June 2024 Article

June 2024 Article

By Bernie Brink

In the early part of the 20th century, and especially through the 1930s and ‘40s, jazz and swing were America’s popular music, culturally ensconced in the same way acts like Taylor Swift and Kendrick Lamar are today.  While mainline jazz is no longer mainstream, the tenets of today’s popular music was first forged by jazz musicians in the 1940s in a style known as jump blues.

Following the big band craze of the Swing era, jump blues developed more-or-less alongside bebop.  While bebop was a reaction against popular dance music and a concerted effort to reimagine jazz as art music, jump blues aimed to continue the dance tradition and maintain commercial appeal.  As its name implies, jump blues leaned heavily on blues song forms and idioms and highlighted popular boogie-woogie and “barrelhouse” patterns.  A distillation to these familiar sounds made the music eminently listenable, danceable, and enjoyable, and a platform for clever lyrics (a fundamental feature of hip-hop), soulful vocals, and raging sax solos that brought down the house – in those early days, the saxophone preceded the electric guitar as the solo instrument of choice for rockers.

During those formative years when jump blues prophesied R&B and rock and roll, its proponents were primarily jazz musicians.  Louis Jordan became a poster child for jump blues and rock and roll, producing hits like “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie” and “Saturday Night Fish Fry.”  In the 1950s, his chart dominance earned him the moniker “King of the Jukebox,” but he got his start playing in some of the nation’s leading big bands like the orchestras of Stuff Smith and Chick Webb.  Similarly, saxophonists like Cecil Payne, Illinois Jacquet, and Lucky Thompson all recorded commercial hits in the jump blues category while at the same time playing a pivotal role in shaping the modern sound of bebop.  Even John Coltrane was found early in his career playing with popular jump blues artists like Earl Bostic and Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson.

Saxophonists were frequently the spokesperson on many jump blues recordings, but other artists also contributed to fabricating the new sound of rock and roll.  Many of Dinah Washington’s early recordings fit squarely in the jump blues camp, and for the duration of her career she floated effortlessly between the worlds of jazz, blues, R&B, and soul.  Pianist Bill Doggett, who began his career with Lucky Millender and His Orchestra, went on to record hits with the Ink Spots, Wynonie Harris, and Louis Jordan (including “Saturday Night Fish Fry”) through the 1950s before returning to mainstream jazz and becoming a major figure on the Hammond B-3.  Bassist Red Callender, known principally for establishing bebop on the west coast, had recorded with Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Wardell Gray, and Nat “King” Cole before releasing a string of jump blues sides with his sextet, alongside a string of jazz singles with the same group.

Listening to jump blues, you’re sure to nod your head and tap your feet as you can hear the audible undercurrents that led to rock and roll, R&B, and today’s popular music.  From jazz to rock, you can hear these stories and more on Saturday Night Fish Fry with Duane Johnson every Saturday at 6:00 PM on Jazz 93.5.