During the 1930s and 1940s the names of Ellington and Lunceford were often mentioned in the same breath. Along with Cab Calloway, they were considered the black “class” orchestras. In most African American middle-class families it was not considered proper for kids to go out dancing, unless the music was furnished by Duke, Jimmie, or Cab.
From the start jazz and swing aficionados argued which orchestra was “better,” Ellington’s or Lunceford’s. The consensus was that Lunceford displayed more precision and swing, while Duke’s Famous Orchestra essayed highly idiosyncratic moods and colors, and accommodated more stellar soloists than any other band. A fundamental difference was that Ellington was mainly marketed for the white intelligentsia; Lunceford had a broader appeal, and unlike Basie and Ellington frequently worked smaller venues in the South.
“When Jimmie Lunceford came along, he upset everybody,” said Bobby Plater, who led the reed sections of Tiny Bradshaw’s, Lionel Hampton’s, and Count Basie’s orchestras. “’Course, Duke was in a class by himself–until Jimmie Lunceford came on the scene! Jimmie Lunceford came along, and it kind of shook Duke up. They had to start playing good.” He explained that Duke’s men sometimes were given to sloppy ensemble work, and their confrontation with Lunceford’s standard of precision was a rude awakening.
Band Battles were a popular phenomenon during the swing era. Two or more swing bands would alternate, and the public (or a jury) would decide which one was “best.” This was a tradition that probably went back to New Orleans, even before the time of ragtime and early jazz. Sometimes these battles were staged by impresarios, just to drum up an audience, but quite often they were serious affairs, with musicians and leaders doing their utmost to outdo their adversaries.
Ellington and Lunceford battled a couple of times. The outcome was uneven. Bebop singer Babs Gonzales as a young boy was assistant band boy for Lunceford, so he may have been partial when he maintained, “I witnessed nights when Duke washed Jimmie away and nights when it was the other way around. But more often it was Jimmie who bashed Duke! I’ve seen that, I sure have. Showmanship and musicianship, too. That’s true.” Gerald Wilson, on the other hand, was Lunceford’s trumpeter and arranger for three years, and he stated, “We battled Andy Kirk, which was no challenge. Teddy Wilson, we blew them away, too. The only persons we couldn’t have in a show were Duke and Count, that’s all. The rest of them–no, we didn’t even think about.”
The first time the Ellington and Lunceford orchestras battled, December 26, 1938 at the Athletic Club in Philadelphia, is documented. All day members of the “Harlem Express” (the nickname of the Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra) had been running up and down Seventh Avenue in Harlem, claiming they were going to tear the Ellingtonians to pieces. Lunceford played the first set and decided to pull out all their Ellington numbers, since it was customary to try to cut one’s opponent with his own stuff. Duke’s reaction was to call for his mood pieces–as we know he composed a most impressive body of atmospheric tone poems during the early 1930s.
This began to annoy his trumpeter Cootie Williams, who shouted, “For crying out loud, Duke, play something! We got to get with this thing!” The boss responded by pulling out flag wavers like Tiger Rag and Le Jazz Hot. Lunceford’s answer was a full set of Dinah, to which Ellington reacted with a full set of St. Louis Blues. The heat now definitely was on. Sidemen poured their hearts out in spirited solos, section leaders devised new riffs and variations on the spot. The audience became delirious with joy. Sy Oliver, trumpeter and prime arranger for the Lunceford band, came over to the Ellington crew saying, “I didn’t think much of you guys before, but I take everything back. Have mercy on us!”