Early jazz era bandleader Jimmie Lunceford was mentioned in an earlier piece about the Cotton Club but I thought we should dig a little deeper into his story. After all, he was one of the best, even if his star has dimmed a little in the many years since his heyday.
Born on a Mississippi farm in 1902, James Melvin Lunceford might have had a much different life if his parents hadn’t moved when he was an infant. Relocating to Oklahoma City (his mother’s birthplace) and then on to Denver gave young Jimmie the chance excel in school and that included a music education, one that featured studying under Wilburforce Whiteman, whose son Paul was destined to become a famous orchestra leader.
Lunceford learned to play several instruments and continued his education while attending Fisk University. He also began to appear with local bands, making contacts and learning the business. After graduation in 1927 he moved to Memphis and a job at the high school, where he organized a band that was known as the Chickasaw Syncopators. Within a couple of years he’d renamed it the Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra and made the leap to professional.
Success started building for the young bandleader and his guys over the next few years as they toured extensively, and they even managed to cut a couple of records. By 1934 Lunceford and his band were a polished and solid group, ready to take advantage of a great opportunity. They were booked for an extended stay at New York’s famed Cotton Club.
By then the Harlem nightclub had already reached near-iconic status, having served as a launching pad for Duke Ellington and Cab Callaway. It might have been intimidating to follow them, but Lunceford’s band turned out to be very popular. Not only were they a quality outfit with solid music and arrangements, they were also fan favorites because of their singing, dancing, and comedic touches.
During the 1930s Lunceford’s group was considered the equal of any of the big name bands, and they made a lot of records. They also toured extensively, even to Europe before the coming war made that no longer feasible. But things went downhill in the 1940s, with slowing record sales adding to the pressure. Also, many of the notoriously tight-fisted Lunceford’s best instrumentalists left him for better paying jobs. He kept leading a diminishing outfit, but in 1947 he suddenly died from a coronary occlusion. He was just 45 years old.