“Uptown Blues” (1939) Jimmie Lunceford with Willie Smith and Snooky Young

“Uptown Blues”

Composed by Jimmie Lunceford; “head” arrangement.

Recorded by Jimmie Lunceford and His Orchestra for Vocalion on December 14, 1939 in New York.

Jimmie Lunceford, directing: Eugene “Snooky” Young, first and solo trumpet; Gerald Wilson and Paul Webster, trumpets; Elmer Crumbley, Russell Bowles and James “Trummy” Young, trombones; Willie Smith, solo alto saxophone; Ted Buckner, first alto saxophone; Dan Grissom, alto saxophones; Joe Thomas, tenor saxophone; Earl “Jock” Carruthers, baritone saxophone; Eddie Wilcox, piano; Al Norris, guitar; Moses Allen, bass; Jimmie “Craw” Crawford, drums.

The story:

It appears that “Uptown Blues” came together in the summer of 1939. I say “came together” because the available evidence suggests that no one person composed it, even though Jimmie Lunceford, ever the businessman when it came to making money (1), took the steps to register the copyright in his name after the tune had been recorded. Trombonist Trummy Young, a member of the Lunceford band when “Uptown Blues” came into existence, recalled: “It began as a sign-off tune (chaser) that we played at dances before intermissions. It wasn’t written by any one guy. We just got together and made it up.” (2) After the Vocalion recording of “Uptown Blues” was released in early 1940 and became a hit, Lunceford used it as his band’s sign-off radio theme song. “Jazznocracy,” which they had used for several years as a theme song, continued to be used as the opening theme until the ASCAP- radio imbroglio, which began on January 1, 1941. Since the composer of “Jazznocracy” was ASCAP member Will Hudson, that tune could not be broadcast during the ASCAP dispute. Lunceford then began to both sign on and off of radio broadcasts with “Uptown Blues.” (3)

In May of 1939, trumpeter/arranger Sy Oliver was lured away from the Lunceford band with a monetary offer from Tommy Dorsey that Jimmie could not match. Oliver had in his six years with Lunceford become a major source of the band’s most successful arrangements. In the wake of his departure, Lunceford was casting about for a new head arranger. Eventually, he would select the talented Billy Moore to succeed Oliver. Moore’s work started to show up in the Lunceford band’s book of arrangements by mid-summer 1939. In the short interval between Oliver’s departure and Moore’s arrival, “Uptown Blues” was created.

Jimmie Lunceford at right with his saxophones and trumpets – 1940: L-R front: Willie Smith, Ted Buckner, Joe Thomas, Dan Grissom, Earl Carruthers; back: Gerald Wilson, Snooky Young, Paul Webster.

The music:

Historian and music scholar Gunther Schuller in his book The Swing Era – the Development of Jazz – 1930 – 1945, had this to say about “Uptown Blues”: “‘Uptown Blues’ is the finest record from the post – Sy Oliver years of the Lunceford band. It was also the first real blues recorded by Lunceford, not counting ‘White Heat’ (which is based on based on blues changes, but not a blues at all). ‘Uptown Blues’ features two remarkable solos, by Willie Smith on alto saxophone and Snooky Young on trumpet. (Young’s solo) … was his first extended solo opportunity on records. It is a splendid effort, perfectly structured as it moves up gradually in register, discovering some poignantly anguished blue notes on the way, and finally crowned at just the right moment in the second chorus by an exultant A-flat, from which the solo descends three octaves to its starting point. It would be hard to compose a better solo statement, even if given hours to write it.” (4) Curiously, Schuller said nothing about Willie Smith’s solo on alto saxophone, which shares almost all of the qualities he extolled in Young’s solo. (Alto saxophonist Willie Smith is pictured above right.)

I will add a few observations about “Uptown Blues”: The introduction presents cunning mixture of low-register saxophones and trombones, played at a leisurely tempo. The first chorus after the introduction is the one where Willie Smith plays. His sound on alto saxophone was rich, full and ringing, and that sound is set off beautifully against the moaning background he plays against, one of low register oo-ah brass and harmonic “pads” played by the other four saxophones. The way Smith plays in the lower register to set up his vaults into the highest register of his instrument is brilliant and paced perfectly. This is a great solo.

Trumpeter Snooky Young follows and his playing equals Smith’s in both virtuosity and emotional impact. What is astonishing is that Young had only recently joined the Lunceford band, and had found his footing as both a lead trumpeter and as a soloist so quickly and completely in that fabulously unified band. We know in retrospect that Snooky was at the beginning of a career that would span more than 50 years as one of the leading first trumpeters in jazz, his great ability garnering respect from all musicians who had the privilege of working with him. (At left: Snooky Young as a member of Jimmie Lunceford’s band in 1940.)

The recording presented with this post was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.

Notes and links:

(1) Jimmie Lunceford well understood what had to be done to make money as a bandleader. He was far less astute in spending his money. Although he did not gamble, drink or smoke, he spent large sums on airplanes, many of which he wrecked.

(2) The Swing Era 1939-1940 (1971), notes on the music by Joseph Castner, 61.

(3) “Jazznocracy” was composed and arranged by Will Hudson in 1933 and recorded by the Lunceford band for Victor on January 26, 1934. It is a minor-key romp that owes a lot to the music of the early Casa Loma band.

(4) The Swing Era – the Development of Jazz – 1930 – 1945, by Gunther Schuller (1989), 218.

Here are links to other great performances by Jimmie Lunceford’s band:









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1 Comment

  1. Though I tend to judge, or define, the Lunceford band largely by the input of my favourite arranger (irrespective of band), Sy Oliver, I do enjoy many of the orchestra’s post-Oliver sides as well as the earlier arrangements that were contributed by Eddie Wilcox, Willie Smith and others. While I can appreciate the early Lunceford theme, “Jazznocracy,” for both Will Hudson’s writing (indeed reminiscent of that crafted by Gene Gifford for Casa Loma) and the band’s performance of the piece, I feel that the chart’s distinctly Cotton Club-era sound did not age particularly well; with a new decade right around the corner, there’s no question that the aggregation was in desperate need of a new theme. “Uptown Blues” may not have been truly representative of the Lunceford band’s musical character of the time (or of any period in its history), but it is gloriously atmospheric, and I have to agree with Gunther Schuller’s assessment — although I do feel that Willie Smith’s contribution to the side’s artistic success is at least equal to Snooky Young’s. The bookending trombone-reed passages, conveying a rather weary mood, and everything in between are saturated with a late night/early morning urban noir ambience. We may wish that there had been more of this sort of thing from the band in the ’40s!

    While I think it’s tremendously unfortunate that Jimmie died so young, I do feel that while he was alive (and presumably not expecting to expire before he hit fifty), he could have rewarded his great musicians in a much more generous way for the work they put into the records and live appearances that enabled him to live handsomely when he wasn’t waving a baton. First Sy left and then Willie and Trummy, key men — and who can blame them? Eddie Wilcox and Joe Thomas, in particular, should be commended for their loyalty — because loyalty is a virtue and not because Lunceford was the recipient — but I think they should have walked, too.

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