Friday, January 19, 2007

Rhythm is Our Business

Author: Eddy Determeyer
Publisher: The University of Michigan Press
ISBN: 0-472-11553-7

For more than a decade, from the mid-1930s until the late 1940s, Jimmie Lunceford’s Orchestra (aka: the Harlem Express) was acknowledged as one of the leading jazz bands of the swing era. The group was famous for its rhythmic precision and “bounce,” its rich sonority, its discipline and its impeccable showmanship. Musically, the Harlem Express did it all: toured the USA and Sweden, played radio gigs, clubs and dances, cut dozens of hit records. . . . Socially and politically, the Harlem Express dismantled racial barriers; Lunceford was one of the first black bandleaders to hire white musicians and composers, and his group played for black, white and desegregated audiences without discrimination. Jimmie Lunceford’s band was highly regarded by musicians, critics and audiences, all of whom were stunned when Lunceford died of an apparent heart attack at the age of 45. As a tribute to their leader, the band tried to stay together, but the effort was short-lived; the group just wasn’t the same without the leader who had molded and guided them for so long. When Lunceford died, the heart and soul of the Harlem Express died with him.

Rhythm is Our Business is Eddy Determeyer’s painstakingly researched chronicle of the rise, peak and collapse of Lunceford’s orchestra. Determeyer gathered his material from nearly five dozen interviews, and more than four dozen journals, newspapers and books. In addition to the endnotes and bibliography, Determeyer includes an extensive discography of the Harlem Express’s recordings.

Determeyer traces Lunceford’s early years in Oklahoma City and Denver and his college years at Fisk University. He recounts Lunceford’s brief career as a high school music teacher in Memphis and describes how Lunceford and his students transformed themselves from a local sensation to a top-notch band based in New York City. Determeyer reveals the financial and personal tensions that arose within the group and discusses the personnel changes that gradually altered the band’s character and style. He offers intimate details about cooperation and competition between the New York jazz bands, and about the struggles between the musicians’ union, radio stations and recording companies. Perhaps most intriguingly, Determeyer reconstructs the details of Lunceford’s last day and puts forward his theory regarding the leader’s untimely demise.

Readers interested in the histories of the Harlem Express and the mid-twentieth century jazz scene (particularly in New York City) will find this book highly satisfying. Those who want to learn about Jimmie Lunceford himself will find such information sparse. This lack of detail is not Determeyer’s fault. Lunceford was an intensely private man who was barely known by anyone, including those who lived and worked with him for nearly twenty years. Determeyer probably has uncovered just about anything that ever will be known about Jimmie Lunceford, the quiet, clean-cut, clean-living man who loved music, sports and aviation and had once loved W.E.B Dubois’s daughter. Aside from those few personal details, the story of the Harlem Express is also, for the most part, the story of Jimmie Lunceford. Rhythm Is Our Business is a well researched, finely written book. Readers interested in jazz history will certainly want to add this volume to their collections.

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