Jimmie Lunceford will long be remembered as the leader of a swinging big band that rivaled on record, and exceeded in person, the orchestras of Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman and Count Basie. His band differed from many of the other big bands of the 1930s and 1940s in that Lunceford's group was noted less for its soloists than for its ensemble work. Furthermore, most bands of the period used a four-beat rhythm while the Lunceford Ork developed a distinctive two-beat swing often played at medium tempo. The unique sound became known during the Swing Era as the Lunceford two-beat.
Jimmie Lunceford’s music education included studying under Wilberforce J. Whiteman, the father of Paul Whiteman. His scholastic education included receiving a BA from Fisk University and later attending New York City College. Although Lunceford became proficient on all reed instruments he preferred the alto saxophone.
Jimmie Lunceford recruited the nucleus of his band while an athletic instructor at Manassas High School in Memphis, Tennessee. It was here, in 1927, that he organized a student jazz band called the Chicksaw Syncopators. The personnel of this band included Moses Allen (bass) and Jimmy Crawford (drums). Later, Willie Smith (alto) and Eddie Wilcox (piano) were added. The group turned professional in 1929, waxing its first recordings for RCA in 1930. After playing for several years in Cleveland and Buffalo, in 1934, the band began a high profile engagement at the famed Cotton Club in Harlem. At first the band played flashy, stiff instrumentals in the early Casa Loma orchestra manner such as two hot recordings made the same year, Jazznocracy and White Heat, with arrangements by Will Hudson.
While Wilcox and Smith both contributed early arrangements, it was the addition of ace arranger and trumpet man Sy Oliver that gave the Lunceford band its distinguished two-beat sound. Paul Webster on trumpet, Eddie Durham and later Trummy Young on trombone, and vocalist Dan Grissom were also important mid 1930s additions to the Lunceford band. By 1935 the group, then called Jimmie Lunceford's Orchestra, had achieved a national reputation as one of the top black swing bands.
The Jimmie Lunceford big band during the Swing Era was widely known and other bands often imitated its showmanship and appearance. Lunceford rehearsed his outfit endlessly. The polish of the band is evident on record by its flawless ensemble work. Further adding to the appeal of the band were the vocals by several of Lunceford's men. Jimmie's boys whispered, wheedled, cozened, rather than sang. Oliver and Smith, Joe Thomas and later Trummy Young all sang with the band often in trio unison. Unseen, is the choreography of the group's musicians in performance. Of particular delight to fans who saw the band in person was the spectacle of members of the trumpet section tossing their horns high into the air and catching them on the beat (see Miller photo below). In 1935 a long list of superb Decca two-beat recordings associated with Lunceford's name but written by Sy Oliver began; For Dancers Only, Margie, ‘Posin, Slumming On Park Avenue, My Blue Heaven, Organ Grinders Swing etc. are still great listens today. Unfortunately, based on the merits of his band's recordings, Lunceford may never receive his just due as a leader simply because his group's superb showmanship is lost on record.
Although his orchestra-leading career nowhere near paralleled in longevity that of Basie or Ellington, for a time from 1935 until Sy Oliver left his band to work for Tommy Dorsey in 1939, the Lunceford band was one of the most popular in the land. The distinctive Lunceford style, generally identified with Sy Oliver although many other arrangers contributed to the bands vast book, influenced many bandleaders and arrangers right up to the 1950’s. Glenn Miller was influenced by the Lunceford unit's showmanship (see photo below) and Tommy Dorsey, after Sy Oliver joined his band, borrowed much from the Lunceford tradition. Many albums described as tributes to Lunceford have been recorded including those by Sy Oliver, George Williams, Billy May and others.
When Sy Oliver left the band in 1939, Bill Moore Jr. showed up and left a vital impression on the band's books with his Belgium Stomp, Monotony In Four Flats, and I Got It. In 1941 the addition of trumpet man Snooky Young and some fine arrangements by Gerald Wilson further heightened the band's recorded output.
In 1942 Tadd Dameron arranged for the orchestra but the band began to have internal problems. The issues of the band were mainly monetary, precipitated by Lunceford's refusal to pay his players a wage on par with that of other successful bands. Lunceford himself wanted for nothing and was reputed to have a lavish lifestyle which was readily apparent to all of his sidemen. In May of 1942 Lunceford fired many of his key musicians and alto man Willie Smith soon left as well, leaving a huge void in the band.
By the time the recording ban ended a mass exodus from the group had occurred. Nevertheless, Jimmie Lunceford was still a popular bandleader in 1947 when he suddenly collapsed and died while signing autographs after an engagement in Oregon. Rumors soon surfaced (including those printed in DownBeat magazine) that a racist restaurant owner, who had a strong aversion about feeding the Lunceford band, actually poisoned the bandleader.
After Lunceford's death, pianist/arranger Ed Wilcox and Joe Thomas tried to keep the orchestra together but in 1949 the band permanently broke up.