Jimmie Lunceford

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Jimmie Lunceford
Maud Cuney Hare-155-Jimmie Lunceford.jpg
Background information
Birth nameJames Melvin Lunceford
Born(1902-06-06)June 6, 1902
Fulton, Mississippi, U.S.
DiedJuly 12, 1947(1947-07-12) (aged 45)
Seaside, Oregon
Genres Jazz, swing, traditional pop
Occupation(s)Musician, bandleader
InstrumentsSaxophone, flute
Labels Decca, Columbia

James Melvin Lunceford (June 6, 1902 July 12, 1947) was an American jazz alto saxophonist and bandleader in the swing era.

Jazz is a music genre that originated in the African-American communities of New Orleans, United States, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and developed from roots in blues and ragtime. Jazz is seen by many as "America's classical music". Since the 1920s Jazz Age, jazz has become recognized as a major form of musical expression. It then emerged in the form of independent traditional and popular musical styles, all linked by the common bonds of African-American and European-American musical parentage with a performance orientation. Jazz is characterized by swing and blue notes, call and response vocals, polyrhythms and improvisation. Jazz has roots in West African cultural and musical expression, and in African-American music traditions including blues and ragtime, as well as European military band music. Intellectuals around the world have hailed jazz as "one of America's original art forms".

The swing era was the period of time (1933–1947) when big band swing music was the most popular music in the United States. Though this was its most popular period, the music had actually been around since the late 1920s and early 1930s, being played by black bands led by such artists as Duke Ellington, Jimmie Lunceford, Bennie Moten, Cab Calloway, Earl Hines, and Fletcher Henderson, and white bands from the 1920s led by the likes of Jean Goldkette, Russ Morgan and Isham Jones. An early milestone in the era was from “the King of Swing” Benny Goodman's performance at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles on August 21, 1935, bringing the music to the rest of the country. The 1930s also became the era of other great soloists: the tenor saxists Coleman Hawkins, Chu Berry and Lester Young; the alto saxists Benny Carter and Johnny Hodges; the drummers Chick Webb, Gene Krupa, Cozy Cole and Sid Catlett; the pianists Fats Waller and Teddy Wilson; the trumpeters Roy Eldridge, Bunny Berigan, and Rex Stewart.



Lunceford was born on a farm in the Evergreen community, west of the Tombigbee River, near Fulton, Mississippi. The 53 acre farm was owned by his father, James. His mother was Idella ("Ida") Shumpert of Oklahoma City, an organist of "more than average ability." Seven months after James Melvin was born, the family moved to Oklahoma City. [1] [2] The family next moved to Denver where Lunceford went to high school and studied music under Wilberforce J. Whiteman, father of Paul Whiteman, whose band was soon to acquire a national reputation. As a child in Denver, he learned several instruments. After high school, Lunceford continued his studies at Fisk University. [3] In 1922, he played alto saxophone in a local band led by the violinist George Morrison which included Andy Kirk, another musician destined for fame as a bandleader. [4]

Fulton, Mississippi City in Mississippi, United States

Fulton is a city in and the county seat of Itawamba County, Mississippi, United States. The population was 3,961 at the 2010 census.

Mississippi State of the United States of America

Mississippi is a state located in the southeastern region of the United States. Mississippi is the 32nd most extensive and 34th most populous of the 50 United States. It is bordered by Tennessee to the north, Alabama to the east, the Gulf of Mexico and Louisiana to the south, and Arkansas and Louisiana to the west. The state's western boundary is largely defined by the Mississippi River. Jackson, with a population of approximately 167,000 people, is both the state's capital and largest city.

Denver State capital and consolidated city-county in Colorado

Denver, officially the City and County of Denver, is the capital and most populous municipality of the U.S. state of Colorado. Denver is located in the South Platte River Valley on the western edge of the High Plains just east of the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains. The Denver downtown district is immediately east of the confluence of Cherry Creek with the South Platte River, approximately 12 mi (19 km) east of the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Denver is named after James W. Denver, a governor of the Kansas Territory, and it is nicknamed the Mile High City because its official elevation is exactly one mile above sea level. The 105th meridian west of Greenwich, the longitudinal reference for the Mountain Time Zone, passes directly through Denver Union Station.


In 1927, while an athletic instructor at Manassas High School in Memphis, Tennessee, he organized a student band, the Chickasaw Syncopators, whose name was changed to the Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra. Under the new name, the band started its professional career in 1929, and made its first recordings in 1930. [5] Lunceford was the first public high school band director in Memphis. After a period of touring, in 1934 the band accepted a booking at the Harlem nightclub The Cotton Club for their revue 'Cotton Club Parade' starring Adelaide Hall. [6] [7] The Cotton Club had already featured Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway, who won their first widespread fame from their inventive shows for the Cotton Club's all-white patrons. With their tight musicianship and the often outrageous humor in their music and lyrics, Lunceford's orchestra made an ideal band for the club, and Lunceford's reputation began to steadily grow. [8] Jimmie Lunceford's band differed from other great bands of the time because it was better known for its ensemble than for its solo work. Additionally, he was known for using a two-beat rhythm, called the Lunceford two-beat, as opposed to the standard four-beat rhythm. [9] This distinctive "Lunceford style" was largely the result of the imaginative arrangements by trumpeter Sy Oliver, which set high standards for dance-band arrangers of the time. [5]

Memphis, Tennessee City in Tennessee, United States

Memphis is a city located along the Mississippi River in southwestern Shelby County, Tennessee, United States. The 2017 city population was 652,236, making Memphis the largest city on the Mississippi River, second-largest city in Tennessee, as well as the 25th largest city in the United States. Greater Memphis is the 42nd largest metropolitan area in the United States, with a population of 1,348,260 in 2017. The city is the anchor of West Tennessee and the greater Mid-South region, which includes portions of neighboring Arkansas and Mississippi. Memphis is the seat of Shelby County, the most populous county in Tennessee. As one of the most historic and cultural cities of the southern United States, the city features a wide variety of landscapes and distinct neighborhoods.

Harlem Neighborhood of Manhattan in New York City

Harlem is a neighborhood in the northern section of the New York City borough of Manhattan. It is bounded roughly by Frederick Douglass Boulevard, St. Nicholas Avenue, and Morningside Park on the west; the Harlem River and 155th Street on the north; Fifth Avenue on the east; and Central Park North on the south. It is part of greater Harlem, an area that encompasses several other neighborhoods and extends west to the Hudson River, north to 155th Street, east to the East River, and south to 96th Street.

Adelaide Hall singer and entertainer

Adelaide Louise Hall was an American-born UK-based jazz singer and entertainer. Hall's long career spanned more than 70 years from 1921 until her death and she was a major figure in the Harlem Renaissance. Hall entered the Guinness Book of World Records in 2003 as the world's most enduring recording artist having released material over eight consecutive decades. She performed with major artists such as Art Tatum Ethel Waters, Josephine Baker, Louis Armstrong, Lena Horne, Cab Calloway, Fela Sowande Rudy Vallee and Jools Holland, and recorded as a jazz singer with Duke Ellington and with Fats Waller.

Though not well known as a musician, Jimmie Lunceford was trained on several instruments and was even featured on flute in "Liza". [10]

Comedy and vaudeville played a distinct part in Lunceford's presentation. Songs such as "Rhythm Is Our Business" (featured in a 1937 musical short with Myra Johnson (Taylor) on vocals), "I'm Nuts about Screwy Music", "I Want the Waiter (With the Water)", and "Four or Five Times" displayed a playful sense of swing, often through clever arrangements by trumpeter Sy Oliver and bizarre lyrics. Lunceford's stage shows often included costumes, skits, and obvious jabs at mainstream white bands, such as Paul Whiteman's and Guy Lombardo's.

Vaudeville genre of variety entertainment in the United States and Canada from the early 1880s until the early 1930s

Vaudeville is a theatrical genre of variety entertainment born in France at the end of the 18th century. A vaudeville was originally a comedy without psychological or moral intentions, based on a comical situation: a kind of dramatic composition or light poetry, interspersed with songs or ballets. It became popular in the United States and Canada from the early 1880s until the early 1930s, but the idea of vaudeville's theatre changed radically from its French antecedent.

Musical short

The musical short can be traced back to the earliest days of sound films.

Guy Lombardo Canadian conductor

Gaetano Alberto "Guy" Lombardo was a Canadian-American bandleader and violinist.

Despite the band's comic veneer, Lunceford always maintained professionalism in the music befitting a former teacher; this professionalism paid off and during the apex of swing in the 1930s, the Orchestra was considered the equal of Duke Ellington's, Earl Hines' or Count Basie's. This precision can be heard in such pieces as "Wham (Re-Bop-Boom-Bam)", "Lunceford Special", "For Dancers Only", "Uptown Blues", and "Stratosphere". The band's noted saxophone section was led by alto sax player Willie Smith. Lunceford often used a conducting baton to lead his band.

Duke Ellington American jazz musician, composer and band leader

Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington was an American composer, pianist, and leader of a jazz orchestra, which he led from 1923 until his death over a career spanning more than fifty years.

Earl Hines American jazz pianist

Earl Kenneth Hines, universally known as Earl "Fatha" Hines, was an American jazz pianist and bandleader. He was one of the most influential figures in the development of jazz piano and, according to one major source, is "one of a small number of pianists whose playing shaped the history of jazz".

Count Basie American jazz musician, bandleader, and composer

William James "Count" Basie was an American jazz pianist, organist, bandleader, and composer.

The orchestra began recording for the Decca label and later signed with the Columbia subsidiary Vocalion in 1938. They toured Europe extensively in 1937, but had to cancel a second tour in 1939 because of the outbreak of World War II. Columbia dropped Lunceford in 1940 because of flagging sales. (Oliver departed the group before the scheduled European tour to take a position as an arranger for Tommy Dorsey). Lunceford returned to the Decca label. The orchestra appeared in the 1941 movie Blues in the Night .

Most of Lunceford's sidemen were underpaid and left for better paying bands, leading to the band's decline. [10]


After playing McElroy's Ballroom in Portland, [11] Lunceford and his orchestra were in Seaside, Oregon to play at The Bungalow dance hall on July 12, 1947. [12] [13] Before the performance Lunceford collapsed during an autograph session at a local record store. He died while being taken by ambulance to the Seaside hospital. Lunceford was 45. [14] Dr Alton Alderman performed an autopsy in nearby Astoria, Oregon, and concluded that Lunceford died of coronary occlusion. [15]

Lunceford had complained about an aching leg as they arrived in Seaside, and had been suffering with high blood pressure for a while, and had recently complained about not feeling well. [16] Allegations and rumors circulated that he had been poisoned by a restaurant owner who was unhappy at having to serve a "Negro" in his establishment. [17] He was buried at Elmwood Cemetery in Memphis.


Jimmie Lunceford Maud Cuney Hare-155-Jimmie Lunceford.jpg
Jimmie Lunceford

Band members, notably Eddie Wilcox and Joe Thomas kept the band going for a time but finally had to break up the Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra in 1949.

In 1999, band-leader Robert Veen and a team of musicians set out to acquire permission to use the original band charts and arrangements of the Jimmie Lunceford canon. 'The Jimmie Lunceford Legacy Orchestra' officially debuted in July 2005 at the North Sea Jazz Festival in the Netherlands.

The Jimmie Lunceford Jamboree Festival was founded in 2007 by Ron Herd II a.k.a. R2C2H2 Tha Artivist and Artstorian, with the aim of increasing recognition of Lunceford's contribution to jazz, particularly in Memphis, Tennessee. The Jimmie Lunceford Legacy Awards was created by the Jimmie Lunceford Jamboree Festival to honor exceptional musicians with Memphis ties as well as those who have dedicated their careers to excellence in music and music education.

His music continues to have an impact. Most recently the tune "Rhythm is Our Business" was included as track on the compilation set Memphis Jazz Box in 2004 in honor of Lunceford's close ties to Memphis.

On July 19, 2009, a brass note was dedicated to Lunceford on Beale Street, Memphis, Tennessee.

Selected discography

Prior to Lunceford's success on Decca (beginning September 1934), he made the following recordings:

Decca recordings

Columbia recordings

Majestic recordings

The Chronological...Classics series

note: every recording by Jimmie Lunceford & His Orchestra is included in this 10 volume series from the CLASSICS reissue label...

CD compilations from different reissue labels


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  1. Rhythm Is Our Business : Jimmie Lunceford and the Harlem Express. Eddy Determeyer Ann Arbor : University of Michigan Press, c2006. ISBN   9780472033591. 0472115537 (cloth : alk. paper) pages 1,2
  2. "Itawamba History Review: The Itawamba Historical Society: Orchestra Leader Jimmie Lunceford's Itawamba County Roots". Itawambahistory.blogspot.com. 2007-06-05. Retrieved 2013-03-06.
  3. "Fisk Special Collections Features Music and Manuscript Artifacts in Archives Week Exhibit | Fisk University's Official Weblog". Fiskuniversity.wordpress.com. 2008-10-17. Retrieved 2013-03-06.
  4. Dictionary of American Biography, Supplement 4: 1946-1950
  5. 1 2 "JAZZ A Film By Ken Burns: Selected Artist Biography - Jimmie Lunceford". PBS. Retrieved 2013-03-06.
  6. "Cotton Club Revues 1934". Jass.com. Retrieved 2013-03-06.
  7. "Underneath a Harlem Moon: The Harlem to Paris Years of Adelaide Hall (Bayou Jazz Lives): Iain Cameron Williams: Books". Amazon.com. Retrieved 2013-03-06.
  8. Determeyer, Eddy (2006). Rhythm Is Our Business: Jimmie Lunceford and the Harlem Express. University of Michigan Press. p. 344. ISBN   978-0-472-11553-2.
  9. "Jimmie Lunceford". Legends of Big Band Jazz History. Retrieved 2012-11-26.
  10. 1 2 Yanow, Scott. "Jimmie Lunceford - Music Biography, Credits and Discography". AllMusic. Retrieved 2013-03-06.
  11. advertisement The Oregonian July 10, 1947
  12. Rhythm Is Our Business : Jimmie Lunceford and the Harlem Express. Eddy Determeyer Ann Arbor : University of Michigan Press, c2006. ISBN   9780472033591. 0472115537 (cloth : alk. paper) page 233, 234
  13. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2015-12-19. Retrieved 2016-01-11.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link) retrieved 1.11.2016
  14. Jimmy Lunceford Dies at Seaside. The Oregonian July 13, 1947. page 1
  15. Death 'Natural' For Band Leader. (Associated Press) The Oregonian July 16, 1947. page 16
  16. Rhythm Is Our Business : Jimmie Lunceford and the Harlem Express. Eddy Determeyer Ann Arbor : University of Michigan Press, c2006. ISBN   9780472033591. 0472115537 (cloth : alk. paper) page233, 234
  17. Myers, Mark (July 20, 2011). "Swing's Forgotten King". Wall Street Journal