The 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.
Unaware of 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.