Jimmie Lunceford

Memphis music is full of stories that seem improbable, even unbelievable. But none is stranger than Jimmie Lunceford, the North Memphis gym teacher who became an internationally renowned King of Swing.

Jimmie Lunceford
Center for Southern
Folklore Archives

James Felton Lunceford was born on his family’s 70-acre farm in Fulton, Miss., on June 6, 1906. He was raised in Denver, where he studied music under Wilberforce Whiteman, father of the famed bandleader Paul Whiteman. He came to Tennessee in 1922 to attend Nashville’s Fisk University, studying music and sociology, and dividing his spare time between sports and playing alto sax in student jazz bands. One of those also featured another future nationally-known bandleader, Andy Kirk.

After graduating, Lunceford headed west to teach language and physical education at Manassas High School. In 1927, he enlisted some of his more talented students to form a band, The Chickasaw Syncopators, a group that played in the “hot” style of the day. This gives Lunceford the distinction of being the first jazz educator in the public school system. The Chickasaw Syncopators recorded for Victor in 1927 and 1930, including “In Dat Morning” and “Sweet Rhythm.” As things got serious and the band started traveling, he changed the name to the Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra. Lunceford had whipped the group into a genuinely professional band.

Relocating to New York in the early 1930s, the Lunceford band’s early recordings tended to the novelty side. In that, Lunceford remembered the lessons of the vaudeville shows on Beale, lessons that generations of Memphis musicians have learned:

No matter how good you are, you can’t just play music. You have to put on a show.

So the band created a raucous, self-contained presentation, with comedy routines, choreography and costume changes serving as the icing on the cake that was the band’s eminently danceable, unerring sense of swing. The Lunceford band’s live show earned it the coveted spot of house band at New York’s legendary Cotton Club, replacing the band of master showman Cab Calloway.

Cotton Club
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Sweet Rhythm

Reeds and Brass
Jimmie Lunceford & His Orchestra
Cotton Club, Harlem, 1930s
Courtesy photo archive, Delta Haze Corporation

The early Lunceford records included compositions by the Cotton Club’s first star, Duke Ellington, as well as Lunceford trademarks like “Flaming Reeds And Screaming Brass," "White Heat," and "Swingin’ Uptown."

He kept some of his old students in the band even as the Lunceford Orchestra gained a national reputation. These included Memphis-born drummer Jimmy Crawford, who played with Lunceford until 1942, and who went on to become a top session player, one of producer/bandleader Quincy Jones’ go-to drummers and a mainstay in the pit bands of several hit Broadway musicals.

Jimmie Lunceford
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Swingin' Uptown

The Innovation of Jimmie Lunceford

Lunceford’s success helped begin the tradition of Manassas as Memphis’ jazz high school. Most of the top Memphis jazz musicians for the next 50 years came out of that school, including trumpeter Booker Little, pianist Harold Mabern, saxophonist Frank Strozier and Black Moses himself, the versatile multi-instrumentalist Isaac Hayes.

Lunceford took a forward-thinking approach, hiring the innovative trumpeter/arranger Sy Oliver in 1934, as the band was just beginning its string of successes for Decca Records. While Oliver modernized the band’s sound, the group never forgot they were there to entertain. A string of comical - but always danceable - pieces were the result, songs like “I’m Nuts about Screwy Music,” “Tain't Good (Like a Nickel Made of Wood),” “The Merry Go Round Broke Down,” “Muddy Water (A Mississippi Moan),” “Rhythm in My Nursery Rhymes” and “Four or Five Times,” the last of which became a standard among Western Swing bands.

But the importance of Lunceford’s innovations can’t be overstated. Signature pieces like “Lunceford Special,” ”For Dancers Only” and the band’s trademark, “Rhythm is Our Business,” displayed the group’s tightly disciplined swing that was the envy of other bands. A particularly innovative Lunceford record was “Hittin’ the Bottle,” which featured Eddie Durham giving up his usual trombone to solo on a brand-new instrument, the electric guitar. Jazz historian Leonard Feather called Durham’s solos on the piece, recorded in September 1935, “probably the first recorded example of any form of guitar amplification.”

Jimmie Lunceford Conducting
Through the War

That record was made in 1935, around the beginning of the peak of the Lunceford band’s popularity. By then, Lunceford had pretty much given up playing reeds to focus on conducting the band. His stellar soloists included, along with Durham and Oliver, alto saxophonist Wizttllie Smith and trombonist Trummy Young. In 1939, Oliver left the group and Lunceford hired a new trumpeter/arranger who hailed from his old stomping grounds. Gerald Wilson, born in Shelby, Miss., in Bolivar County, went on to lead big bands that worked with Dinah Washington and Ella Fitzgerald, was an arranger for Count Basie and Dizzy Gillespie and was the musical director for several programs airing on that new gadget, the television. Lunceford’s skills as a teacher apparently followed him. The group lost its Columbia record deal in 1940, but re-signed with Decca. Things were looking up, as the band went to Hollywood to appear in the 1941 film Blues in the Night. But World War II pretty much ended the Big Band Era, as large orchestras were decimated by the draft, while gas and rubber rationing made touring impossible even if you could keep a band together. The Lunceford group soldiered on, maintaining its Decca recording deal until 1945, when it began recording for the Majestic label. But by then, with small jump blues bands and bebop quintets in vogue, the orchestras were little more than oldies acts, re-playing and re-recording their pre-war hits.

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Flaming Reeds And Screaming Brass

Jimmie Lunceford and band
Jimmie Lunceford & His Orchestra
Theatre Engagement, 1930s
Courtesy photo archive, Delta Haze Corporation
Farewell Jimmie

In 1947, just 45 years old, Lunceford mysteriously suffered a fatal heart attack on tour in Seaside, Oregon. There were rumors that he’d been poisoned by a restaurant owner who didn’t want to serve African-Americans. Other band members fell ill after the meal, but no investigation was launched. Lunceford was brought back to Memphis and buried in Elmwood Cemetery, his funeral drawing thousands of mourners.

Without Lunceford’s leadership, his band only managed to keep the group going for a couple of years, dissolving it in 1949. But the group’s reputation never faded, its classic compositions and precisely syncopated two-beat rhythms continuing to be revived by musicians and revered by fans. More than 50 years later, in 2005, The Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra was officially resuscitated as a “ghost band,” dusting off the old arrangements for a concert at Europe’s Northsea Jazz Festival.

And so the influence of Jimmie Lunceford continues, the impossible story of the Memphis gym teacher who took a bunch of local kids and turned them into a top jazz orchestra that would rival the Holy Trinity of Big Band Swing -Ellington, Basie and Goodman. Rhythm was Jimmie Lunceford’s business, and he made that business boom.

Jimmie Lunceford
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What Others are Saying

  1. I am the grandson of. Willian “Sleepy”. Tomlin. One of Lunceford first trumpet players. I always wondered why I love music so much. Especially Singing and writing.

    Dwane Tomlin
  2. We’re featuring Jimmie this week on our big band show, “Jukebox Friday Night”, on Frostburg State University’s WFWM-FM. Thank you for this wonderful article on this stellar bandleader!

    Kenny Heath
  3. The drummer in the Lunceford band was Jimmy Crawford . I met him while he was in the Imperial Theater pit orchestra for Lena Horne’s Broadway show Jamaica.
    He was stunned at Intermission when a 14 year old leaned into the pit and I asked him where he trained. He said Fisk University and with Jimmy Lunceford, Imagine his face when I named one of their hits in response, “Ain’t She Sweet.” Wonderful man who shared many stories over future Saturday breaks between the matinee and evening performances which included Adelaide Hall, Ricardo Montalban and Ossie Davis, Jack Cole Choreography and scenic designs of Oliver Smith.

    Henry Young
  4. Jimmy Lunceford has always been my all time favorite band leader. A shame that he passed at such an early age. Question: Who sang his arrangement of T’ain’t What You Do? Was that Jimmy himself or another member of the band?

    Douglas Wall

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