):
"What must go down in dance band history as the greatest gathering of the clan took place in New York's Manhattan Center on the night of November 18, 1940, when Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Count Basie, Glen Gray, Les Brown, Guy Lombardo, Will Bradley, Sammy Kaye and 20 other big bands wowed 6,000 enthusiastic fans without a let up from eight in the evening until four the next morning.
"In this marathon, MC'd by disc jockey Martin Block, all the bands were scheduled to play 15-minute sets—and all except one of those 28 bands got off the sage when it was supposed to. But that one couldn't for the simple reason that along about midnight it broke the show wide open, to such hollering and cheering and shouting for "More!" that no other band could get on stage until Jimmie Lunceford's was allowed to play some extra tunes."
When you listen to recordings of Lunceford's band today from the late 30s and early 40s, you understand why. The band swings, it's tight, and it's never dull or hokey, despite a proclivity for novelty tunes. In fact, the term "novelty tune" is unfair given the level of excellence in everything it played. The band was hip and even had a signature sense of syncopation that was impossible to mimic. When you listen to Lunceford's band today, you can't seem to hear enough tracks.
Few essays on Lunceford capture the excitement generated by the band better than Ralph J. Gleason's, from Celebrating the Duke (1975):
"To begin with, [Lunceford's band] had character, just as Duke Ellington's band has always had character. It sounded like Jimmie Lunceford. You didn't have to wait for the individual voice of some musician, for a particular familiar arrangement or for a well-known number. You coasted down the dial on the car radio late at night and when you hit Lunceford, you knew it was Lunceford. Who else could it be? Later, of course, there were little Luncefords, now and then, but in the beginning there was only the one sound and, of course, that was the way it really stayed because the imitators never made it.
"Visually, it was the greatest. No other band put on as much showmanship before or since. They looked good all the time and they made music sound like making it was fun, and they enhanced it with all the tricks, from Russell Bowles or Elmer Crumbley, putting the trombone wa-wa mutes on their heads to the flaring sideways and up-and-down motion of the sections in unison."
By the mid-1940s, Lunceford's band ebbed. Many bands did, with the wind-down of the war. A tighter economy meant less money for bands and more opportunity for smaller bop groups. Improved radio and record-player technology meant less demand to see live bands. Neither stopped Lunceford, who died of a heart attack in 1947, on the road, trying to sustain the popularity of his sound.
Thanks to CDs, we can still witness and appreciate what Jimmie Lunceford achieved.
Wax tracks: A week ago I picked up a dynamite two-CD set of Lunceford's recordings on sale at Virgin Records for $10. The set is from Italy, and all the tracks are remastered.
There isn't a bad track on here. Among the best are Ain't She Sweet, I'm Alone With You and Twenty-Four Robbers. I'm Alone is stunning for its foreshadowing of the writing by Claude Thornhill and Gil Evans.
But perhaps the biggest shocker is Yard Dog Mazurka (1941). If you thought Ray Wetzel of Stan Kenton's band came up with Intermission Riff in 1946, think again. Wetzel and Kenton lifted that "riff" from Jimmie Lunceford (and Lunceford's arranger, Gerald Wilson), wholesale.
Another shocker is I Wanna Hear Swing Songs (1940), whose loping baritone sax and trombones interplay clearly influenced Nelson Riddle and his intro tag for Sinatra's I Get a Kick Out of You.
Wax clip: For a rare glimpse of the Jimmie Lunceford band in action—and the incredible level of perfection, showmanship it exhibited—check out this clip of Nagasaki from 1936.