“For Dancers Only”
Composed and arranged by Sy Oliver.
Recorded by Jimmie Lunceford and His Orchestra on June 15, 1937 for Decca in New York.
Jimmie Lunceford, directing: Eddie Tompkins, Paul Webster, Sy Oliver, trumpets; Elmer Crumbley, Russell Bowles, Eddie Durham, trombones; Willie Smith and Dan Grissom, alto saxophones; Joe Thomas and Ed Brown, tenor saxophones; Earl “Jock” Carruthers, baritone saxophone; Eddie Wilcox, piano; Al Norris, guitar; Moses Allen, bass; Jimmie “Craw” Crawford, drums.
Tracing the provenance of various swing era anthems usually requires a good bit of detective work. In the case of “For Dancers Only,” a tune that will forever be associated with Jimmie Lunceford and His Orchestra, it is unclear where (or when) that anthem originated. Those associated with the Lunceford band’s recording of it, particularly Sy Oliver, who is credited with composing it, and who undoubtedly arranged the Lunceford classic, said it originated with him in the Lunceford band. As Oliver recalled: “…the brilliant officials at Decca (Records) refused (to allow Lunceford) to record ‘For Dancers Only.’ They said it wasn’t Lunceford! Only after another band came out with an imitation that caught on (did) they let us make it.”(1) The other band Oliver referred to was Bob Crosby’s, which also recorded for Decca. But the tune he referred to was not “For Dancers Only,” it was “Christopher Columbus,” and it was recorded by the Crosby band for Decca on March 19, 1936 using a great Deane Kincaide arrangement. The Crosby band did not record an actual cover version of the Lunceford hit “For Dancers Only” for Decca until October 23, 1939, two-plus years after the Lunceford record had been made.
To further clarify/complicate this, “Christopher Columbus” was being played by Fletcher Henderson’s band in early 1936. It seems clear that “Christopher Columbus” originated in that band, with the saxophone riff (the “A” part of the AABA form of the tune), being devised by tenor saxophonist Leon “Chu” Berry, the secondary theme (the “B” part) possibly by trumpeter Roy Eldridge, and the initial arrangement by Fletcher’s brother Horace, all of whom were associated with the 1936 Fletcher Henderson band.
The bands of both Fletcher Henderson (at the Grand Terrace Ballroom) and Benny Goodman (at the Congress Hotel) were in Chicago for lengthy spells in the first half of 1936. Goodman became aware of the catchy melodies in “Christopher Columbus,” (probably directly from its composers: he recorded four other tunes with Berry and Eldridge on February 29, 1936, with an ad hoc small group called “Gene Krupa’s Swing Band”). Three weeks later, on March 20, 1936 BG recorded what was essentially the Henderson arrangement with his own band for Victor.(1A) Fletcher Henderson recorded the same (more or less) arrangement on March 27, 1936 for ARC/Vocalion. In the spring of 1936, “Christopher Columbus” became a central part of the Henderson band’s show at the Grand Terrace.
As various early recordings of “Christopher Columbus” began to make an impression on the swing-loving public of predominately young people, a rush to record the tune began. “Within a five month span in 1936, thirteen bands recorded the piece on ten different labels, including one each in Paris and London. Five of those recordings ranked among the best-selling records of 1936 (those by Henderson, Andy Kirk [on Decca], Benny Goodman, Teddy Wilson, and Louis ‘King’ Garcia).”(2)
So, given these historical facts, Sy Oliver’s recollections about how “For Dancers Only” came to be recorded by Jimmie Lunceford and His Orchestra appear to be somewhat inaccurate. A more likely explanation of how the Lunceford arrangement came about is that Jack Kapp, head of Decca Records, undoubtedly noticed how successful “Christopher Columbus” was on many different recordings through 1936 and into 1937. He possibly suggested to Lunceford that he (Lunceford) might sell some records if he cobbled together a new tune that somehow made use of “Christopher Columbus.” If this is what happened, then Lunceford undoubtedly would have discussed Kapp’s ideas with Sy Oliver, his band’s chief arranger, and voila, a new tune was created. It obliquely made reference to “Christopher Columbus,” yet had enough new material in it to establish a separate identity as “For Dancers Only.”
This performance is distinguished by the rocking 2/4 meter and the disciplined, yet swinging ensembles that were all trademarks of the Lunceford band. Notice how the Lunceford ensemble plays just behind the beat. Many bands found it impossible to do this effectively, despite much effort. This was a key to the always swinging music of the Lunceford band.
Arranger Sy Oliver loved creating colorful music in which the low range instruments (bass, a baritone saxophone and the three trombones), create a deep sonority that he contrasted with bright trumpet blasts. The fluid Lunceford saxophone section filled out the sonic spectrum. These techniques and resources are used to perfection throughout “For Dancers Only.”
The “freeze beat” employed in the first sixteen bars of the main strain of the tune, was something of a fad among swing bands in early 1937. It was used by bands to toy with dancers, and keep them on their toes.
In essence, there are two musical parts to “For Dancers Only.” The first, which is stated in the rhythmic melody exposition at the beginning of the Lunceford recording (after the brief intro); and the second, which appears as a bridge, and is derived from the swing tune “Christopher Columbus.” The solos are by Willie Smith, (who also led the saxophone section with great vigor (and volume), on alto saxophone; and Paul Webster on the high-note trumpet. The band is propelled through this performance by the great ensemble drumming of Jimmie “Craw” Crawford, and the thrusting bass of Moses Allen.
Composed by Leon “Chu” Berry and Horace Henderson; arranged by Horace Henderson.
Recorded by Fletcher Henderson and His Orchestra for ARC/Vocalion on March 27, 1936 in Chicago.
Fletcher Henderson, directing: Dick Vance, Joe Thomas, Roy Eldridge, trumpets; Fernando Arbello and Ed Cuffee, trombones; George “Scoops” Carry, Buster Bailey, Elmer “Tone” Williams, Leon “Chu” Berry, saxophones; Horace Henderson, piano; Bob Lessey, guitar; John Kirby, bass; Sid Catlett, drums.
The story (continued):
Horace Henderson recalled the genesis of “Christopher Columbus” this way: “I heard Chu Berry play a riff and I said… ‘Man, I like that riff.’ I took it home and played around with it and made 32 bars of it. I took it to Fletcher. This was at Roseland. During their breaks, they went downstairs to the musicians’ room. Fletcher took it downstairs–the men were all good readers–and in about ten minutes, they had it. They went back upstairs and played it and the audience went wild!”(3) The most significant parts of this quote, from the standpoint of time, are when Horace Henderson said: “I heard Chu Berry play this riff…” and “This was at Roseland.” As best as I can tell from the research I have done, the Henderson band played at Roseland for the last time in the early fall of 1934. (Chu Berry was not a member of that band.)That band left Fletcher en masse in November of 1934 after a stand at the Graystone Ballroom in Detroit when for whatever reason, Henderson did not pay them. The men had to borrow money for bus fare back to New York.(4) Fletcher then busied himself writing arrangements for Benny Goodman for the balance of 1934 and through most of 1935.
It appears that Fletcher Henderson formed a new band in early 1936 for an engagement at the Grand Terrace in Chicago. Chu Berry was a member of the 1936 Henderson band. I was able to pin down some details about the Henderson band’s engagement at the Grand Terrace by checking John Chilton’s biography of Roy Eldridge (5). That engagement began on January 26, 1936. Henderson had formed the band in New York, probably right after the New Year, and it did play some break-in dates in the East. Despite some rather vague comments in the Chilton book about Henderson’s new band playing a night or two at Roseland, I doubt that any part of the story of the origination of “Christopher Columbus” took place outside of Chicago.
My conclusion therefore, is that what Horace Henderson remembered happened at the Grand Terrace in Chicago, not at the Roseland in New York. There is no doubt that Chu Berry was the originator of the main melody of “Christopher Columbus.” Although Roy Eldridge asserted that he was the person who composed the second theme of “Christopher Columbus,” he told John Chilton that he never was credited or compensated for that: “No credit, no bread.”(6)
Like so many other swing era tunes, “Christopher Columbus” is based on George Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm.” “While its principal melody (the A section of the 32-bar AABA form) is grounded on alternating tonic-dominant harmony simpler than (“I Got Rhythm”), the bridge (the 8-bar B section) comes straight from Gershwin.”(7) The brilliant trumpet solo is played by Roy Eldridge. The brief trombone spot by Ed Cuffee, and the superbly swinging tenor saxophone solo by Chu Berry. Clarinetist Buster Bailey bites off a nice squeak as he begins his solo, and then plays fluently.
What Eldridge and Berry were doing jazzwise in early 1936 was cutting-edge, and still sounds great eight decades later, as does Horace Henderson’s lean arrangement. The dissonances that appear at a point in this arrangement were unusual to say the least in a jazz recording made in 1936. Today, they seem to add just the right amount of spice to the music. Bravo!
(1) The Swing Era 1937-1938, Time-Life Books (1971), 59. The “other band” Oliver referred to could also have been Fletcher Henderson’s.
(1A) Benny Goodman later recycled bits of “Christopher Columbus” in his 1937 blockbuster “Sing, Sing, Sing.”
(2) The Uncrowned King of Swing, Fletcher Henderson, and Big Band Jazz, by Jeffrey Magee (2005), 238. Hereafter, Magee.
(3) The Swing Era 1936-1937, Time-Life Books (1970), 68.
(4) Magee, 188.
(5) Roy Eldridge…Little Jazz Giant, by John Chilton (2002), 67-72.
(6) Ibid. 72. To add a few more wrinkles to this story, a snippet of “Christopher Columbus” can be heard on the Teddy Wilson/Billie Holiday recording of “Yankee Doodle Never Went to Town,” made on in New York October 25, 1935. Both Chu Berry and Roy Eldridge played on that recording. (Berry and Eldridge met in the Cecil Scott band in the early 1930s.) Also, “Christopher Columbus” was said to have been copied from a tune called “”A Rhythm Cocktail,” which curiously enough is the subtitle of the tune on the Henderson/Vocalion record.
(7) Magee, 237.
The recordings presented in this post were digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.