Jazz’s Other Louis

A few months ago, I interviewed Sonny Rollins on stage at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center (you can hear it at www1.cuny.edu/forums/podcasts/). Surveying his early years, Rollins said, “My first idol was a chap named Louis Jordan. Now Louis Jordan was an entertainer as well as a great instrumentalist and if you see anything by him today you might see him dancing or clowning around or having a funny costume on. But he was really a great musician and he really had the heart and soul of rhythm and blues.” He added that Jordan was “the guy who turned a lot of us on,” emphasizing, “He was a fantastic musician.”

In this, Jordan’s centennial year, that fact ought to be commemorated. In the ’40s and ’50s, his influence was everywhere. He all but single-handedly created rhythm and blues, though his songs were covered by pop and jazz stars as well as the musicians who emerged directly from the idiom he established. Ray Charles not only recorded Jordan’s staples—“Let the Good Times Roll,” “Don’t the Sun Catch You Crying,” “I’m Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town”—but also leaned on Jordan’s arrangements and vocal attack. Dizzy Gillespie considered him the father of rock and roll, a claim borne out by Chuck Berry, who said, “I identify myself with Louis Jordan more than any other artist.”

Yet Rollins was pointing beyond Jordan’s R&B styling to his way of playing alto and tenor saxophone; his time, tone and wit; his smooth and precisely rehearsed small band, the Tympany Five—a name that reflected drummer Walter Martin’s penchant for the symphonic tubs. Many of Jordan’s nearly 60 charted hits, recorded between 1942 and 1951, reached No. 1 and No. 2 on the R&B chart and crossed over to the largely white pop chart. But as often happens with pop artists, the selling points that dazzled one generation repelled the next.

Jordan’s role as the jump-band heir to Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller established him as a nonpareil attraction for black audiences, for whom his jokes signified an intimate bond. With changing times and attitudes, however, his clowning, costumes and speechifying would be smugly dismissed as Tomming; the comical exaggeration that made “Caldonia” or “Beware” sensations in the 1940s were disdained as a kind of minstrel badinage. It didn’t help that white singers found Jordan’s attack so contagious that they couldn’t refrain from trying to sing “black.”

Jordan had created a unique musical sphere in which black culture—good, bad and ridiculous—was often skewed and always celebrated. If he generally ignored modes of contemplation, he also rejected mean-spiritedness, dejection and self-pity. His music derives much of its appeal and humor from its immersion in Southern black communities, everyday life and current trends. His songs are about sexual and marital mores, Saturday night parties, the draft and the church—in emphasizing good times, they explore personal peccadilloes rather than injustice. The white world hardly exists in his music, which advanced archetypes of blackness that reflect a pride of being. Jordan reminded people that African-Americans had a life, not just a grievance.

Jordan was born on July 8, 1908, in Brinkley, Ark., studied clarinet and saxophone with his father (a music teacher) and began gigging at 15, touring with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels. He headed north in 1930, and began to make his name in 1936, when Chick Webb recruited him as alto and soprano saxophonist and vocalist. Although he is said to have delighted audiences in concert, Jordan was given little to do by Webb on recordings—possibly to avoid competition with his other singer, Ella Fitzgerald. On a few featured numbers (“Gee But You’re Swell,” “Rusty Hinge”), Jordan sings rigidly and high and is defeated by poor material. After several clashes, Webb fired him, and Jordan set out to create a small band using Waller and John Kirby as his models.

Jordan’s Elks Rendezvous Band debuted in 1938, when orchestras ruled the music business, and from the first, he demonstrated clarity and purpose in his alto solos, on “So Good” and “Honey in the Bee Ball,” singing with loose-limbed panache on the latter, and playing a surprisingly smooth baritone sax on “Barnacle Bill the Sailor,” which also spurred his comic instincts. Early the next year, he introduced the Tympany Five (Martin gives the tympani a workout on “Flat Face”), an ensemble that, despite its evident polish, gave the illusion of merry spontaneity. The arrangements focused on Jordan’s ingratiating vocals and alto, which combined the centered sound and cohesive logic of Hilton Jefferson with the melodic ideas of Benny Carter.

Jordan didn’t recruit many famous names, but in the early years he had two fine trumpet players—briefly Freddie Webster (whom Miles Davis claimed as an influence) and reliable, neglected Eddie Roane; both men died in their thirties. By 1944, the Tympany Five had several huge hits under its belt, including “I’m Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town,” “Five Guys Named Moe” and “Ration Blues,” when it struck gold with a double-sided classic: Johnny Mercer’s “G. I. Jive” (Jordan wailing on soprano) and an original collaboration with Billy Austin, “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby,” a superbly honed piece with its powerful bass vamp, engaging verse and knockout chorus.

Several films followed, along with duets involving Armstrong, Fitzgerald and, in a savvy move that hastened his crossover stature, Bing Crosby, who left a party he and his wife were hosting to record “My Baby Said Yes” and “Your Socks Don’t Match”—the fun they had is especially evident on the breakdown take of the latter. By this time, Jordan was playing tenor (“I Like ’Em Fat Like That”), though often on tracks that weren’t released until CDs, including the calypso “De Laff’s On You.” But in 1946, he and Ella placed a calypso, “Stone Cold Dead in the Market,” at the top of the charts. Sonny surely recalled it when he introduced “St. Thomas” a decade later.

Jordan pioneered the electric guitar in pop music, with Carl Hogan on “Reet Petite and Gone” and other sides in the mid-’40s. More influential was his use of the Hammond organ, as he encouraged pianists Wild Bill Davis and Bill Doggett to master it, combining piano and organ on “Tamburitza Boogie” and “Lemonade,” and spurring interest in portables before there was a B3. Illness derailed him in the ’50s, but he showed diversity and prescience at a 1952 session, mining a second-line beat on “Junco Partner,” and rendering a definitive reading of Wild Bill’s ballad “Azure-te.” Although he remained active until shortly before his death in 1975, Jordan’s great period was a 15-year stretch from 1939 to 1954, an era he helped define and continues to define.

Originally published in June 2008

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