Jimmie Lunceford (June 6, 1902 – July 12, 1947)

By Wiley Henry

MEMPHIS, TN — If you’re a jazz aficionado, you’d know something about the late, great Jimmie Lunceford and his legacy. If you’re not familiar with the jazz master, you could learn a lot during the weeklong Jimmie Lunceford Jamboree Festival, Oct. 24-31.

For example, Jimmie Lunceford (June 6, 1902 – July 12, 1947) was a jazz alto saxophonist and bandleader who was considered the equal of Duke Ellington, Earl Hines and Count Basie during the 1930s swing era.

Here’s another tidbit: Lunceford was an athletic instructor at Manassas High School and organized a student band called the Chickasaw Syncopators before changing the name to the Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra.

The jamboree festival honors Lunceford and his contributions to jazz. The festival’s signature event – “The Jimmie Lunceford Legacy Awards: A Celebration of Memphis Music Heritage” – kicks off Sunday, Oct. 31 at the Halloran Centre for Performing Arts & Education, 225 South Main St., in downtown Memphis.

Presented and produced by W.E. A.L.L. B.E. Group, Inc., and sponsored by the Tennessee Arts Commission, the event is open to the public from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. A slate of honorees comprising the “homecoming court” will be honored for their work in the music industry.

The homecoming court includes (King) Dr. Bobby Rush, blues singer; (Queen) Bev Johnson, WDIA 1070 radio personality; (Princess) Dr. Valetta Brinson, classical, jazz, spiritual and R& B soloist; and The Temprees – (Prince) Harold “Scotty” Scott, (Prince) Walter “Bo” Washington and (Prince) Deljuan “Del” Calvin – R & B legends.

Onzie Horne Sr., noted band leader and arranger, and Florence Cole Talbert-McCleave, operatic singer, composer and music educator, will be honored posthumously as king and queen. Jasper “Jabbo” Phillips, former lead singer of The Temprees, will be honored posthumously with the group and share the title of prince.

Carla Thomas, who rose to fame in the 1960s as a breakout songstress on the Stax Records label and referred to as the “Queen of Memphis Soul,” will perform a special tribute to Horne.

In addition, percussionist Ekpe Abioto, jazz songstress Earlice Taylor, jazz artist Cequita McKennley and others will pay tribute to Lunceford in their own unique way. The legacy awards will be livestreamed at www.youtube.com/weallbetv.

Face masks are required for in-person attendance.

“It’s all about bringing out African-American history and culture and our role in music, and also uplifting those elders,” said Callie Herd, vice-president of the W.E. A.L.L. B.E. Group, Inc., a 501c3 nonprofit alternative news and education organization.

Ronald C. Herd II

But more importantly, the jamboree festival and the legacy awards are all about Lunceford and keeping his legacy alive, said Ronald C. Herd II, artist, musician and historian. 

Herd, who calls himself “Tha Artivist,” is the founder and president of the W.E. A.L.L. B.E. Group, Inc. He has given much consideration to Lunceford and his legacy since 2007. 

The enthusiasm has never waned over the years, but instead caught fire in 2017 when Herd and his mother, Callie Herd, worked feverishly to elevate the jazz master’s status among today’s musicologists and jazz enthusiasts.

“When I first discovered him, I mean, it was amazing, though, that a person like this, let alone a Black man, exists with this type of mindset and abilities,” said Ronald Herd, paying homage to the jazz master.

Herd said Lunceford lived his life in service to his people and for his people – “and to be forgotten by his people was a disgrace.” The goal of the weeklong jamboree festival, he said, “is to bring him back to life.” 

Manassas High School was Lunceford’s launch pad into the world of big band orchestras. While rivaling other jazz greats at the height of his fame, Herd said, “He would always come back to Manassas to do free concerts and musician clinics.” 

The Jimmie Lunceford Jamboree Festival and Legacy Awards present opportunities for Memphians of all stripes to get to know the extraordinary jazz musician whose contributions are no longer relegated to the annals of history.

The Herds have found a way to keep Jimmie Lunceford alive.