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.
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.
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!
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.
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?
The solo singer on “Tain’t What You Do” (answered by the band) is James “Trummy’ Young, the stellar trombonist who was later featured with Louis Armstrong.