Happy birthday, Louis Jordan! Cooler and hipper than Cab Calloway, who covered a number of Jordan’s many hits, Louis Jordan was one of the biggest black musical stars of the 20th century. Those of you who don’t know about Jordan obviously don’t know about jump blues, either, in that case. Jump blues, aka Jump Jive, was a genre of blues that led directly to rock ‘n’ roll. Wikipedia’s bio of Jordan describes jump blues as “a swinging, up-tempo, dance-oriented hybrid of jazz, blues and boogie-woogie” that often involved fast-talking, hip lyrics about black urban life. It’s true, as Muddy Waters claimed, that blues begat rock, but it wasn’t Muddy’s style of blues, nor Bessie Smith’s, nor even that of B.B. King – it was jump blues, which makes Louis Jordan, as jump blues’ most successful exponent and innovator, at least the granddaddy of rock ‘n’ roll if not the actual father. Even the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame recognized him as such in 1987.
Louis Jordan and his alto sax, circa July 1946 (photo courtesy of William P. Gottlieb via Wikimedia Commons)
However, Jordan’s music crossed musical lines, from blues and jazz to swing, big band, R&B and even comic ‘novelty’ songs. He also crossed color lines: Jordan was one of the first black entertainers whose records did well on the pop charts, and he did duets with several of his Decca Records label mates, including Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. A gifted instrumentalist as well as a vocalist – who could sing a ballad as well as he could jive lyrics – he played piano, clarinet, and alto, tenor and baritone sax, though his instrument of choice was the alto. He was also a bandleader and a clever songwriter, though he didn’t get credit or royalties for some of his songs (that was his own doing: in an attempt to get around an existing publishing contract, he credited some songs, including the famous “Caldonia,” to his third wife, childhood sweetheart Fleecie Moore; but as that marriage was tempestuous and, thankfully, short lived – Fleecie stabbed Jordan on two occasions during domestic disputes, once near fatally – they soon divorced, but she retained ownership of songs she’d never written, much to his dismay).
Some performers come to music by accident or by desire, but not Jordan – he was born into it on July 8, 1908 in Brinkley, Arkansas, to Adell and James Aaron Jordan. His mother died when he was young; his father, however, was a musician, music teacher and bandleader for two local groups, the Brinkley Brass Band and the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, and young Louis was surrounded by music before he could walk. His father taught him music, starting with the clarinet, and as a youth he played in his father’s bands whenever school was out. Jordan briefly attended Arkansas Baptist College in Little Rock, where he majored in music. He also played piano professionally early in his career and played with other local bands, including Bob Alexander’s Harmony Kings. When he moved with his family to Philadelphia in 1932, he played clarinet in the Charlie Gaines band and also did gigs with pianist Clarence Williams.