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Rhythm Is Our Business: Jimmie Lunceford and the Harlem Express

Rhythm Is Our Business: Jimmie Lunceford and the Harlem Express

by Eddy Determeyer

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In the 1930s, swing music reigned, and the Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra was the hottest and hippest attraction on the black dance circuits. Known for its impeccable appearance and infectious rhythms, Lunceford's group was able to out-swing and outdraw any band. For ten consecutive years, they were the best-loved attraction at Harlem's famed Apollo Theater. The


In the 1930s, swing music reigned, and the Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra was the hottest and hippest attraction on the black dance circuits. Known for its impeccable appearance and infectious rhythms, Lunceford's group was able to out-swing and outdraw any band. For ten consecutive years, they were the best-loved attraction at Harlem's famed Apollo Theater. The group's hit recordings sold in the hundreds of thousands, and Jimmie Lunceford's band rivaled Ellington's for popularity in the African American community.

Jimmie Lunceford was also an innovator, elevating big-band showmanship to an art and introducing such novel instruments as the electric guitar and bass. The band's arrangements, written by Sy Oliver, Edwin Wilcox, Gerald Wilson, Billy Moore, Jr., and Tadd Dameron, were daring and forward looking, influencing generations of big-band writers.

Rhythm Is Our Business traces the development of the Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra from its infant days as a high school band in Memphis to its record-breaking tours across the United States, Canada, and Europe. The book also unveils Lunceford's romantic yet ill-fated involvement with Yolande Du Bois, daughter of famous writer and opinion leader W.E.B. Du Bois. And by reconstructing Lunceford's last day, the book offers a glimpse into the mysteries surrounding the leader's untimely death. This is essential reading for anyone interested in the history and legacy of swing.

Eddy Determeyer has been a freelance music journalist for more than three decades. In 1984 Determeyer wrote a seven-part series on Jimmie Lunceford for the Dutch magazine Jazz Nu. Determeyer has written thousands of articles on music for a variety of Dutch publications and is the author of several books. He currently produces the Holiday for Hipsters radio show for Dutch station Concertzender.

Cover image: Lunceford brass section, ca. late 1936. Left to right: Paul Webster, Eddie Durham, Sy Oliver, Elmer Crumbley, Eddie Tompkins, Russell Bowles. (Bertil Lyttkens Collection)

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
During the height of the swing era, Jimmie Lunceford's band ranked at the top along with the outfits of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Benny Goodman. Lunceford, a dignified and well-educated African American, ran a disciplined unit that incorporated innovative choreography, sophisticated arrangements, and a signature rhythmic bounce, yet his contributions to jazz have often been neglected. Determeyer, a freelance music journalist, attempts to remedy the situation with this first in-depth treatment. Unfortunately, he is somewhat choppy in his presentation; the basic facts of the band's evolution are here, but readers do not leave with a particularly strong impression of its music or of Lunceford as a person. Gunther Schuller's brief account in The Swing Era offers a more useful musicological account. Still, this book is valuable, especially for the comments from surviving band members like arranger Gerald Wilson and for the thorough discography. Recommended for larger jazz collections and Lunceford fans. Mark Woodhouse, Elmira Coll. Lib., NY Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.

Product Details

University of Michigan Press
Publication date:
Jazz Perspectives Series
Product dimensions:
5.60(w) x 8.60(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt


Jimmie Lunceford and the Harlem Express

The University of Michigan Press

Copyright © 2006 University of Michigan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-472-03359-1

Chapter One


In Denver you weren't a sissy if you played music. -Paul Whiteman

In 1901, 105 confirmed lynchings took place in the United States, and for a black man the chance of being lynched ran seven times higher in Mississippi, Jimmie Lunceford's birthplace, than the nation's average. That year, a disillusioned George H. White, a lawyer from North Carolina, and the sole African American U.S. congressman, gave up his seat. It would be twenty-seven years before another black man, Oscar DePriest, was elected to Congress. It would take more than one hundred years before the U.S. Senate finally acknowledged and apologized for not passing anti-lynching legislation.

For a few years, the abolition of slavery had instilled a new hope in African Americans. But racial tensions had risen during the last three decades of the nineteenth century. At the turn of the century, peaceful coexistence between blacks and whites seemed as unrealistic as it had been before the Civil War. The future looked menacing, rather than bright.

James Melvin "Jimmie" Lunceford was born June 6, 1902, on the family farm in the Evergreen community, west of the Tombigbee River, in the northeastern part of Mississippi. The nearest town is Fulton, the seat of Itawamba County, which was formed in 1836, four years after the Chickasaw Session, when the Chickasaw nation was ordered to move to Oklahoma.

Over the years, the Luncefords would become a relatively well-to-do family. Daniel and Elisabeth ("Gracy"), Jimmie's paternal grandparents, were born in slavery and were brought to Itawamba County from the Smithfield area of Johnston County, North Carolina, during the late 1850s. Gracy was named after her former North Carolina owner, a Mr. Michiner. Their new owner was David Lunceford, formerly of Johnston County, who operated a farm east of Fulton. After the Civil War, Daniel and Gracy moved to a farm in nearby Abney, where Daniel worked as a field hand. After fifteen years he had gathered enough capital to be able to purchase 320 acres of land near Mobile, Alabama. The couple raised ten children; James Riley, Jimmie's father, was the sixth. He was born April 14, 1869, in Abney, and during the 1890s Daniel deeded James fifty-three acres of his land. James worked as a farmer, and in 1900 he married Idella ("Ida") Shumpert. Ida was born March 1, 1883, in Oklahoma City. She was the daughter of Sammie and Matilda Williams Shumpert. Ida Shumpert was an organ player of more than average ability.

One year after their marriage, James and Ida deeded their fifty-three acres to James's brother, Daniel Henry, and took over seventy acres from the Shumpert family, in the Evergreen community. Seven months later, James Melvin was born. Shortly after his birth, the parents felt the lure of the West and moved to Oklahoma, where Ida's family was living.

Oklahoma City was fast rising at the time: the Santa Fe, the Rock Island, the Frisco, and the Katy lines were all constructed between 1889 and 1904. These railroads connected Oklahoma City with the prairies and with the rest of the world.

Oklahoma's cattle industry had started right after the Civil War. Attracted by the rich lands, settlers from across the nation and from abroad put pressure on the government to open the Indian territory to non-Indians. Between 1820 and 1842, the "Five Civilized Tribes" (Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee, Creek, and Seminole) had forcibly moved westward to the eastern part of what was to become the forty-sixth state. With them along this "Trail of Tears" traveled many Indian-owned black slaves. And thus a curious kind of "plantation culture" had emerged on the grounds of the different Indian nations, where spirituals, work songs, and early forms of the blues developed much along the same lines as in other parts of the South.

The federal government decided that the Indian villages stood in the way of progress, and confiscated the land. From 1889 to 1895, five so-called land runs were held, with the participation of former slaves. Pamphlets were distributed throughout the southern states, urging blacks to come to Oklahoma, and establish their own businesses there (and possibly, it was hinted, even a first black state). In 1889 the first two hundred black citizens had settled in Oklahoma City's Sandtown, east of the Santa Fe tracks, along the north bank of North Canadian River. By 1910, more than seven thousand black people were living in Oklahoma City's Eastside. All over Oklahoma other black communities developed. Eventually, the state boasted twenty-seven African American towns, more than the total in the rest of the country.

In 1928, Charles N. Gould had described Oklahoma's cultural landscape as "a meeting place of many different peoples. Nowhere else is there such a mingling of types. Practically every state in the Union and every civilized nation on the globe is represented among the state's inhabitants." The Oklahoma Music Guide specified that

this vast array of people and their music includes the song and dance music of the American Indian from the southeastern United States and western plains, northeastern woodlands, Great Lakes, and Ohio Valley; Anglo-Celtic ballads from the upland South, country blues from the Mississippi Delta, black and white spirituals from the lowland South, European immigrant music from Italy, Germany, and Czechoslovakia; polka music from the upper Midwest, and Mexican mariachi from the Rio Grande Valley.

According to Rogers State University's Hugh W. Foley Jr., an expert on Oklahoma's music, melting-pot features were visible in the development of the state's musical landscape, stimulating experiment and innovation. "Within this Oklahoma cultural mosaic, music knew no color. Black, white, and red musicians borrowed freely from each other, exchanging repertoires and musical ideas, and adopted new techniques and styles." Two bands that would set new standards in popular dance music were born in Oklahoma: Walter Page's Blue Devils in 1925 and, eight years later, Bob Wills's Texas Playboys.

Jimmie Lunceford was always reticent about his past and his personal life. The Lunceford family never set much value on diaries, scrapbooks, or any such records. Even musicians who worked under the man for many years had to admit they did not really know him. Accordingly, we do not have much information about his early years. We do know that his main interests were sports, aviation, and music. Jimmie's earliest musical experiences in all probability were his mother's organ playing and the singing in the Baptist church. He also heard the occasional brass band in the streets, and the blues songs drifting from the bars and brothels lining Oklahoma City's Second Street, such as Rushing's Café. Jimmy Rushing, the son of owner Andrew Rushing, was trying his hand at the piano and the violin during the period when Jimmie Lunceford started dabbling with the guitar and the banjo.

Second Street, a few blocks north of Bricktown (the entertainment district in today's Oklahoma City), was known in vernacular as "Deep Deuce." Apart from Rushing's Café, major venues in the Deep Deuce area were the Aldridge Theater, where all the big shows played, Slaughter's Hall, home of the dance orchestras, Ruby's Grill, Honey Murphy's, and Halley Richardson's Shoeshine Parlor. Second Street would eventually develop into one of the most prominent black entertainment strips west of Kaycee's Twelfth Street and east of L.A.'s Central Avenue.

It is possible that Jimmie heard Hart A. Wand, a white violin player active in Oklahoma City during the 1910s, who won a place in history by having copyrighted one of the first songs with the word "blues" in it, The Dallas Blues, beating W. C. Handy and his The Memphis Blues by just two days. It is not unlikely that Jimmie also saw some of the traveling medicine and vaudeville shows that were popular all over the South at this time, and which featured singers, dancers, and their accompaniment.

James Riley insisted that his sons and, later, his grandchildren, attend church regularly. He also impressed upon his descendants the virtues of good education. His grandson Al recalled,

My grandparents really pushed education to me, they used to brag of me all the time. Because I can remember them telling people, "Watch Al spell this." I was only two or three or four years old, but I would spell. That was the tool they had-was education. I mean, you must have education. And I can see where it truly did me some good, you know, what I have done, in my endeavors in my life. It all goes back to really my uncle Jimmie and my grandparents. Every year, uncle Jimmie would always send me a United States Saving Bond because he wanted me to be sure to go to school and go to college. It was a twenty-five-dollar bond, sixty-dollar bond, back then. I ended up giving it to my father, so he could buy a car.

James Riley and Ida had two more sons besides Jimmie: Cornelius, or "Connie," Jimmie's junior by two years, who would move to New York and become road manager of Jimmie's fledgling dance orchestra after Connie had finished his own studies at Fisk University, in 1931. Later he became a teacher. A third brother, Al's father, appropriately christened Junior, was born in 1921. According to Jimmie, Junior was "a gifted piano player." After studying at the Dana School of Music and Youngstown State University, Junior went into the music business on a part-time basis, playing piano and saxophone. Junior led bands in and around Warren, Ohio, where he and his family lived with his parents. He wrote arrangements for, among others, his big brother's orchestra. For a living, he worked as a sales serviceman at Alcan Aluminum.

Back in 1876-77 the so-called Reconstruction era had been concluded with the election of Republican congressman Rutherford B. Hayes to the presidency. Hayes gave the white man's fear and hatred toward blacks free reign by withdrawing the protective northern troops from the South. In 1889, just four years before Jimmie Lunceford's birth, the first of a long string of race riots erupted, coloring the former Confederate states red with black blood. The lull between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of the officially endorsed "separate but equal" doctrine had lasted a little over thirty years. From the 1890s on, racial segregation was the new line of thinking in Washington, giving local legislators the formal backing to start segregating all kinds of facilities. In 1910, the City Council of Baltimore approved the first city ordinance designating the boundaries of black and white neighborhoods. Its example was followed by Oklahoma City and seven other cities. The new line of thinking also encouraged white southern segregationists to disregard any law whenever a black man was suspected of a criminal act.

In response to the rising number of riots and lynchings, Dr. W. E. B. DuBois, the leading African American writer and commentator, called a conference, and in July 1905 thirty prominent black militants met to discuss racial matters. The gathering became known as the "Niagara Movement," and it led directly to the formation, four years later, of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). In every issue of The Crisis, the NAACP's monthly, its editor DuBois reported the lynchings and the riots, and wrote blazing editorials.

There is little doubt that an upwardly mobile man like Jimmie's father read either The Crisis or the Chicago-based Defender, the two most widely circulated black periodicals. In its heyday, The Crisis sold close to one hundred thousand copies each month, and the Defender's circulation was even larger; "in an era of rampant illiteracy, when hard labor left Afro-Americans little time or inclination for reading Harvard-accented editorials, the magazine [The Crisis] found its way into kerosene-lit sharecroppers' cabins and cramped factory workers' tenements," wrote David Levering Lewis, adding that "in middle-class families it lay next to the Bible."

Because he reached so many homes, DuBois had a huge influence on how both educated and common black people thought and acted. The Lunceford family was no exception. DuBois even was to play a direct and painful role in Jimmie's personal life.

Born in 1868 in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, William Edward Burghardt DuBois was of "Hudson River Dutch" and "New England Puritan" descent, with a dash of Bantu blood acquired along the way. DuBois was, even by WASP standards, extremely well educated. He held a bachelor's degree from Fisk University, a master's and a doctorate from Harvard, and had completed his education with two years of postdoctorate studies at the University of Berlin, Germany. With degrees in history and sociology, he wrote about a great variety of subjects, including the pan-African movement, women's suffrage, and Japan's victory over Russia in the 1904 territorial war (which, he declared, set an example for all black people), and he was the author of the Encyclopedia of the Negro (1933-45). His best-known work was The Souls of Black Folk (1903), a collection of essays about the condition and the future of the former slaves. He taught Greek, Latin, economy, history, and sociology at various universities, and the establishment of higher education facilities for African Americans was an issue he never tired of writing and arguing about.

Educational issues would play an important role during Lunceford's later life. He would also develop clear-cut ideas about racial matters and, more specifically, the black man's image. However, as a young man his interests were far less political.

Sports played an important role during Jimmie Lunceford's high school years. Like most of his fellow students, he was fascinated by the achievements of heavyweight champion Arthur John "Jack" Johnson, the first black superhero. Jimmie became an avid boxer, in addition to running track, and playing football, basketball, and baseball.

Jimmie also took notice of developments on the dance floor. In 1911, the tango was all the rage in Paris. It was at the local Café de Paris that a couple of struggling professional dancers, Vernon and Irene Castle, witnessed the new dance craze and decided to take it to New York. "Castle is an acquired taste," wrote one critic, "but once acquired, his fantastic distortions and India-rubber gyrations exert a decided fascination." In a matter of months, Manhattan's socialites were gathering at the Castle House School of Dancing, desperate to master the new steps.

The Castles are also credited with the popularization of the fox-trot, a dance so simple that in the Western world it soon became the standard movement on the dance floor. During intermissions, James Reese Europe, the black leader of Castle's house orchestra, used to sit down at the piano. His improvisations on The Memphis Blues and other slow tunes intrigued the dance teachers, and together the Castles and Europe designed a new step to fit them. (Some sources say vaudeville actor Harry Fox actually "invented" the new step for his act at the New York Theatre.) The fox-trot proved to be an even bigger hit than the tango: around 1915, when their popularity was at its peak, Vernon and Irene Castle were able to command $4,500 for a personal appearance. By that time "Castle" had become a brand name, the entertainers able to license it to a great variety of manufacturers and entrepreneurs.

The success of the Castles and their syncopating Society Orchestra inspired countless others to start their own modern dance ensembles. One of those was Art Hickman, a native of San Francisco, who assembled a group of musicians in 1915, including two saxophone players, thereby laying the foundation for the swing bands of the future.

In 1915 the Lunceford family moved to Denver, where James Riley landed a job as a janitor, and it was at their house on Ivanhoe Street that Jimmie spent his high school years. In Denver, Wilberforce J. Whiteman-father of the future "King of Jazz" Paul Whiteman-became Jimmie's music teacher. The elder Whiteman was the conductor of the Denver Symphony and, from 1894 on, the director of music education in the local public schools as well. A grant from a Maecenas had enabled him to buy instruments and to start building a choir and an orchestra in the public schools of Denver. At this time Jimmie was already seriously involved in the guitar, and had tried his hands at several woodwinds, the violin, and the trombone. It was Whiteman who introduced Jimmie Lunceford to the fundamentals of music, including harmony and counterpoint, and during his high school years the young musician mastered an incredible array of instruments: trombone, clarinet, the complete saxophone family, violin, and piano, in addition to guitar and banjo.


Excerpted from RHYTHM IS OUR BUSINESS by EDDY DETERMEYER Copyright © 2006 by University of Michigan . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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