following story is an excerpt from Eddy
Determeyer’s book Rhythm is our Business: Jimmie
Lunceford and the Harlem Express, which will be
published in 2006 by Michigan University Press. If you have any
personal recollections or information about this story, please
email the office at the Seaside Museum
and we'll put you in touch with the author.
FINALE IN SEASIDE
The life of
one of America’s beloved bandleaders ended July
12, 1947 in Seaside. For a decade-an-a-half, Jimmie Lunceford led
one of the most dynamic and innovative dance orchestras of the
country. He gained his first fame at New York’s celebrated
Cotton Club, the same venue where Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway
also had made their names. Nationwide radio broadcasts from the
Club resulted in nationwide hits and tours, and between 1934 and
1942, Jimmie Lunceford’s Harlem Express was regarded als
the only danceband that could compete, both artistically and financially,
with Ellington and Count Basie.
That Saturday, the Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra was scheduled to
play The Bungalow, an old wooden skating rink that served as a
dancehall in the weekends. This was one stop in a short Northwestern
tour; after completing this string of one-niters, the orchestra
was supposed to return to its New York home base.
It seems that after much hassle, the band succeeded in ordering
food at a nearby restaurant. The staff apparently was not used
to serve black customers. After the meal and a short rest, the
leader went to the Seaside Radio and Records Shop, to autograph
some albums for the local swing fans. During this session, Lunceford
suddenly fell down, went into convulsions ans passed out. He was
rushed to the hospital, where he was declared DOA.
the events at the record shop, the orchestra started the show
without its leader. Later that night, the musicians heard
the terrible news and on top of that, several members took sick.
They attributed their illness and their leader’s death to
the quality of the food that they had been served. However, Jimmie
Lunceford had already complained about not feeling well before
the band arrived in Seaside. So in all probability, he died from
some kind of disease that was aggravated by eating tainted food,
which resulted in a fatal heart attack.
This was the end of an illustrious career that had begun in 1927
in Memphis, where as a teacher Lunceford had started a school band.
The orchestra actually carried on under the joint leadership of
Edwin Wilcox and Joe Thomas, two veterans of the old Lunceford
band. But it never really regained its momentum again, and by the
early 1950s, Wilcox disbanded the orchestra.