Yancey was born in Chicago and Illinois. His exact year of birth is not known; in 1894, 1895 and 1898 indicate sources. His older brother Alonzo Yancey was also pianist and their father was guitarist. Yancey began his musical career as a performing artist as a singer. He was still a kid and went with his parents on tours.
In 1915 was Yancey become a noted pianist and influenced younger musicians like Meade Lux Lewis and Albert Ammons 1939 although it still would take to before he made his first recording. His game was marked by a boogie woogie style with a strong music pattern repeated with the left hand and a varied melody play with the right hand. His playing style was delicate and subtle. A part of his distinctive style was that he played in different musical keys but always every piece of music ended in e minor. This gave to his performances a somewhat strange but satisfying dissonance.
Most of his recordings were solo performances as a pianist, but late in his career he also duets with his wife Estelle Yancey as a singer. The recordings appeared under the title Jimmy and Mama Yancey. The Yanceys were the first to an album pictures at the then newly founded record label Atlantic Records. Throughout his life, Yancey also had a job as a maintenance man for the baseball field at the Chicago White Sox.
Yancey died in Chicago in 1951 and was included in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. His wife Estella "Mama" Yancey took still until late in her life was her last recordings in plates on. 1983 when they themselves already 87 was. She died in Chicago on april 19, 1986 on ninety years of age.