THE SY OLIVER STORY
As told to Les Tomkins on a rare trip to Britain in 1974
THIS trip over here with the orchestra led by Warren Covington, playing music from the Tommy Dorsey library, has been very pleasant. Incidentally. I'd appreciate it as a personal favour to me if you'd mention the fact that the fellows who handled this tour, Bill Kennedy and Robert Masters, have done a remarkably efficient job, going out of their way to make us comfortable, with the best available accommodation and so on. They've done things like taking is on side-trips to points of interest. All in all, I've never seen a tour organised so well, and I've been on many of 'em. They seem to be sincerely concerned about the comfort if their people. And they obviously enjoy doing it, too; they're truly interred in the success of this type of entertainment.
When I was approached to do this, I felt much as I say in the concertrather doubtful. I mean, I'm not primarily a performer; all my life I've been behind the scenes, arranging. While as a musical director I've MC'd shows in many instances, I really don't think of myself as a performer, and I've never aspired to be one. It just happens that I am comfortable with people; I never have stage fright, or anything like that. So doing a thing like this is just fun for me. The only thing is: the arrangements we're doing, my own especially, were lot designed as vehicles to present me. I had to do quite a bit of adapting here and there.
Coupled with that was the fact that I actually hadn't played trumpet in years. I stopped playing trumpet when I left Jimmy Lunceford's band in 1939, and I didn't play again until I organised the band that I'm using now in the States, about two-and-a-half years ago. My wife (Lil Clark) and I had been married twenty-seven yearsshe'd never heard me play trumpet. No, it hadn't even been out of the case.
When I began writing a library for my band, the first things I did were to reduce the orchestrations of things you've been hearing here in concert, like "Well, Git It" and "Sunny Side Of The Street". You see, I only use nine instruments. Reducing arrangements doesn't require any great thought; that's just a mechanical job. So as a rule I'd be watching television while I was doing it. Then, when the commercials came on, I'd pick up my horn and blow a littleyou know, gradually breaking my chops in. Lilian would sit there and listen to me, and she'd say: "Daddy, gee, that sounds good." Then later on, after I had begun playing, she'd listen to me warming up before a date, close the door and say: "You'll never make it!" As I say, though, I do enjoy it and I have my chops nowno problem.
As to the very beginningsI was born in Battle Creek, Michigan. My mother taught piano, and my father played everything, actually. He used to demonstrate saxophones for a leading company in America, when they first began manufacturing and selling them, back in the early 1900s. At the time he was involved in that work, they didn't even write music for saxophonesthey were that unknown, in the martial bands and so on. He started me on the trumpet, showed he how to run a scale, and almost immediately he was taken ill; so he was never able to pursue it. But I liked it, and just took it from there.
The first records I became involved with, that really changed my life, were early Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington things. The ones I remember particularly were Ellington's "East St. Louis Toodle-oo" and, on the other side, "Birmingham Breakdown". At the same time I heard Fletcher Henderson's "Clarinet Marmalade", "Hot Mustard", "Stampede". That's when Fletcher had the incredible saxophone section of Don Redman, Buster Bailey and Coleman Hawkins imagine that. Also I grew up not too far from Springfield, Ohio, which was where McKinney's Cotton Pickers originated; so I heard them. These were my first exposures to what we call jazz.
From the time I began hearing those records, I started trying to write. You know, most people think music is born full-blown on the printed page, but I knew betterI'd seen my father. He had a choir that was quite famous in that area, and he arranged for them; he adapted the spirituals and some of his own compositions. So I knew music could be written; it wasn't a strange concept to me.
The bands I was with before Lunceford were important, in the sense that many of the musicians you know now came through these same bands. For instance, the first band I joined when I left home was Zack White's band in Cincinnati. Guys like Vic Dickenson played with Zack. Roy Eldridge played with various bands in that area, including Zack. It was a sort of stepping-stone from the West towards New York, which was the Mecca, of course. So many fellows followed the same tracks, so to speak.
Before I go any further, I must explain: I had no intention at all of taking up music as a career. At the time I was born, we sort of had two worlds in the States, socially speaking, and the only solution for a Negro was educationthe best defence, the best way of making peace of mind for yourself. My parents were aware of that, and early on I was imbued with the idea of formal education. But my father becoming ill, and my being the oldest of six children interfered with that. That's how I first came to get into playing music professionallyit was the only way I could finish school and support the family. When my father was alive, he would never have dreamed of letting me play with an orchestra. I left home and began playing with bands for the same reason. By the time I joined Lunceford's band, the kids were growing up, I was very well established, I'd paid for my home and so on. My aim then was to come to New York, in order to go to school. I had no plan to stay in music. I joined them in June or July, 1933; we played a place in Kentucky most of the Summerthen we headed for New York. The Lunceford band was literally an overnight sensation. We opened at a theatre there called the Lafayette, and turned New York upside-down. It was so very successful that, once again, I didn't get to school. The fact was: although what I was writing wasn't difficult, this was the first band with which I'd been associated that could play my arrangements.
As a matter of fact, it was as a consequence of my making three or four orchestrations for the band that I was offered the job. It was so much better than other bands around; they operated in a way that I liked. They rehearsed diligently, and the fellows were of a completely different calibre to anybody I'd been associated with. By the time we got to New York, I was very interested in the band, and fascinated by this fact that they played my music as T would have it played. So, of course, I didn't leaveI stayed with it.
As a leader. Jimmy Lunceford was a remarkable man. He was a man who led by example; he never raised his voice, never repeated anything. never imposed discipline by means of penalties and that sort of thing. You did what he expected you to do because you wanted to do it for him. And the band reflected that, by the class it had. He was a very impressive man to look at: while the character of many bands is established by the leader's musical outlook, Jimmy's band took its character from him as a person.
A successful arranger is one who writes the thing that will show off to best advantage the artists for whom he is writing. Early on I became interested in framing a fellow. When Trummy Young came in the band, I wrote things like "Margie" as backgrounds for him. The same with Ted Buckner, Willie Smith and the fellows. They all contributed to what became known as the Lunceford style or the Sy Oliver style because, as I say, I wrote to display them, not me. Of course, if you do a thing over a period of time, it does become a part of you. In other words, I was going through a formative stage, just as they were. The same influences that created them also created me.
Yes, the band was very innovative; it sort of bridged a gap. Prior to Lunceford's band, there were two music areas. There was music above 110th Street and there was music below 110th Street, and they had nothing in common. There were the black bands who played for black audiences, and the white bands who played for white audiences. Lunceford's band was the first that actually bridged the gap on a large scale, and began to appeal to both groups. With that and the fact that we were on the air from the Cotton Club every night for six months, we just got the ear of the whole public.
An interesting thing: you know how I used the baritone saxophone lines on things like "For Dancers Only"well, nobody had done that before. There was a fellow in New York who had a celebrated music store called Manny's, known to all musicians, which, although he's dead now, is still carried on by his family. Well, due to our broadcasts, saxophone players heard the baritone things, and they began buying baritones as fast as they could get them; they were fascinated. The only trouble was, nobody was writing for baritones; you didn't find them in bands. Duke Ellington used the baritone, but most bands didn't. So after a few months, musicians realised they had no place to use the baritones they'd bought, and they all took 'em back to Manny's again. So he had a flock of returns! Of course, now they're very much a part of the scene. But at that time, without anybody writing for baritone, most saxophone sections consisted of three or four men, rather than the five which became standard.
But I don't consider that fellows have imitated me, any more than I was imitating when, as a kid, I used to listen to Duke and Fletcher. Music evolves; somebody comes along and does something, and it becomes part of the language. It's a matter of the growth of music as a whole, and the natural sequence of events. So to say some arrangers copied from me isn't really valid. Good for my ego, but not valid!
When I moved from the Lunceford band to Tommy Dorsey, I didn't change my writing approach. He made the transition. The band that Dorsey had when I joined him was Dixieland-orientated, and my sort of attack was foreign to most of the fellows he had. We both knew that to be the case, but he wanted a Swing bandso he changed personnel until he got the guys that could do it. Oddly enough, the people he got rid of are now excellent Swing musicians; they just hadn't been exposed to it. I mean, there were many white musicians who were playing Swing at that time, but there were many who still weren't. Now everybody does everythingif they want to stay in the business.
At the time we recorded such arrangements as "Well, Git It" and "Sunny Side Of The Street", he had as good a band as anybody's ever assembled. That was the band that included Ziggy Elman, Buddy Rich, guys of that calibrethey were fantastic musicians for anybody. By then I'd been with the band some time; he'd settled in with his new personnel. In fact, earlier on I quit a couple of timesI said: "Tommy, these guys are never gonna play this stuff." He said: "Give me time, and I'll get some who will." Which, of course, he did.
What I don't understand is why so much is made of the Dorsey feud. When I think of them, it's of the fact that here were two brothers who, through their own efforts, created two great bands that brought a lot of pleasure to a lot of people. Same thing with Sinatra. He's spent hundreds of thousands of dollars taking care of people, supporting hospitals and so on. The only time he makes headlines is when he knocks a camera out of a photographer's hand.
Certainly, there was never a dull moment in that band. But Swing music is not an intellectual exercise; you can't do it with your mind alone. Nobody would live as musicians live, or go through the traumatic things they go through daily, the constant ups and downs, unless there was something driving him. What is it? He's an artist. Why are there so few really top-rate musicians? There are many people who aspire to be musicians, but as they get into it and find out what it really entails, they don't make it.
People think of musicians as being effete, weaklings, delicate and so on. You take the average man and let him live six months as .the average musician doeshe'd literally fall to pieces. During a war you say it takes a certain number of men behind the lines to keep one man up front with a gun. Well, people should sit down and figure out the man-hours it takes to present one minute on the stagethe hours and hours of writing, rehearsing and the practice that these men went through to develop the expertise that they have. This doesn't spring full-blown.
Musicians would be the first to laugh if you said anything about their being dedicatedonly writers and analysts go around talking about that sort of thing. But they are literally dedicated peoplethrough something inside them that makes them that way.
There's so much romantic nonsense written about musictalking about New Orleans jazz, Chicago jazz, Kansas City jazz. Ridiculousit's all of a piece. To say otherwise is just trying to make a good story. Music is never static; guys come along with new ideas constantly. Sometimes they're old ideas that have been obscured by timelike many rock cliches, things out of ragtime, and so on. But whether the idea being presented is something from the past or something for the future, it's still filled with change. What happens is: the worth-while things from any fad remain part of the language. The good things in the music of yesterday live and combine with the good things in the music of today to make the music of tomorrow.
Now, most people assume that religion is basically a sound idea, but there are many, many beliefsyou take your choice. There are all kinds of musicDixieland, rock. Swing, jazz, whateverit's all popular music, appealing to people in large numbers. And you wind up, your taste leads you in this, that or that direction. But I think it's so stupidpeople are intolerant of the two things, other people's religious faiths and other people's musical tastes. And the purists say: "If it's not this, it's bad." It's like a womanthe only difference between your wife and all the rest of the women in the world is the fact that you love her.
Copyright © 1974, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved