Oliver, Sy (Melvin James)

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Oliver, Sy (Melvin James)

Oliver, Sy (Melvin James), jazz arranger, trumpeter, singer; b. Battle Creek, Mich., Dec. 17, 1910; d. N.Y., May 28, 1988. He is best known for his arrangements for the Jimmie Lunceford band during the 1930s. The brother-in- law of pianist Archie “Skip” Hall, Sy Oliver was raised in Zanesville, Ohio. Both his parents were music teachers. He played trumpet from age 12, performing in the local Knights of Pythias Band as a teenager. While still in high school, he joined Clin Barnett’s Club Royal Serenaders and played with them on and off for about three years. He then left Ohio at age 17 to work with Zack Whyte and his Chocolate Beau Brummels (then in Huntington, W. Va.). He then played with Alphonso Trent, left after a few months to rejoin Zack Whyte briefly (1930), then settled in Columbus, Ohio, and began teaching and arranging. After submitting arrangements to Jimmie Lunceford, he was invited to join the band, and traveled to N.Y. with them in late 1933 for their debut at the Lafayette Theatre. He was Lunceford’s principal arranger for six years and played regularly in trumpet section. He began working with Tommy Dorsey in summer of 1939, mainly as staff arranger-composer, though he was occasionally featured on vocals. During his Army service from 1943 until late 1945, he served as a bandmaster. He worked again as a freelance arranger, receiving regular commissions from Tommy Dorsey. He led his own big band in 1946, which toured and had a residency at the Zanzibar Club, N.Y. He spent the next 10 years as a musical director and record supervisor at leading record companies, including Decca. During the 1950s and 1960s he did regular freelance arranging and led his own recording bands. He toured extensively during the 1960s and 1970s, directing a band in Paris during 1968 and 1969 (visiting Europe the latter year). He led his own big band in N.Y. (summer 1970 and 1978), and toured Europe with Warren Covington (1974). He resumed playing trumpet and led a nonet that played at several N.Y. clubs. Oliver worked with Money Johnson, Bobby Jones, Mousey Alexander, and Chris Woods, among others. They played Oliver’s arrangements and worked into the 1980s.


O.’s twist & Easy Walker (1960); Take Me Back (1973); “Stomp It Off,” “My Blue Heaven,” “Organ Grinder’s Swing,” “On the Beach at Bali- Bali.”

—John Clinton (Who’ Who of Jazz/Lewis Porter

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Oliver, Sy (Melvin James)

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