In 1927, while teaching high school in Memphis, Tennessee, he organized a student band, the Chickasaw Syncopators, whose name was changed to the Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra when it began touring. The orchestra made its first recording in 1930. After a period of touring, the band accepted a booking at the prestigious Harlem nightclub, The Cotton Club in 1933. 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. Lunceford's orchestra, with their tight musicianship and often outrageous humor in their music and lyrics made an ideal band for the club, and Lunceford's reputation began to steadily grow.
Comedy and vaudeville played a distinct part in Lunceford's presentation. Songs such as "Rhythm Is Our Business", "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 Sy Oliver and bizarre lyrics. Lunceford's stage shows often included costumes, skits, and obvious jabs at mainstream white jazz 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". Arranger and trumpeter Sy Oliver gave the orchestra its trademark two-beat rhythm. The band's noted saxophone section was lead 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.
In 1947, while playing in Seaside, Oregon, Lunceford collapsed and died from cardiac arrest during an autograph session. Allegations and rumors circulated that Jimmie had been poisoned by a fish-restaurant owner who was unhappy at having to serve a "Negro" in his establishment.
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 official debuted in July 2005 at the North Sea Jazz Festival.
The Jimmie Lunceford Jamboree Festival was founded in 2007 by Ron Herd II a.k.a. R2C2H2 Tha Artivist and Artstorian, with the aim of increasing recognition of Lunceford's contribution to jazz, particularly in Memphis, Tennessee