In 1973, Ebony magazine ran a story titled “Whatever Happened to Louis Jordan?” Two decades earlier, the genial singer-saxophonist was one of America’s biggest pop stars. Not only did 18 of his 78s reach the top of the black pop charts between 1942 and 1950, but several of them, including “Ain’t Nobody Here but Us Chickens,” “Caldonia,” and “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby,” “crossed over” and became hits with white listeners as well. In addition, Jordan was widely admired by his colleagues. In his heyday, he made duet recordings with Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, and Ella Fitzgerald. His later fans included James Brown, Ray Charles, and B.B. King—as well as Sonny Rollins, the celebrated jazz saxophonist, who called Jordan “a fantastic musician” and “my first idol.”
But the Tympany Five, Jordan’s combo, fell out of fashion in the mid-1950s, and Jordan himself was largely forgotten by the time of his death in 1975. It was not until 1992 that Five Guys Named Moe, a Broadway revue whose score consisted of two dozen of his hits, triggered a revival of interest in his music that continues to this day. Even so, his career has been ignored by jazz scholars, and if any of the major histories of jazz mentions him, it is only in passing1.
Today Jordan is mainly remembered as a pioneer of rhythm and blues, while pop-music historians see his music as a precursor of rock and roll. Yet he started out as a jazz musician, and much of the music that he played in the 40s and 50s is indistinguishable from the jazz with which he grew up in the 20s and 30s. Why, then, has his work been overlooked by historians of jazz?
To some extent, their lack of interest can be explained by Jordan’s enormous popularity. As the critic Max Harrison has observed, “People do not object to artists deserving success—only to their getting it.” But it is also true that to call Jordan’s music “jazz” is to ignore certain of its most important characteristics, and to overlook the equally important fact that he reached the peak of his popularity just as America started to turn its back on jazz. Anyone who wants to understand what happened to jazz after World War II could do worse than to ask why Jordan and the Tympany Five appealed to listeners who took no interest in Dizzy Gillespie or Charlie Parker.
Born in 1908 in a small, isolated town in eastern Arkansas, Jordan was the son of a music teacher who played in touring minstrel shows. Determined to become a professional musician, he went on the road with his father when he was still a child. By 1927 Jordan was a full-time saxophonist, and in 1936 he joined the big band of Chick Webb, one of the top drummers of the swing era.
When Jordan struck out on his own in 1938, it was in a direction determined in part by his theatrical experience. A superbly accomplished alto saxophonist, he was also an engaging, good-humored vocalist whose work in minstrel shows had taught him the value of showmanship. Although he was committed to jazz, he sought to play it in a way that would appeal to the working-class audiences whose uncomplicated tastes he’d come to know through his years on the road: “I wanted to play music on stage that made people forget about what they did today.”
To this end, he put together a small ensemble of the kind known in the late 30s as a “cocktail combo.” The Tympany Five, as he called the band, was modeled on the much-admired John Kirby Sextet, which specialized in instrumental versions of pop songs and light classics. Like Kirby’s group, the Tympany Five played hard-swinging, carefully rehearsed arrangements that made extensive use of “riffs,” the short, punchy unison phrases employed by most swing-era bands. But Jordan, unlike Kirby, spotlighted his own vocals, and his group’s repertoire was dominated by light-hearted blues songs whose lyrics usually had a humorous twist.
Jordan’s emphasis on the blues was unusual for a cocktail combo. In this respect, the Tympany Five emulated such blues-oriented “jump bands” of the period as the Harlem Hamfats. But Jordan eschewed their rougher-hewn sound, insisting that his sidemen play with the same precision as a big band. In addition, his singing had a cool, smooth-surfaced polish similar to that of his saxophone playing. This, along with his clean enunciation, allowed him to sing pop material effectively, and it also helped make his music more accessible to middle-class whites.
It took Jordan three years to develop and perfect the Tympany Five’s formula for success. The first step was to find suitable material. He steered clear of straight ballads and darkly melancholy blues, instead presenting himself as a comic character, a “regular guy” who is a slave to his sensual appetites (a surprisingly large number of his songs, including “Beans and Cornbread” and “Boogie Woogie Blue Plate,” are about food) but who rarely gets the upper hand when it comes to love.
Having chosen the right songs, Jordan and the Tympany Five presented them in the most vivid way possible, wearing flashy uniforms and performing with flamboyant verve. According to Berle Adams, his manager, “Louis wanted to be thought of primarily as a fine musician….I said to him, ‘Look, you’re never going to be a Johnny Hodges or a Willie Smith—be a showman.’” Indeed, he lacked the musical creativity of Hodges, Smith, and Benny Carter, the leading alto saxophonists of the swing era. What he did have in abundance was showmanship, and his willingness to incorporate it into his stage act was central to his mass appeal. In the words of one of his sidemen:
What Louis was trying to do was to present his audiences with a Technicolor picture of a live band….The wild colors, the movement, the exaggerated gestures, the whole thing came over like a scene from a movie and that’s what Louis wanted.
At the same time, the Tympany Five always remained true to its jazz roots. In “I’m Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town” (1941), the band’s first hit record, the rhythm section lays down a no-nonsense medium-tempo walking-bass beat atop which Jordan plays a spare, elegantly phrased saxophone solo. Then he puts down his instrument and assumes the role of a husband who doubts his spouse’s faithfulness: It may seem funny, honey/It may be funny as can be/But if we have any chill’un/I want ’em all to look like me. He sings with amused detachment, and the results strongly resemble the way in which Jimmy Rushing, whose jazz pedigree was unimpeachable, performed songs like “Good Morning Blues” with Count Basie’s band.
In up-tempo numbers like “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie,” Jordan often made use of a bouncy “shuffle” beat derived from boogie-woogie but lighter in feel, and after 1945 he would concentrate on such high-spirited novelty songs as “Barnyard Boogie” and “Saturday Night Fish Fry.” In a sense, these latter recordings constitute a simplification of swing-era jazz—though another way of putting it is to say that Jordan took care never to let his music become so complicated that it ceased to be danceable. This new style was soon dubbed “rhythm and blues,” a term coined by record producer Jerry Wexler in 1947 and adopted by Billboard two years later as the name of its black pop chart. Jordan, Lionel Hampton, and other musicians who adopted a similar style in the 40s were not working in a vacuum. They were responding to their fans—and to the music of another group of young musicians who longed to make postwar jazz more complex, not less.
It is impossible to grasp the historic significance of rhythm and blues without recognizing that it emerged simultaneously with bebop, the avant-garde style of jazz developed in the mid-40s by a group of virtuoso instrumentalists who felt that big-band swing had run its course. The boppers believed jazz to be an art form comparable in seriousness to classical music, and they resented the fact that nightclub owners insisted on promoting it as commercial entertainment.
In fact, jazz had started life as a genuinely popular music, a utilitarian song-based idiom to which ordinary people could dance if they felt like it. Hence the growing popularity of Jordan and the other pioneers of rhythm and blues, much of whose music can be understood as an explicitly populist variant of jazz and as a response—conscious or not—to the refusal of younger musicians such as Gillespie and Parker to continue playing in an audience-friendly style.
No musician, however popular he may be, stays in fashion forever. Jordan’s last record to reach the top of the black charts, “Blue Light Boogie,” came out in 1950. From then on, the mainstream of American popular music was dominated by white balladeers, some creatively vital and others bland and insipid, while black rhythm and blues grew hotter and more frankly sexualized, thereby pointing the way to the next pop-music innovation, rock and roll.
As it happened, Jordan had added an electric guitarist, Carl Hogan, to his band in 1945, around the same time he began emphasizing the R & B–flavored novelty tunes in his repertoire. Hogan’s presence in the band prefigured the sound of early rock, so much so that it is startling to hear him launch “Ain’t That Just Like a Woman,” a boogie blues recorded by the Tympany Five in 1946, with the same guitar riff that Chuck Berry, one of Jordan’s biggest fans, “borrowed” 12 years later in “Johnny B. Goode.” But that was as far as Jordan was willing to go: “Decca asked me to get on that rock thing, you know, with a big beat. They wanted me to honk on a tenor [saxophone]. I was a little too old for that.”
Decca responded by dropping Jordan from its roster in 1953. Around the same time, the label signed a white pop group called Bill Haley and His Comets and put Milt Gabler, Jordan’s longtime producer, in charge of its records. Gabler encouraged the Comets to incorporate elements of Jordan’s style into their music, and the records they made with him soared to the top of the pop charts. “They got a sound that had the drive of the Tympany Five and the color of country-and-western,” Gabler recalled. The same combination would soon make Elvis Presley an even bigger star than Haley.
Trapped between the “big beat” of Haley and Presley and the sophisticated balladry of Nat Cole and Frank Sinatra, Jordan found himself at a loss. He was forced to become a nostalgia act, recycling his hits for a shrinking audience of aging fans. Toward the end of his life, he made a series of well-received concert appearances under the auspices of the jazz impresario George Wein, but his death prevented him from capitalizing on the exposure that they gave him, and two decades went by before Five Guys Named Moe introduced a new generation of listeners to his ebullient music.
Jazz critics and scholars remain ill at ease with Louis Jordan, but there is no shortage of younger commentators on rock and R & B who recognize his stature. Compilations of his 78s still sell briskly, and no doubt a time will come when the jazz establishment deigns to acknowledge what Sonny Rollins meant when he called Jordan “a bridge between the blues and jazz.” Much like Fats Waller, another pop-music giant whose unapologetic populism made the highbrows squirm, he knew how to please the public without demeaning himself—or his music. The buoyant records of the Tympany Five overflow with the spirit of delight, and anyone who can listen to them without rejoicing is the poorer for it.
1 Jordan is, however, the subject of a solid journalistic biography, John Chilton’s Let the Good Times Roll: The Story of Louis Jordan and His Music (1994), on which I have drawn in writing this essay. In addition, 46 of his best 78 sides are collected in Let the Good Times Roll: The Anthology 1938–1953 (Geffen, two CDs).