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Jimmie Lunceford learned several instruments as a child in Denver, where he played alto saxophone in the band led by the violinist George Morrison. After studying music at Fisk University (BMus 1926) and the City College of New York, he taught music at Manassas High School, Memphis. Here, in 1927, he oganized a student jazz band, the Chicksaw Syncopators. The group began a professional career in 1929 and issued its first recordings in 1930. After playing for several years in Cleveland and Buffalo, the band began an important engagement at the Cotton Club, Harlem, in 1934. Two "hot" recordings made that year, Jazzmocracy and White Heat, with arrangements by Will Hudson, immediately attracted attention, and by 1935 the group, then called Jimmie Lunceford's Orchestra, had achieved a national reputation as an outstanding black swing band.
Image courtesy of Frank Driggs Collection
Unlike many big bands of the 1930s, Lunceford's group was noted less for its soloists than for its ensemble work, particularly its distinctive two-beat swing at medium tempo. This and its practiced showmanship were widely imitated by other groups, but they seldom achieved the polish and good humor that marked so many of Lunceford's performances. The band drew its early style partly from Alphonso Trent and from the Casa Loma Orchestra, as is most apparent in the crude, insistent riff patterns in the "hot" recordings of 1934. A certain experimental vein is also unmistakable in these years, for instance in Willie Smith's curious recasting of Duke Ellington's Mood Indigo (1934). Soon after, however, there emerged a distinctive "Lunceford style", largely the result of the highly imaginative arrangements of the group's trumpeter, Sy Oliver. The varied interplay of soloists and brass and reed sections in Oliver's best work, such as For Dancers Only (1937) and Margie (1938), set high standards for dance-band arrangers of the time and proved extremely fruitful for postwar big-band styles.
Perhaps even more remarkable was his fusion of novelty effects and bizarre contrasts into coherent musical argument, as in his famous Organ Grinder's Swing (1936), which uses woodblocks, celesta, and slap-tongued saxophones. These arrangements, however complex, left ample scope for the group's soloists, the most important of whom were Joe Thomas, Trummy Young, Eddie Durham, and Willie Smith, who also trained and led Lunceford's outstanding reed section from the group's inception in 1929.
After Oliver's departure in 1939 and Smith's in 1942, the group's style became somewhat unfocused, despite some excellent arrangements by Tadd Dameron (1941-42) and George Duvivier (1945-7). The band continued for a year after Lunceford's death under the joint direction of Eddie Wilcox and Jow Thomas, and for several years after that under Wilcox alone. Later attempts to revive the band's sound and Oliver's arrangements with other musicians have been unsuccessful.
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