Lunceford was born on a farm in the Evergreen community, west of the Tombigbee River, near Fulton, Mississippi, United States. The 53-acre (21 ha) farm was owned by his father, James. His mother was Idella ("Ida") Shumpert of Oklahoma City, an organist of "more than average ability". Seven months after James Melvin was born, the family moved to Oklahoma City.
The family next moved to Denver where Lunceford attended high school and studied music under Wilberforce J. Whiteman, father of Paul Whiteman, whose band was soon to acquire a national reputation. As a child in Denver, he learned several instruments. After high school, Lunceford continued his studies at Fisk University. In 1922, he played alto saxophone in a local band led by the violinist George Morrison which included Andy Kirk, another musician destined for fame as a bandleader.
In 1927, while an athletic instructor at Manassas High School in Memphis, Tennessee, Lunceford organized a student band, the Chickasaw Syncopators, whose name was changed to the Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra. Under the new name, the band started its professional career in 1929, and made its first recordings in 1930. Lunceford was the first public high school band director in Memphis.
After a period of touring, in 1934 the band accepted a booking at the Harlem nightclub The Cotton Club for their revue "Cotton Club Parade" starring Adelaide Hall. The Cotton Club had already featured Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway, who won their first widespread fame from their inventive shows for the Cotton Club's all-white patrons. With their tight musicianship and the often outrageous humor in their music and lyrics, Lunceford's orchestra made an ideal band for the club, and Lunceford's reputation began to steadily grow.
Jimmie Lunceford's band differed from other great bands of the time because it was better known for its ensemble than for its solo work. Additionally, he was known for using a two-beat rhythm, called the Lunceford two-beat, as opposed to the standard four-beat rhythm. This distinctive "Lunceford style" was largely the result of the imaginative arrangements by trumpeter Sy Oliver, which set high standards for dance-band arrangers of the time. Though not well-known as a musician, Lunceford knew how to play several instruments and was even featured on flute in "Liza".
Comedy and vaudeville played a distinct part in Lunceford's presentation. Songs such as "Rhythm Is Our Business" (featured in a 1937 musical short with Myra Johnson (Taylor) on vocals), "I'm Nuts about Screwy Music", "I Want the Waiter (With the Water)", and "Four or Five Times" displayed a playful sense of swing, often through clever arrangements by trumpeter Sy Oliver and bizarre lyrics. Lunceford's stage shows often included costumes, skits, and obvious jabs at mainstream white bands, such as Paul Whiteman's and Guy Lombardo's.
Despite the band's comic veneer, Lunceford always maintained professionalism in the music befitting a former teacher; this professionalism paid off and during the apex of swing in the 1930s, the Orchestra was considered the equal of Duke Ellington's, Earl Hines' or Count Basie's. This precision can be heard in such pieces as "Wham (Re-Bop-Boom-Bam)", "Lunceford Special", "For Dancers Only", "Uptown Blues", and "Stratosphere". The band's noted saxophone section was led by alto sax player Willie Smith. Lunceford often used a conducting baton to lead his band.
The orchestra began recording for the Decca label and later signed with the Columbia subsidiary Vocalion in 1938. They toured Europe extensively in 1937, but had to cancel a second tour in 1939 because of the outbreak of World War II. Columbia dropped Lunceford in 1940 because of flagging sales. (Oliver departed the group before the scheduled European tour to take a position as an arranger for Tommy Dorsey). Lunceford returned to the Decca label. The orchestra appeared in the 1941 movie Blues in the Night.
Lunceford's band was hired to play at the Elks Ballroom in Los Angeles on September 26, 1940 and again on June 26, 1947 by Leon Hefflin Sr. Most of Lunceford's sidemen were underpaid and left for better paying bands, leading to the band's decline.
After playing McElroy's Ballroom in Portland, Lunceford and his orchestra were in Seaside, Oregon, to play at The Bungalow dance hall on July 12, 1947. Before the performance Lunceford collapsed during an autograph session at a local record store. He died while being taken by ambulance to the Seaside hospital. Lunceford was 45. Dr Alton Alderman performed an autopsy in nearby Astoria, Oregon, and concluded that Lunceford died of coronary occlusion.
Lunceford had complained about an aching leg as they arrived in Seaside, and had been suffering with high blood pressure for a while, and had recently complained about not feeling well. Allegations and rumors circulated that he had been poisoned by a restaurant owner, who was unhappy at having to serve a "Negro" in his establishment. He was buried at Elmwood Cemetery in Memphis.
In 1999, band-leader Robert Veen and a team of musicians set out to acquire permission to use the original band charts and arrangements of the Jimmie Lunceford canon. "The Jimmie Lunceford Legacy Orchestra" officially debuted in July 2005 at the North Sea Jazz Festival in the Netherlands.
The Jimmie Lunceford Jamboree Festival was founded in 2007 with the aim of increasing recognition of Lunceford's contribution to jazz, particularly in Memphis, Tennessee. The Jimmie Lunceford Legacy Awards were created by the festival to honor exceptional musicians with Memphis ties as well as those who have dedicated their careers to excellence in music and music education.
Lunceford's music continues to have an impact. Most recently the tune "Rhythm is Our Business" was included as track on the compilation set Memphis Jazz Box in 2004 in honor of Lunceford's close ties to Memphis.
On July 19, 2009, a brass note was dedicated to Lunceford on the Beale Street Walk of Fame in Memphis.
Prior to Lunceford's success on Decca (beginning September 1934), Lunceford made the following recordings:
- "In Dat Mornin'"/"Sweet Rhythm" (Victor V-38141) - recorded Memphis, June 6, 1930
- "Flaming Reeds and Screaming Brass"/"While Love Lasts" (test pressings for Columbia, not released until 1967 on LP) - recorded New York, May 15, 1933
- "Jazznocracy"/"Chillun, Get Up" (Victor 24522) - recorded New York, January 26, 1934
- "White Heat"/"Leaving Me" (Victor 24586) - recorded New York, January 26, 1934
- "Breakfast Ball"/"Here Goes" (Victor 24601) - recorded New York, March 20, 1934
- "Swingin' Uptown"/"Remember When" (Victor 24669) - recorded New York, March 20, 1934
Also prior to his Decca period, he made recordings for Brunswick records from 1934 to 1940.
- Jazz Heritage Series #3- Jimmie Lunceford 1: Rhythm Is Our Business (1934-1935) (LP: Decca #79237, 1968/LP reissue: MCA #1302, 1980)
- Jazz Heritage Series #6- Jimmie Lunceford 2: Harlem Shout (1935-1936) (LP: Decca #79238, 1968/LP reissue: MCA #1305, 1980)
- Jazz Heritage Series #8- Jimmie Lunceford 3: For Dancers Only (1936-1937) (LP: Decca #79239, 1968/LP reissue: MCA #1307, 1980)
- Jazz Heritage Series #15- Jimmie Lunceford 4: Blues In The Night (1938-1942) (LP: Decca #79240, 1968/LP reissue: MCA #1314, 1980)
- Jazz Heritage Series #21- Jimmie Lunceford 5: Jimmie's Legacy (1934-1937) (LP: MCA #1320, 1980)
- Jazz Heritage Series #22- Jimmie Lunceford 6: The Last Sparks (1941-1944) (LP: MCA #1321, 1980)
- Stomp It Off (1934-1935 Decca recordings) (CD: GRP #608, 1992)
- For Dancers Only (1935-1937 Decca recordings) (CD: GRP #645, 1994)
- Swingsation: Jimmie Lunceford (1935-1939 Decca recordings) (CD: GRP #9923, 1998)
- Lunceford Special (1939-1940 Columbia Records recording) (78rpm 4-disc album set/8 songs/#C-175: 1948; original LP issue/12 songs/#CL-634: 1956; expanded LP reissue/16 songs/#CL-2715 and #CS-9515: 1967; CD release/22 songs/#CK-65647: 2001 from Sony-Legacy label)
- Margie (1946-1947 Majestic recordings) (LP/13 songs/#SJL-1209: 1989 from Savoy Jazz label)
The Chronological...Classics series
note: every recording by Jimmie Lunceford & His Orchestra is included in this 10 volume series from the Classics reissue label:
- The Chronological Jimmie Lunceford & His Orchestra 1930-1934 (#501)
- The Chronological Jimmie Lunceford & His Orchestra 1934-1935 (#505)
- The Chronological Jimmie Lunceford & His Orchestra 1935-1937 (#510)
- The Chronological Jimmie Lunceford & His Orchestra 1937-1939 (#520)
- The Chronological Jimmie Lunceford & His Orchestra 1939 (#532)
- The Chronological Jimmie Lunceford & His Orchestra 1939-1940 (#565)
- The Chronological Jimmie Lunceford & His Orchestra 1940-1941 (#622)
- The Chronological Jimmie Lunceford & His Orchestra 1941-1945 (#862)
- The Chronological Jimmie Lunceford & His Orchestra 1945-1947 (#1082)
- The Chronological Jimmie Lunceford's Orchestra 1948-1949 (#1151) -note: these last recordings (1948-1949) were made after Lunceford's death by his long-time band under the joint-direction of Eddie Wilcox (his piano player) and Joe Thomas (his tenor sax player/vocalist).
CD compilations from different reissue labels
- Rhythm Is Our Business (ASV/Living Era, 1992) -note: all tracks recorded 1933-1940, both the Decca and Columbia periods successively.
- It's the Way That You Swing It: The Hits of Jimmie Lunceford (Jasmine, 2002) 2-CD set
- Jukebox Hits 1935–1947 (Acrobat 2005)
- Quadromania: Jimmie Lunceford–Life Is Fine (1935–45, Membran/Quadromania Jazz, 2006) 4-CD box set
- Strictly Lunceford (Proper, 2007) 4-CD box set
- The Complete Jimmie Lunceford Decca Sessions (Mosaic, 2014) 7-CD box set
- Colin Larkin, ed. (1992). The Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music (First ed.). Guinness Publishing. p. 1534. ISBN 0-85112-939-0.
- Determeyer, Eddy (2006). Rhythm Is Our Business: Jimmie Lunceford and the Harlem Express. University of Michigan Press. pp. 1–2. ISBN 9780472033591.
- The Itawamba Historical Society (June 5, 2007). "Orchestra Leader Jimmie Lunceford's Itawamba County Roots". Itawamba History Review. Retrieved July 26, 2020.
- "Fisk Special Collections Features Music and Manuscript Artifacts in Archives Week Exhibit". Fisk University's Official Weblog. October 17, 2008. Retrieved July 26, 2020.
- Dictionary of American Biography, Supplement 4: 1946–1950
- "JAZZ A Film By Ken Burns: Selected Artist Biography - Jimmie Lunceford". PBS. Retrieved March 6, 2013.
- "Cotton Club Revues 1934". Jass.com. Archived from the original on August 18, 2012. Retrieved March 6, 2013.
- Williams, Iain Cameron (2002). Underneath a Harlem Moon: The Harlem to Paris Years of Adelaide Hall. Bloomsbury Academic. ISBN 9780826458933.
- Determeyer, Eddy (2006). Rhythm Is Our Business: Jimmie Lunceford and the Harlem Express. University of Michigan Press. p. 344. ISBN 978-0-472-11553-2 – via Internet Archive.
- "Jimmie Lunceford". Legends of Big Band Jazz History. Retrieved November 26, 2012.
- Yanow, Scott. "Jimmie Lunceford - Music Biography, Credits and Discography". AllMusic. Retrieved March 6, 2013.
- “Lunceford Band Swings Out At Elk’s Ballroom Tonight” Los Angeles Sentinel September 26, 1940
- “FIRST APPEARANCE…JIMMIE LUNCEFORD” AD Los Angeles Sentinel June 26, 1947.
- advertisement The Oregonian July 10, 1947
- Rhythm Is Our Business : Jimmie Lunceford and the Harlem Express. Eddy Determeyer Ann Arbor : University of Michigan Press, c2006. ISBN 9780472033591. 0472115537 (cloth : alk. paper) page 233, 234
- "Archived copy". Archived from the original on December 19, 2015. Retrieved January 11, 2016.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link) Retrieved November 1, 2016
- Jimmy Lunceford Dies at Seaside. The Oregonian July 13, 1947. page 1
- Death 'Natural' For Band Leader. (Associated Press) The Oregonian July 16, 1947. page 16
- Rhythm Is Our Business : Jimmie Lunceford and the Harlem Express. Eddy Determeyer Ann Arbor : University of Michigan Press, c2006. ISBN 9780472033591. 0472115537 (cloth : alk. paper) pp. 233/4
- Myers, Mark (July 20, 2011). "Swing's Forgotten King". Wall Street Journal