Monday, January 01, 2007

Rhythm is Our Business

Rhythm is Our Business: Jimmie Lunceford and the Harlem Express
By Eddy Determeyer
University of Michigan Press

In the recent documentary Been Rich All My Life, the Silver Belles, the former Apollo Theater dancers, were asked who there favorite band had been. There answer was the Jimmie Lunceford band, because of their rhythm. Eddy Determeyer tells the story of the Lunceford band, now often overlooked by swing historians in Rhythm is Our Business.

Determeyer largely focuses on Lunceford the professional musician rather than Lunceford the private man. Little is said of his private relations, with the exception of his formative years at Fisk University. Lunceford was seriously involved with Yolande DuBois, the daughter of W.E.B. Dubois. Unfortunately, for the future bandleader, the elder Dubois did not approve of Lunceford’s music or his prospects, which contributed to the end of that romance. Determeyer explains: “DuBois cared only for art that was functional. ‘I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda,’ he wrote in The Crisis.” (p. 24) Determeyer speculates this experience may have stoked Lunceford’s drive to succeed.

The Lunceford band would become one of the top drawing swing bands of the era. It was a fierce competitor in battle of the band rituals, and became a model Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey unsuccessfully tried to emulate. Determeyer also argues that Lunceford was a shrewd businessman. He describes a scheme he unsuccessfully proposed to his band-members:

“The idea was to put the men’s savings [a portion of their regular salary] in an escrow account. As soon as their savings had grown to a certain amount, the band was supposed to have purchased property in both Washington and New York. Not only would the musicians have decent, cheap housing that way, they could let out the vacant space for hire, reaping a benefit. It was meant to be like a pension: then as now, jazz musicians as a rule did not have any kind of old-age-pension.” (p. 112)

While the Lunceford organization was riding high in the 1930’s events in the 1940’s contributed to a challenging climate for all big bands. The draft led to constant turnover and bid up salaries for often mediocre players. Government tax policy probably did more to end the era of swing bands than any other factor. Determeyer explains:

“In a later stage of the war, 1944, the cabaret tax was introduced: any venue that featured dancing or singing, either on stage or on the floor, had to add an extra 20 percent—and eventually 30 percent—war tax on the receipts. . . To the horror of both ballroom operators and bandleaders, this tax was not lifted when the war was over, which was the coup de grĂ¢ce for many a ballroom and, consequently, for a large number of dance bands.” (p. 200)

Also conspiring against Lunceford’s efforts to rebuild his band in the 1940’s was the musicians’ union recording ban of 1942, the product of the union’s luddite campaign against radio and juke boxes. In describing the ban, Determeyer actually uses some pretty forceful language:

“James Petrillo, the unions’ dictator, was deaf to the argument that entertainers needed the jukebox as an important means of promotion. Metronome criticized Petrillo and ‘the vain, the clumsy, the tyrannical attempt . . . to fight technological progress’ [ellipsis in Determeyer] The trade press argues that swing musicians were underrepresented at the AFM convention at which the recording ban was discussed and decided.” (p. 211)

Even with these challenges Lunceford could still pack a hall. Sadly, in 1947 at the age of forty-five Lunceford died of a heart attack. The incident remains clouded in controversy. Many suspect the bandleader had been poisoned by a racist restaurant which had tried to deny service to the band, and Determeyer does not preclude that possibility.

Determeyer offers some explanations as to why the Lunceford band has not been better remembered, suggesting they were truly a live band whose greatest recordings still did not capture the experience of hearing and seeing them in person. Lunceford’s early death clearly was also a major factor. Ellington kept his band together, touring and recording at a consistently high level into the 1970’s. Basie did so into the 1980’s. Lunceford was obviously not able to keep his music in the jazz consciousness in such a way.

Clearly, Determeyer is trying to re-establish Lunceford's status as an equal to the Ellington and Basie bands. He is aided tremendously by his interview access to Gerald Wilson and Joe Wilder, two jazz greats in their own right, and surviving Lunceford band members. As a result, Rhythm is a definitive look at the music and professional career of Jimmie Lunceford and his band.