James Felton Lunceford was born on his family’s 70-acre farm in Fulton, Miss., on June 6, 1902. 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:
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.