Lunceford, Jimmie (1902-1947)

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Lunceford, Jimmie (1902-1947)

In 1940, the swing orchestra led by Jimmie Lunceford won first place in a much-publicized Battle of the Bands with 27 other groups, including those led by Count Basie, Benny Goodman, and Glenn Miller. Known for innovative arrangements, imaginative instrumentation, and full-bodied swinging sound, the Lunceford orchestra exerted a powerful influence over big-band music during the swing era of the late 1930s and early 1940s as well as on post-World War II dance bands.

Born James Melvin Lunceford in Fulton, Mississippi, Lunceford moved to Memphis, where he studied music with Paul Whiteman's father, Wilberforce. During the 1920s he played in jazz bands led by Elmer Snowden and Wilbur Sweatman. Although he became proficient in all the reed instruments, he seldom played in bands, preferring to conduct. Lunceford organized and taught a student orchestra in a Memphis high school before beginning his professional career as a bandleader in 1929.

Jimmie Lunceford's first success came in Buffalo, in the early 1930s. In 1933 he took his band to New York City, appearing at the famous Cotton Club. The band made a recording for Victor, but the music selected—"White Heat" and "Jazznocracy"—was written in a racing tempo, unsuited for the band's relaxed, subtle style. From the beginning, Lunceford had molded a highly disciplined orchestra that practiced carefully rehearsed showmanship in their playing. He preferred precise ensemble playing in a medium two-beat swing tempo rather than the exciting solos and upbeat tempos of the Basie and Goodman bands, and he gradually won a wide audience for his unique style.

When Sy Oliver joined the orchestra in 1933, bringing his distinctive "growl" trumpet style as well as his prodigious talents as an arranger, Lunceford had found the ideal partner in developing the oddly swinging style that became the band's trademark. Oliver recalls how the two met: "One day in Cincinnati, I heard the Lunceford band rehearsing. I was so impressed, because Jimmie was so careful about every single detail, then I asked him if I could try writing for the band." Oliver, who also arranged some of Tommy Dorsey's best-known numbers, excelled in devising unusual instrumentation. He conceived the arrangement of "Liza," in which Lunceford played the flute, his only recorded appearance playing an instrument with his band.

The greatest boost to the band's fame came in September 1934, when they began a series of great sides for Decca Records. Based on the brilliant scores created by Oliver, their most popular hits included "For Dancers Only," "Organ Grinder's Swing," "My Blue Heaven," "Four or Five times," "Cheatin' on Me," and "Margie," among others. For some reason, Lunceford did not like one of Oliver's most popular arrangements, "Yes, Indeed!" which became a hit in a Tommy Dorsey recording. Although the band featured ensemble playing, it also had individual stars, including Trummie Young, a trombonist and vocal-ist, and Jimmie Crawford, a drummer with a simple, swinging style that made a perfect engine for the band's rhythms.

By 1942, the band's popularity began to decline as a number of the band's longtime members left for various reasons, including the wartime draft. Lunceford continued his rigorous schedule, and on July 16, 1947, he died of a heart attack while on tour in Seaside, Oregon. For several years, pianist Edwin Wilcox and saxophonist Joe Thomas led the band before it finally left the music scene.

Jazz critic George Simon wrote: "But what great music it left! For many it remains, pressed in the grooves of all the fine Decca and Columbia records it made. And for those of us lucky enough to have caught the band in person it has also left memories of some of the most exciting nights we ever spent listening to any of the big bands!"

—Benjamin Griffith

Further Reading:

Esposito, Tony, editor. Golden Era of the Big Bands. New York, Warner, 1995.

Fernett, Gene, and Dan Morgenstern. Swing Out: Great Negro Dance Bands. New York, Da Capo, 1993.

Simon, George T. The Big Bands. New York, MacMillan, 1974.