Born: December 17, 1910 | Died: May 28, 1988 Primary Instrument: Arranger
Melvin James (Sy) Oliver,was one of America's great jazz composers and arrangers of the big band era, and a musician who had a significant impact on American popular music.
Sy Oliver was born in Battle Creek, Mich., on Dec. 10, 1910. His parents were music teachers, and his father was also a concert singer. As a trumpeter in high school, Oliver played with Cliff Barnett's Club Royal Serenaders. and at age 17, he moved up to the more prestigious territory bands, working with Zack Whyte and his Chocolate Beau Brummels, where he began to hone his arranging skills, and with Alphonso Trent's band, which was based in Cincinnati.
Oliver joined the Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra in late 1933, and in the six years until he left, his composing and arranging made the group one of the most successful and individual big bands of the swing era. He was also one of Lunceford's main trumpet soloists. When the orchestra left Buffalo in 1933, it had neither name nor reputation; for the next 10 years it astonished audiences in New York and around the country with its precision playing, high-powered novelty numbers, slick showmanship and razor-sharp swing. Oliver's arrangements were at the core of the band's repertory. Such Oliver compositions as ''For Dancers Only,'' ''Dream of You,'' ''Organ Grinder Swing,'' ''Stomp It Off'' and '' 'Tain't What You Do'' helped define the orchestra, and they remain some of jazz's finest arrangements and compositions. Mr. Oliver also arranged novelty or nostalgia tunes for the orchestra, slyly remaking them into major pieces. And the use of a vocal trio, brilliantly arranged by Mr. Oliver, became one of the orchestra's trademarks. New Allegiance.
Oliver was hired away from the Lunceford Orchestra in 1939 by the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, for which he arranged and sang and for which he also composed a number of songs, including ''Opus One'' and ''Easy Does It.'' Oliver led a band in the Army between 1943 and 1945, and was host of a radio show, ''Endorsed by Dorsey,'' which featured his own band. He returned to Dorsey after the war.
From the late 1940's to the early 70's, Oliver moved from job to job, working for 10 years at Decca Records as a musical director. He recorded several albums, including a tribute to the Lunceford band, and wrote scores for several television shows. He continued to compose, arrange and, occasionally, to perform.
In the early 1970's, he formed a well-received nine-piece orchestra - featuring the clarinetist Barney Bigard, the pianist Cliff Smalls and the tenor saxophonist Arnett Cobb - that played the St. Regis-Sheraton, the Rainbow Grill and other clubs. In 1974, he and the group moved into the Rainbow Room, where they stayed until 1984, with occasional breaks for performances at jazz festivals and at Roseland in New York. He was also one of four musical directors of the New York Jazz Repertory Orchestra, which was dedicated to keeping jazz masterworks alive in a repertory setting. In 1984, Sy Oliver retired to spend time with his family.
Sy Oliver died in New York on May 28, 1988.
Source: Peter Watrous