Roy Brown: the greatest jump musician?
In a previous post dedicated to exemplary American musicians, I shied away from determinations of greatness, and opted, instead, to establish importance. It felt sturdier to crown Louis Armstrong as the most important American musician than to propose a greatest American musician, who, in all likelihood, would be John Coltrane. I need not recite the many arguments in favor of Armstrong’s enduring influence on trumpet, cornet, dixieland, swing, gravel-sweet singing, scatting, composition, ensemble playing, band-leading, ambassadorship, typewriting of letters, collaborative recordings, in-public performance, and most substantially, the virtuosity of the soloist. The essence of Armstrong spreads out amongst many players of many instruments. Armstrong informs one generation, and that generation informs a subsequent generation, adding elements of Armstrong, either tacitly or in plain view. “Really?” you say. Even Cypress Hill’s joke about “[hitting] dat bong” the way that “Louis Armstrong played the trumpet” in their 1993 pop hit “Insane in the Brain” demonstrates that the man’s legend appeared generations later, in hip hop and rap. (Louis, too, happened to be fond of weed.) One would have to present a mountainous argument—over many months of intense negotiations—to chip away at one corner of one brick in the Great Wall of this proclamation. Satchmo’s greatness is considerable, too, but he’s probably not the greatest American musician.
popular music for many decades, jazz underwent numerous transitions. In one
change, the central instrumentation in many recordings switched from brass to reed,
from trumpet (and perhaps clarinet) to saxophone. Coleman Hawkins, by no means
the first jazz saxophone player, nevertheless has been credited as the first
jazzman to endow the instrument with significance. Numerous followers—Lester
Young, Charlie Parker, and John Coltrane, to name three—would build their own idioms
upon this foundation. Coltrane, in particular, can batter a listener to rubble,
if we can define “batter” as (Coltrane’s) relentless invention across many forms
of voice, and if we can define “rubble” as the shocking moments of (the
listener’s) emotional realizations. At the beginning of Coltrane’s career,
before he appeared as a sideman on several monumental Miles Davis records—including
the Workin’, Steamin’, Cookin’, Relaxin’ series, as well as Milestones and Kind of Blue—he played with rhythm and blues
groups in Philadelphia and elsewhere. Lewis Porter’s masterful biography, John Coltrane: His Life and Music,
describes R&B gigs in the early to mid-50s with bandleaders such as Johnny
Hodges. According to Porter’s book, the Hodges band toured with several rhythm
and blues stars, including Billy Eckstine, Ruth Brown, and the Clovers. Benny
Golson, a sax player also retained by Hodges, “marveled at the things [he]
heard [Coltrane] play” on the tour. Trane famously entertained a number of
influences throughout his career but where did this R&B sound originate?
Illinois Jacquet's solo on "Flying Home" inspired other horn players.
At the very least, jump blues began with a variety of groups active in the 1930s, including orchestras led by Jimmie Lunceford, Cab Calloway, and Lucky Millinder. These early songs featured hopping rhythm, rambunctious horns, and increasingly mischievous lyrics. Just as jazz began to adopt the saxophone as its central instrument—to deliver the fleet or searching or muscular work of the soloist—so did jump blues offer rowdy saxophone solos, “jumps” if you will, in the midst of a tune, and oftentimes, woven throughout a piece. Arguably, the most famous early jump saxophone solo belonged to Illinois Jacquet, a sideman at the time with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra. His workout on “Flying Home” in 1942 inspired saxophone players to emulate his honking sound. Indeed, many horn players would dwell in the upper or lower registers of their horns, effecting the kind of chaotic riotousness that drove audiences to crash around and scream. Audience members couldn’t seem to believe what they were hearing; it nourished a need of theirs that they may not have been able to articulate, in advance. I wonder if the musicians ever expressed similar feelings. Jump blues burned brightest from the late 1940s through the mid 1950s. The music would eventually be covered, gentrified, and absorbed by other genres long before Miles Davis affixed the flickering embers of jazz to wailing electric guitar lines in A Tribute to Jack Johnson, and the album’s outtakes, among other jazz-rock material. Still, jump music added shape to rock, R&B, and avant garde saxophone from its wealth of rowdy excess.
White audiences hadn't heard anyone like Big Jay McNeely.
The heroes of jump have nicknames like Tiny, Big Jay, Big Mama, Sugarboy, Mr. Five by Five, Big Joe, Fats, and Bull Moose. They are criminally under-celebrated. Here are, in chronological order by date of recording, 35 greatest hits—25 prime jumps followed by five early numbers and five magnificent novelties:
Eddie Lockjaw Davis: “Ravin’ at the Haven” (1947)
Roy Brown: “Boogie at Midnight” (1949)
Ruth Brown: “Hello Little Boy” (1949)
Freddie Mitchell: “Pony Express” (1949)
Johnny Otis: “Good Ole Blues” (1949)
Wynonie Harris: “Bloodshot Eyes” (1950)
Tiny Bradshaw: “I’m Going to Have Myself a Ball” (1950)
Joe Liggins: “Going Back to
New Orleans” (1950)
Roy Milton: “Oh Babe” (1950)
Big Jay McNeely: “Insect Ball” (1951)
Jackie Brenston: “Real Gone Rocket” (1951)
Big Mama Thornton: “Hound Dog” (1952)
James Sugarboy Crawford: “Overboard” (1953)
Jimmy Rushing: “Mr. Five by Five” (1953)
Big Joe Houston: “All Night Long” (1954)
Big Joe Turner: “Shake, Rattle and Roll” (1954)
Bill Haley: “Farewell So Long Goodbye” (1954)
Ray Charles: “I’ve Got a Woman” (1954)
Johnny Sparrow: “Sparrow’s Nest” (1955)
Dave Bartholomew: “Shrimp and Gumbo” (1955)
Amos Milburn: “Chicken Shack Boogie” (1956)
Louis Prima: “Oh Marie” (1956)
Fats Domino: “I’m Walkin’” (1957)
Long John Hunter: “Grandma” (1961)
(+5 Early Jumps)
Jimmie Lunceford: “Rhythm Is Our Business” (1934)
Stuff Smith: “Old Joe’s Hittin’ the Jug” (1936)
Cab Calloway: “Do You Want to Jump, Children?” (1938)
Sammy Price: “Monkey Swing” (1939)
Lionel Hampton: “Flying Home” (1942)
(+5 Novelty Tunes)
Louis Jordan: “Caldonia” (1945)
“Shorty’s Got to Go” (1945)
Paula Watson: “Hidin’ in the Sticks” (1948)
Lucky Millinder: “Who Said Shorty Wasn’t Coming Back?” (1950)
Big Bob Kornegay: “Bullfrog Hop” (1953-1958?)
The great Louis Jordan.
Some may quibble with my placement of Louis Jordan amongst the novelties, but I am as partial to these songs (and Jordan) as to the prime jumps. Jordan, an alto sax player and bandleader, recorded a number of great songs—including “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie”, “Beans and Cornbread”, and “Knock Me a Kiss”—but “Caldonia” is a special song. Other jump songs recorded by other artists refer to the character, Caldonia, who, despite her awkward appearance, inspires the singer, Jordan. He tells the listener that he’s “crazy ‘bout that woman ‘cause Caldonia is her name.” Indeed.