Jazzed in Cleveland
a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook
a special WMV Web News Cleveland series
Part 54 - On the Road With Jimmie Lunceford
In the late 1930s, young Jimmy Williams was just beginning to learn how to play the trombone at Cleveland's Central High School when he heard some music that would have a lasting effect on his life. He remembered, "I started out to school one morning and the radio was playing and they played Jimmie Lunceford's 'My Blue Heaven.' I stopped and said, 'What is that?!' I had never heard anything like that before!"
The high-flying Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra, a band that had started out professionally in Cleveland in 1929, was one of the most popular big bands in the country in the mid-1930s. Williams later recalled, "That was an unusual sounding band to me and it seemed that was what I would like to do, create those types of rhythms and harmony."
After high school, Jimmy Williams formed his own band in Cleveland, played trombone, and wrote some arrangements. After playing with a wartime band at the Portage Ordinance Depot in Ravenna, he was invited to join Fletcher Henderson's last orchestra. He toured with Henderson but he still dreamed of playing with the Jimmy Lunceford band.
"I got a telegram from Russell Bowles, a trombone player in the Lunceford band," said Williams. The telegram said, 'Call Jimmie in Chicago!' I had already told Lunceford, 'If you get an opening, I would like to come on the band.' So I called him. He said, 'Well, why don't you come over to Chicago and we'll talk."
Lunceford hired the young trombonist from Cleveland and suggested he listen to and watch the band before going on stage with it for the first time. But Williams, who had learned to sight-read at Central High School, and had been listening to Lunceford recordings for years, was confident he could play the book without hearing the band in person. He was shocked when he played the first number. "I hit the first note and I didn't hear another note the rest of that night. They were so damned loud! I'm not kidding you. Those trumpets behind me, man, they blasted!. I don't remember what the tune was but they hit that first note and I was deaf the rest of the night."
Williams was playing most of the now-legendary charts of the Lunceford Orchestra he had heard when he was in high school in Cleveland, including the best arrangements, written in the mid-1930s by Sy Oliver, the Zanesville native who had left Lunceford in 1939 to join the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra. "I liked all of his music," said Williams, "anything that Sy had written."
Traveling with the Lunceford band in the early-to-mid 1940s was a constant series of one-night gigs -- playing, riding the bus, and staying often in cheap hotels. It was not the same thing Williams had experienced while playing with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra. He said, "Henderson didn't do a lot of one-nighters. Lunceford did one-nighters. We'd cover ten thousand miles in three days!"
Besides playing swinging big band jazz, the Lunceford Orchestra also put on an entertaining show. It was fun to watch the trumpeters waving their derby mutes and the trombonists waving their slides in unison as they played. Williams remembered one little show business stunt of the band: "We used to have a little trick. We'd throw our slide out and it came back up without our pulling it up. That was always pretty cute." How did they do it? "You flick it real fast with your finger and it comes right back up. Nobody would be looking to see what you were doing. It just appeared that the slide would come all the way back up."
With Lunceford, Williams played dances, concerts and radio broadcasts, and did some recording. He said recording was sometimes long and difficult. "We'd go in the studio at about eight or nine o'clock in the morning and come out at one o'clock the next morning."
But, while Williams had achieved his life-long dream of playing with the Lunceford band, there was one thing about it that he found particularly upsetting. "If the band was around an army camp, we would play for the soldiers and, in return, we would get free transportation to the next place. I didn't like that too well." Williams did not like to fly, particularly in army planes with young, devil-may-care pilots. One time, he remembered, "We were getting ready to land and it looked like the pilot missed the wires by about that much. And when he hit the runway, he bounced the plane. You have all this luggage and stuff in there. If it shifts, you don't know what's going to happen. If the wing touches the ground, you might become a statistic."
While he was on the road, and in the air, with the Lunceford Orchestra, Jimmy Williams missed his wife and son who were back home in Cleveland. On Christmas Eve, when the band was leaving Detroit for the Renaissance Theatre in New York, he decided to come home to Cleveland for the day. He said, "I grabbed a car and drove home to see my wife. And when I left, she was standing in the door crying. My youngest son was hanging onto her dress and he was crying. He didn't know why he was crying. But that sort of haunted me all day long while I took the train to New York and got there just in time for the show."
In New York, Sy Oliver and some of the former members of the Lunceford Orchestra showed up and Williams said they had a lot of fun that night. But, Williams was beginning to wonder why was living a life of what he called "a vagrant musician." "All the time I was out there," he said, "I was thinking of my nice little place at home where everything was clean and neat. On the road with the band, we stayed in some really crummy flop houses."
During an East Coast tour, Williams decided he would leave the Lunceford band which, by this time, had become little more than a shadow of its former greatness. Williams called it "a rag-tag life." He said, "I went down to a pawn shop and pawned this ring. The guy said, 'What do you want for it?' I said, 'Fifteen dollars.' That's what the train ticket cost. I got the Pennsylvania train because it stopped at 55th and Euclid," near his home.
After several years touring with both the Fletcher Henderson and Jimmie Lunceford Orchestras, Jimmy Williams came back to Cleveland, got a job driving a bus for CTS, and played a number of jobs around Cleveland. In retirement, he lived comfortably near Shaker Square. But he still had vivid memories of being on the road with Jimmie Lunceford.
Copyright 2000 Joe Mosbrook
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You can hear radio versions of Cleveland Jazz History on WCPN/90.3 Monday nights at 9:30 and Friday afternoons at 12:30. Mosbrook's 1993 Cleveland Jazz History book, based on research for earlier broadcasts, is available at some Cleveland area bookstores, libraries and the Northeast Ohio Jazz Society (216-426-9900).