Jimmie Lunceford led what many consider to be the best swing orchestra of the 1930s. Flashy and talented, Lunceford's band was without a doubt the most entertaining of its day. No one who saw it in performance could ignore the group's infectious attitude and enthusiastic presence. Many of the era's top bandleaders openly borrowed from Lunceford's showmanship.
Lunceford spent his formative years in Denver, Colorado, where he studied music under Paul Whiteman's father and in 1922 played saxophone with George Morrison's orchestra at the Empress Theatre. In 1926 he earned a bachelor's degree from Fisk University in Nashville. Lunceford also attended the City College in New York. During school breaks he performed with such artists as Wilbur Sweatman, Elmer Snowden, John C. Smith, and Deacon Jones.
After graduation Lunceford taught high school in Memphis, Tennessee. In 1927 he formed a student band, the Chickasaw Syncopaters. The Syncopaters went professional in 1929, making their recording debut in 1930. They worked in both Cleveland and Buffalo before settling in New York in 1933, where they earned a spot at the Cotton Club. By that time known as the Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra, the group proved quite popular and quickly emerged as one of the top bands in the country.
Though at first influenced by the Casa Loma Orchestra Lunceford's band soon developed its own unique sound, led by the masterful arrangements of trumpeter Sy Oliver. Noted musicians include trombonists Eddie Durham and Trummy Young, saxophonists Willie Smith and Joe Thomas, trumpeter Paul Webster, and pianist Eddie Wilcox. Vocals were provided by many of the musicians themselves, all multi-talented performers.
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. Lunceford's orchestra was best a live experience. The band prided itself on its showmanship. Members dressed impeccably, often changing uniforms several times during the night. Famous was the trumpet section, which would toss their instruments into the air during breaks.
Lunceford suffered a setback in 1939 when Oliver left the band to join Tommy Dorsey. Gerald Wilson and Bill Moore Jr. took his place as arrangers. Despite the loss of Oliver the orchestra remained solid until 1942 when internal conflict caused Lunceford to fire many of his best musicians. Lunceford was often cited for his extravagance while his men were among the lowest paid musicians in the country. Part of the problem was that Lunceford did not control the finances of his own group. Actual ownership of the band was by MCA booking agent Harold Oxley.