Lunceford, Jimmie (actually, James Melvin)

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Lunceford, Jimmie (actually, James Melvin)

Lunceford, Jimmie (actually, James Melvin), highly influential jazz bandleader, composer, multi-instrumentalist; b. Fulton, Mo., June 6, 1902; d. Seaside, Ore., July 12,1947. His father was a choirmaster in Warren, Ohio. Jimmie went to high school in Denver, Colo., where he studied music with Paul Whiteman’s father (Wilberforce J. Whiteman). He learned saxophone, guitar, trombone, and flute. He played alto sax with George Morrison’s Orch. at the Empress Theatre (1922). He left Denver, to gain a B.M. at Fisk Univ. (1926). During his college vacations, he played dates in N.Y. with John C. Smith, Wilbur Sweatman, Elmer Snowden, and Deacon Johnson; in the mid-1920s he also studied in N.Y. From 1926 he taught music at Manassa H.S. in Memphis; while there he formed the Lunceford Orch., a band that featured his students. The band began to do regular summer seasons, then from 1929 (with three former Fisk alums—Edwin Wilcox, Willie Smith, and Henry Wells—joining the band) became fully professional, playing residencies and broadcasts on WREC in Memphis. After touring and playing residencies in Cleveland and Buffalo, the band moved to N.Y.C. in September 1933 for dates at the Lafayette Theatre. After touring New England, in January 1934 they returned to N.Y. to take up residency at the Cotton Club, and then from the mid-1930s did widespread touring. The band gradually built up a national reputation, and after a short tour of Scandinavia in February 1937, consolidated its previous successes and became one of the most sought-after big bands in the U.S. The Lunceford Orch. was credited with 22 hits between 1934 and 1946, placing them behind only Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway among black swing bands. “Rhythm Is Our Business” and “I’m Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town” were their signature songs.

The Lunceford Orch. was legendary for its precision that was achieved through careful sectional rehearsals (one of the first to do so); for its cheery, entertaining tone, created through writing that was full of unexpected instrumental combinations and at times surprising dissonance; and also for its showmanship that involved choreographed movements with the band members tossing their instruments around.

Lunceford rarely played with the band, instead conducting. He did, however, play trombone on the band’s 1929 (“Chickasaw Syncopators”) recordings, and occasionally played alto in the early 1930s. He played flute on the 1939 version of “Liza,” and in 1943, during World War II when many of his bandsmen were drafted into the service, alto in the sax section. A primary arranger for the band was Sy Oliver, but some of the most interesting charts were contributed by Willie Smith, Eddie Wilcox, and, though rarely, Lunceford himself. From 1942, Gerald Wilson was also an arranger.

The band never regained its prewar popularity, but continued to work regularly. In 1947, Lunceford collapsed signing autographs during a personal appearance at a music store and died shortly afterwards. The band was soon reorganized under the joint leadership of Eddie Wilcox and tenorist Joe Thomas, and in 1948 Wilcox became the sole leader. The band continued for a short time afterward, and did a reunion album for Capitol in the mid-1950s. The Lunceford Band appeared in several short films and was also featured in Blues in the Night.


Rhythm Is Our Business (1934); Stomp It Off (1934); Harlem Shout (1935); For Dancers Only (1936); Blues in the Night (1938); Jubilee (1940); Uncollected Jimmie Lunceford (1944).

—John Chilton, Who’s Who of Jazz /Lewis Porter