given name Melvin James Oliver
nickname “Sy,” short for “Psychology” [ given by the drummer in Zack Whyte’s
Cincinnati-based band ]
birth Dec. 10, 1910, Battle Creek, MI
death May 27, 1988, New York City, “died of cardiovascular complications” / “had been
suffering from [ lung ] cancer for a year”
father Melvin Clarence Oliver, a music teacher, concert singer, and church choir director
mother Alice Taylor, a pianist and church organist
siblings five younger, including sister Cleo Pitts and brother Vincent Oliver
education public schools, Zanesville, OH
wife Lillian Clark Oliver [ r.n. Autilia Ventimiglia ], a singer, b.1926, Scranton, PA; m.1946?;
d.Aug. 20, 1996, cancer
son Jeffrey James Oliver
son Taylor C. Oliver
military service U.S. Army, 1943-45
hobbies reading; playing chess
Oliver gave the Lunceford band its most popular and distinctive sounds. He joined them in 1933 and, for the next six years, created one classic arrangement after another.
Oliver’s use of two-beat rhythm, stop-time breaks, intricate saxophone choruses, and ear-splitting brass explosions proved widely influential. To quote some song lyrics, ‘tain’t whatcha do (it’s the way that you do it), evidently.
“Music evolves; somebody comes along and does something, and it becomes part of the language. It’s a matter of the growth of music as a whole, and the natural sequence of events,” he later explained to writer Les Tomkins. “So to say some arrangers copied from me isn’t really valid. Good for my ego, but not valid!”
A sampling of Oliver’s charts for Lunceford includes For Dancers Only, The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down, Annie Laurie, Dream of You, Stomp It Off, Since My Best Gal Turned Me Down, Four Or Five Times, My Blue Heaven, Organ Grinder’s Swing, and Well, All Right Then.
With Lunceford, he not only arranged but played trumpet and sang pleasantly.
Sy Oliver in His Own Words, Opus One:
“. . . I had no intention at all of taking up music as a career. At the time I was born, we sort
of had two worlds in the States, socially speaking, and the only solution for a Negro was
education-the best defence [ sic ], the best way of making peace of mind for yourself. My
parents were aware of that, and early on I was imbued with the idea of formal education. But
my father becoming ill, and my being the oldest of six children interfered with that. That’s
how I first came to get into playing music professionally-it was the only way I could finish
school and support the family.”
“When I was with Lunceford I didn’t like playing trumpet, and now I know why. After I discovered
arranging, I didn’t devote any time to the horn. I didn’t develop any expertise, so I didn’t have
the facility to play the things I wanted to or the way I felt them. So, my reaction was a dislike
for the trumpet.”
“One of the reasons I didn’t get any better was because I was the arranger. I wrote everything
I played, so I always protected myself. I never gave myself anything difficult to play. I’d fix the
background to make me look good.”
“As a leader, Jimmy Lunceford was a remarkable man. He was a man who led by example;
he never raised his voice, never repeated anything, never imposed discipline by means of
penalties and that sort of thing. You did what he expected you to do because you wanted to
do it for him. And the band reflected that, by the class it had. He was a very impressive man
to look at: while the character of many bands is established by the leader’s musical outlook,
Jimmy’s band took its character from him as a person.”
In 1939, Oliver was lured with a hefty pay raise to join the Tommy Dorsey band as arranger and occasional vocalist, helping to establish a more jazz-oriented style for the group and propel them, dare I quote the lyrics of another tune, on the sunny side of the street.
“He became one of the first black arrangers writing for a white band,” it was later observed in Down Beat.
Memorable examples of Oliver’s Dorsey originals and arrangements includes Swing High; Opus 1; The Minor Goes Muggin'; Swing Time Up in Harlem; Deep River; Easy Does It; Swingin’ On Nothin'; Swanee River; Chloe; Quiet, Please; and Well, Git It!
Less familiar, but still appealing Oliver pieces are Back Stage At the Ballet; Can’t Get Stuff in Your Cuff; At the Fat Man's; Blues No More; Another One of Them Things; and Loose Lid Special.
Sy Oliver in His Own Words, Opus Two:
“When I moved from the Lunceford band to Tommy Dorsey, I didn’t change my writing approach.
He made the transition. The band that Dorsey had when I joined him was Dixieland-orientated,
and my sort of attack was foreign to most of the fellows he had. We both knew that to be the
case, but he wanted a Swing band-so he changed personnel until he got the guys that could
“At the time we recorded such arrangements as ‘Well, Git It’ and ‘Sunny Side of the Street,’
he had as good a band as anybody’s ever assembled. That was the band that included Ziggy
Elman, Buddy Rich, guys of that caliber-they were fantastic musicians for anybody. By then
I’d been with the band some time; he’d settled in with his new personnel. In fact, earlier on I
quit a couple of times-I said: ‘Tommy, these guys are never gonna play this stuff.’ He said:
‘Give me time, and I’ll get some who will.’ Which, of course, he did.”
“Dorsey’s ‘Yes, Indeed’-the part I sang with Jo Stafford was meant to be a band ensemble.
As it happened, on the date we had very little time. And the fellows just weren’t singing it
together well, even though it was written out; most musicians have a block about reading
vocal music-it takes ‘em a little time to get with it. So Tommy suggested that I do it, as I
was there-just a matter of saving time.”
“They say everyone is replaceable. I’d like to see someone replace Tommy.”
After assembling a band for a 1946 radio show, “Endorsed By Dorsey,” Oliver then moved into the recording studios, arranging or conducting for dozens of performers, ranging from jazz legend Billie Holiday to, later, twist king Chubby Checker.
“I worked with everybody, Bing, Ella, Louis Armstrong, everybody!,” Oliver reminisced.
There were always excellent studio musicians in Oliver’s bands of the period, including, at various times, Lamar Wright, Bernie Privin, Tony Faso, and Taft Jordan (trumpets); Dickie Wells, Henderson Chambers (trombones); George Dorsey, Sid Cooper (alto saxophones); Al Klink, Babe Fresk (tenor saxophones); Dave McRae (baritone saxophone); Billy Kyle (piano); George Duvivier (bass); and Jimmy Crawford or Panama Francis (drums).
At MGM, Oliver recorded Slow Burn, Walkin' the Dog, and Blues Just Blues.
On Decca, he cut Organ Grinder's Swing, By the River Ste. Marie, But She's My Buddy's Chick, My Friend Told Me, and Kissin' Bug Boogie.
In fact, by joining Decca as music director and arranger and producer, Oliver broke another color line in the music business.
After leading a band as Musical Director at the Olympia Theatre in Paris in 1968-69, Oliver returned to the U.S. and fronted his own combos (typically 7 to 10 pieces) for engagements at clubs around Manhattan, especially the Rainbow Room, during the ‘70s and ‘80s. They played his well-known big band arrangements for Lunceford and Dorsey, newly orchestrated by him for the smaller ensemble.
Meanwhile, as Director of the New York Jazz Repertory Company beginning in January 1974, Oliver drew attention to and conducted tunes associated with other African-American bandleaders, namely Chick Webb, Don Redman, Erskine Hawkins, Duke Ellington, and Fletcher Henderson.
That same year, Oliver joined several other musicians associated with Dorsey, including clarinetist Johnny Mince and former Dorsey Orchestra leader Warren Covington, for concert appearances in England.
In July 1975, Oliver presented a month-long tribute to Lunceford at the Rainbow Room, playing each night at least one set that was entirely Lunceford pieces, for dancers only.
The Oliver band’s music book was kept up-to-date, too, with songs such as Misty, The Sound of Music, Girl Talk, The Impossible Dream, Tie a Yellow Ribbon ‘Round the Ole Oak Tree, The Way We Were, Feelings, Evergreen, and even The Hustle.
“Whatever this seven-piece group plays, from cha cha to hustle, it is done with a light, easy touch and with ensembles that are surprisingly full and varied for so small a band,” John S. Wilson observed in the New York Times in 1976.
Sy Oliver in his Own Words, Opus Three:
“I was going to retire, but for fun I tried redoing my old arrangements to get the big band sound
with a small group . . . Now I’m working harder than ever, but it’s for myself. This is as near to
not working as you can get. Traveling? Not for me. I lived on a bus for six years with the
Lunceford band in the 30’s. That was enough.”
“Lunceford-and Dorsey later-were exceptional men . . . If they knew a man could do something,
they’d let him alone and let him do it. So tho I had the assignments, the things you associate
with me are tunes I picked just because I liked them. They were usually tunes that had been
established in a certain fashion, and I’d do something with them that hadn’t been done before.
I also take tunes I absolutely hate and make arrangements on them, so they sound good. Like
‘Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.’ I detest that tune. But I made an arrangement and even
the guys in the band who can’t stand the song like to play it. ‘You Are My Sunshine’ is another.”
“Just like you need white space in graphics, you need the same thing in music. People can only
hear one thing at a time, and I like to play music people like. There’s a lot of effort in what we do
. . . But there is a great deal of satisfaction in watching people enjoy it.”
“ . . . I never can plan a night in advance because my music isn’t complete without dancers. I
keep feeling my way for the music the people want. Symbiosis, that’s the word for what we’re
In the 1973 Down Beat poll of international critics, Oliver won an award welcoming him back to jazz as “talent deserving of wider recognition.” Told of the honor and that Duke Ellington won in the “established talent” category, Oliver quipped, “Well, dang! I’m going to keep on trying.”
Oliver retired, once and for all, in 1984 to spend time with his family.
One of his sons, Taylor, was present in March 2001 when the Chicago Jazz Orchestra, with guest conductor David Baker, played a tribute concert to Oliver.
I was there, too, and remarked to Taylor that, should anyone ask me if his dad’s work will always sound good, my answer is… yes, indeed!
Harriet Choice, “Jazz by Choice: The man behind the music in a timeless ‘Blue Heaven,’”
Chicago Tribune, Aug. 5, 1973, p.E9.
Stanley Dance, “The Return of Sy Oliver,” Jazz Journal International, Sept. 1970, pp.2-5.
Leonard Feather and Ira Gitler, “Oliver, Sy (Melvin James),” in The Biographical
Encyclopedia of Jazz (New York City: Oxford University Press, 1999), p.505.
“Final Bar: Sy Oliver,” Down Beat, Sept. 1988, p.12.
Eddie Lambert, “Oliver, Sy,” in The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, Second Edition:
Volume 3 Nightclubs - Zwingenberger (New York City: Grove’s Dictionaries Inc., 2002),
Michael Lydon, “’Keep It Simple,’ Says Sy Oliver,” New York Times, May 21, 1978, p.D24.
“Meet Sy Olliver [ sic ], The Ace Behind Tommy Dorsey’s Sensational Band,” Chicago
Defender, Aug. 9, 1941, p.20.
"Sy Oliver," in Meet the Artist (New York City: Broadcast Music Inc., 1957), p.)-2
Les Tomkins, “The Sy Oliver Story, Part 1: As told to Les Tomkins on a rare trip to Britain
in 1974,” jazzprofessional.com.
---, “The Sy Oliver Story, Part 2,” jazzprofessional.com.
Peter Watrous, “Sy Oliver, 77, a Jazz Composer, Arranger and Band Leader, Dies,”
New York Times, May 28, 1988, p.10.
John S. Wilson, “Music: Sy Oliver’s Dance Band,” New York Times, Sept. 17, 1976, p.70.
---, “Sy Oliver Excels in Jazz Program: Gives Fletcher Henderson Arrangements With Style,”
New York Times, June 17, 1974, p.28.
---, “Sy Oliver Playing Lunceford Tunes,” New York Times, Jul. 19, 1975, p.12.
---, “Sy Oliver Takes His 70-71 Band To the ‘Village,’” New York Times, Dec. 1, 1970, p.58.
I would like to expand this tribute with, if possible, a new interview of someone who was important to Sy Oliver's life or career. Are you an alumnus of his band, a member of his family, or a collector who is knowledgeable about his accomplishments? Please contact me via e-mail