Somewhere between the enduring Swing Era “superstars” (Ellington, Basie, Miller, the Dorsey brothers, Harry James, Artie Shaw) and the scarcely remembered “regional bands” stood such enormously popular (and talented) but relatively short–lived “second tier” orchestras as those led by Fletcher Henderson, Don Redman, Chick Webb, Andy Kirk, Jay McShann, Jimmie Lunceford and others. Lunceford’s ensemble was at its peak in the mid– to late–’30s before the great arranger Sy Oliver left to join the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra. These performances, taped for the Armed Forces Radio shows Jubilee, Command Performance and Sound Off, and at the Casa Mañana in Culver City, CA, document the band near the end of its lengthy and prosperous run (Lunceford died in 1947, two years after the last one was made). But even though Oliver and a number of Lunceford’s principal soloists were gone, he had enough ammunition left to put on a good show, and the band was always well–rehearsed and extremely agile. This is fairly typical Swing Era fare with a few standards (“Hallelujah,” “Yesterdays,” “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore”) sprinkled among the expansive menu of jump tunes, novelties and at least one Lunceford hit (“For Dancers Only”). Alto saxophonist Joe Thomas is the featured soloist (he also sings on “Keep Smiling” and “The Honeydripper”), and the orchestra is powered by longtime drummer Jimmy Crawford. Jubilee’s emcee is rotund Ernie “Bubbles” Whitman, and his pseudo–hip patter is more intrusive here than one some other albums we’ve heard. The less flamboyant announcer on the Command Performance broadcast of June 26, 1943, is film star Fred MacMurray who played some big–band saxophone himself before choosing a more lucrative career path. As for the broadcasts, they sound like what they are, live air–checks preserved on viny or acetate and transferred to disc, warts and all. In other words, the sound is less than admirable but it is Lunceford, and there are those who are willing to trade such shortcomings for another chance to hear again one of the Swing Era’s most widely acclaimed orchestras.
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