By Tom Hanchett
Today J.H. Gunn is barely remembered as the long-ago principal of J.H. Gunn School off Albemarle Road on Charlotte’s east side. But 80 years ago this African American leader was known throughout the eastern U.S. as a recording and touring musician at the helm of Jimmie Gunn and His Orchestra.
J. H. Gunn and His Orchestra . . . and school.
Drive out Harrisburg Road, just off busy Albemarle Road on Charlotte’s east side, and you’ll see J. H. Gunn Elementary School. The red brick buildings are the visible reminder of a man whose two careers touched thousands of African Americans across this region.
James Henry Gunn was a musician, first of all. He played swinging piano and by 1934 put together a nine-piece jazz ensemble that rode the growing “big band” craze propelled by such national stars as Count Basie and Duke Ellington.
Jimmy Gunn and His Orchestra traveled the Carolinas playing social events and toured as far away as Pennsylvania and New York. Music historians regard Gunn’s ensemble as one of the best “territory bands” based in the Southeast.
During the 1920s and 30s record companies made field trips every year or so prospecting for undiscovered talent. Charlotte became a regular stop – in fact, in some years Charlotte saw more recording than Nashville.
On Thursday June 18, 1936, RCA Victor invited Gunn’s band in for a recording date at the Southern Radio Corporation, the region’s RCA distributor, which operated out of second floor space at 208 1/2 South Tryon Street.
Three records resulted, each a 78rpm disc with one song per side. Titles ranged from the familiar “My Blue Heaven” and “Star Dust” to the original “Slats’ Shuffle” by band member Otis Hicks.
Recently the International Association of Jazz Record Collectors reissued all Gunn’s recordings on CD: Tarheel Jazz: Territory Bands 1936 – 37, Charlotte, North Carolina.
But a being a musician, even a major-label recording artist, was no guarantee of a real income in those days. So Gunn became a teacher. About 1940 he gave up touring to teach music and math.