James Melvin “Jimmie” Lunceford was born June 6, 1902 on a farm near Fulton, Mississippi. His family moved to Oklahoma City before Jimmie was a year old. The Luncefords eventually settled in Denver, where he went to high school and received instruction in music from Wilberforce J. Whiteman, the father of bandleader Paul Whiteman. Under Whiteman’s tutelage Jimmie learned to play several instruments, and he pursued further studies at Fisk University.
After college, Jimmie Lunceford joined Morrison’s Jazz Orchestra, a Denver society band whose repertoire included light classics as well as popular tunes. In 1927, while a physical education teacher at Manassas High School in Memphis, Tennessee, Lunceford formed a student band, The Chickasaw Syncopators. The band quickly achieved professional stature, and recorded in Memphis for Columbia in 1927 and for Victor in 1930.
By 1933, the band—now merely Jimmie Lunceford and his Orchestra—had acquired its distinctive discipline and polish, with the tight section work for which it was to become celebrated. The Lunceford Orchestra played in The Cotton Club Revue in 1934. That year they recorded the jazz classics “White Heat” and “Jazznocracy” for Victor and signed with Decca. The Decca recordings, featuring arrangements by Sy Oliver and Eddie Durham, represent a consistently excellent body of work.
The Lunceford Orchestra was a show band, and their musical precision was enhanced by the choreographed movements of the band in performance. An example of this showmanship may be seen in a 1936 Vitaphone short. Sections move in unison, the musicians jump on chairs, others come down to the apron of the stage to tap dance and sing (while carrying their instruments), and an “Anvil Chorus” tableau is enacted as members of the brass section remove their jackets to beat on chairs with mallets. The band made at least one more film appearance in the 1941 feature Blues in the Night.
Jimmie Lunceford, as bandleader, never relinquished the title of athletic coach. Though his band performed comic turns and lively novelties (most notably “Rhythm is Our Business”), their musicianship remained impeccable throughout.
Sadly, Jimmie Lunceford collapsed and died, aged 45, while signing autographs before a dance date in Seaside, Oregon, on July 12, 1947. – Andy Senior