The missing link in the evolution of rock and roll JUMP BLUES

December 05, 1993|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Pop Music Critic

When did rock and roll really begin?

That's not an easily answered question. There are some who take a creationist view, and claim it all started in 1954 with Elvis Presley's first Sun single, "That's All Right." Most critics, however, take an evolutionary view, and insist that rock was rolling well before Presley; for them, records like Jackie Brentson's 1951 hit "Rocket 88" or Roy Brown's 1949 raver "Rockin' at Midnight" would seem more likely starting points.

Wherever the line is drawn, it's clear that rock and roll didn't just turn up on the doorstep one morning, fully formed and ready to raise a ruckus. After all, it's not as if all America switched overnight from "How Much Is That Doggie in the Window" to "Hound Dog."

Perhaps it only seems that way because we've forgotten the missing link in the evolution from swing to rock: jump blues. This was the sound that had America hopping from the end of the big band era right up to the rise Elvis. Yet if it weren't for the popularity of the stage show "Five Guys Named Moe," a lot of listeners would barely be aware that the style ever existed.

Louis Jordan, the man whose music serves as the basis for "Five Guys Named Moe," was by far the most popular of the jump blues stars. His biggest hits -- songs like "Is You Is or Is You Ain't (Ma' Baby)," "Caldonia Boogie," "Choo Choo Ch'Boogie" and "Saturday Night Fish Fry" -- were million-sellers, and his popularity crossed both racial and regional barriers.

But Jordan was hardly the only musician making a living at jump blues. Singers like Roy Brown, Amos Millburn and Joe Liggins were also having hits with the style, as were sax soloists like Jack McVea, Big Jay McNeely, and Bullmoose Jackson. By the early '50s, jump blues combos had all but replaced the big bands in America's dance halls.

Granted, that shift had as much to do with economics as `D anything else. It's worth remembering that when Jordan left the Chick Webb Orchestra to put together his Tympany Five in 1938, small combos were more the exception than the rule in popular music. Jordan's success proved that a small band could pack the same punch as a big one -- as he once said, "With my little

band, I did everything they did with a big band" -- and that lesson carried a lot of weight in the '40s, when the cost of keeping a full-sized big band on the road became prohibitively expensive.

But jump blues' biggest advantage over the big band sound was rhythmic, because it was there that the pulse of popular music began to change, moving away from the syncopated shuffle of swing and toward the driving backbeat of rock and roll.

Swing rhythm, remember, placed its emphasis on the first and third beats of the bar. Think of the DEE dit-da DEE dit-da DEE dit-da DEE dit-da hi-hat pattern in Glenn Miller's "In the Mood"; counted out, it's a perfect ONE two-and THREE four-and pulse.

Jump blues inverted that groove, placing the emphasis on two and four. Moreover, it made that backbeat more pronounced by having the drummer pound those accents home on the snare drum -- the better to make those blues jump!

A beefed-up backbeat wasn't the style's only defining characteristic, though. Jump blues also made ample use of blues vocals, boogie-woogie piano and honking, wailing saxophone solos. Indeed, some of the most exciting jump blues singles -- Jordan's "Saturday Night Fish Fry," Roy Brown's "Good Rockin' Tonight," or Big Jay McNeely's "Deacon's Hop" -- seemed to boast little more than those elements.

That approach wasn't something Louis Jordan invented all by himself, however. In fact, the basic elements of jump blues were in place long before they ever coalesced into a recognizable style. Listen to Pete Johnson and Joe Turner's 1938 recording of "Roll 'Em Pete," and you'll hear boogie piano licks as potent as anything Jerry Lee Lewis played (not to mention a vocal that pointedly presages Turner's rock era smash "Shake, Rattle and Roll").

A similar sound can be found in many of the Count Basie band's early recordings -- particularly on riff-based tunes like "One O'Clock Jump." This is hardly coincidental, since the Basie band came out of the same Kansas City scene that produced Johnson and Turner (indeed, Turner even worked for a while with the Basie band).

But the best example of where big band jazz set the stage for jump blues was probably Lionel Hampton's 1942 recording of "Flying Home." Like most jump blues to follow, it was built around a lean, repetitious melody and a driving beat; moreover, the single framed a screaming saxophone solo by tenor man Illinois Jacquet that seemed to kick the whole band into overdrive (trumpeter Ernie Royal's lip-splitting high notes on the final chorus were mere icing on the cake). And that, by all accounts, was nothing compared to the fireworks live performances of the song produced.

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