Louis Jordan - Biography

By NIck Castro


Louis Jordan was a prolific and influential jazz and blues bandleader, singer, saxophonist and style maker. Jordan was born in 1908 in Brinkley, AR. Jordan's father was a trombonist and had a carnival act called the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, in which the young Louis would take part. He later went to Arkansas Baptist College where he would study music. Once he completed his studies the family moved to Philadelphia, PA. This is where Jordan would first encounter piano player Clarence Williams, pioneering businessman and blues accompanist of the 20's and 30's.


Jordan would join Williams on a session with friend and trumpet player Charlie Gaines. Gaines had written a song called "I Cant Dance I Got Ants in my Pants" which Williams was eager to buy and record. Gaines sold him the song and within days Gaines and Jordan were on their way to New York to record the side. Jordan would only have a role as a sideman, while playing his saxophone, but his vocals on his friends song made him shine in the session. It was also Gaines who would help to support Jordan, during his six month probationary waiting period to join the New York musician's union, by giving Jordan a job in his group. This led to a short stint working in a band led by Fletcher Henderson's drummer, Kaiser Marshall-Gaines. This band barely paid enough to survive so Jordan, the ever ambitious opportunist, got a chance to join LeRoy Smith's band and took it. They were in a unique position to help Jordan with his musician's union problem. Upon Jordan's move to New York he was unable to work due to his current membership with the Philadelphia musician's union, but Smith's band was about to play an extended residency at a club in Atlantic City. Under the combined transfer rules of the unions Jordan was able to play with the group until his New York membership came through.


Upon returning to New york Jordan would have occasional work with Smith's band but it was not steady enough to support Jordan. While intermittently performing as a singer at the Apollo and picking up gigs where he could, he heard that Chick Webb was looking to replace an alto saxophone player. Around the time that Webb sent scouts to see Jordan, he was also having problems with his vocalist Taft Jordan, who had been the one to recommend Louis Jordan for the saxophone position. Right when it was looking like Louis Jordan was to be Webb's new singer Taft Jordan promptly returned to the band. Louis Jordan got the original saxophone position after all. Very soon though, the Jordans, who were unrelated, were sharing the vocal duties. Along with them was a young and rising new face in jazz, Ella Fitzgerald. Unfortunately Webb never gave Louis Jordan billing on marquees or posters the way he had received when with Smith's band. Webb grew weary of Jordan's saxophone playing, which was good but not first chair material, so Jordan was relegated to the baritone saxophone and would play his solos on clarinet and soprano saxophone. Jordan was unhappy about this maneuver but he dealt with the blow. It was probably a wise choice as Webb's band was receiving a lot of attention and played regularly on the radio. Jordan got a lot of studio experience because of this and eventually cut his first records as a sideman for Webb, singing duets with Fitzgerald. Jordan's first chance to sing on a record came when he, Fitzgerald and Charlie Linton sang as a trio on the song "There's Frost on the Moon". The climax of his time with the Webb orchestra was when they converged, in 1937, at the Savoy Ballroom with Benny Goodman's orchestra to have a battle of the bands. Webb's orchestra won that night in front of a sold out crowd of 4000. 5000 people outside had to be corraled by police after becoming angry that they could not gain entry.


After this, the Webb band would head to the south for a summer tour in 1937. Jordan had often remarked how fondly he felt about the south but this, along with his cheery manner of shrugging off insult, made some of the other band members grow tiresome of him. Many of the black musicians of the north were unkind to those they viewed as uncle toms and Jordan's constant nostalgic waxings about his home of Arkansas caused the members to refer to Jordan as Stepin Fetchit behind his back. Though Lincoln Perry, the actor who played the character Stepin Fetchit, would eventually become one of the first black millionaires in America, his character would go down in history as a derogatory portrayal of black people. This southern tour proved a tumultuous one as the band had to contend with severe racism from southern whites. They were a bus of well dressed blacks from New York with a white driver. This infuriated the southern whites. It was also a bit of culture shock for the Webb band, who were used to the treatment they got in New York as stars. Now, though they were being paid extremely well, they were playing dances with segregated audiences.


In early 1938 Webb's band got a slot at the prestigious Boston club, Levaggi's Flamingo Room. Soon after starting the residency there, Webb, who suffered from tuberculosis of the spine, grew so ill he had to be hospitalized. The band got a fill-in drummer and maintained the gig. This gave Jordan, who had been previously repressed by Webb because of his budding romance with Fitzgerald, a chance to shine in front a large nightly audience. When Webb returned he was not only troubled by Jordan's new stage presence but also by the fact he was trying to start a band behind Webb's back and to make matters worse, was trying to steal his best three players; his bassist, his trumpet player and most importantly his singer, Fitzgerald. All three declined Jordan and Webb fired him from the band. Webb died the next year and though Jordan was, at the time of his sacking, bitter about about their negative transaction he would always later recall the story as if he had finished his tenure with the band until Webb's death. This was not true but did illustrate Jordan's feelings of unease with the situation. Webb was already an icon in the genre and a major commendation on one's musical resumé.


Jordan was distraught and returned to New York. With the assistance of his wife, who was a professional dancer, he started a new band entirely financed by his wife's money. She bought the band uniforms, music stands, professional photos and she organized the musicians and rehearsal halls. She also was the one to pitch the band to agents once they were polished and professional. This would all soon pay off as Jordan got a good job for his band playing at the Elks Rendezvous, which was a little club in Harlem. During this period Jordan would force his band to rehearse endlessly, creating tensions and leading to personnel changes amongst its ranks. This persistence and hard work would pay off though. He would record his first record as a bandleader when he cut the side "Honey in the Bee Ball" as the Elks Rendezvous Band.


By the next year Jordan would take his minor success and create the combo that would immortalize him in jazz history forever. He started working with his Tympani Five, whose members would often number far greater than the enumerated figure, and would have, what would be, enormous success. They would have a string of hits with record label Decca, beginning with "I'm gonna leave you on the outskirts of Town". It is with this group that Jordan would sculpt what would be his new sound. He would combine R&B, jazz and comedy along with his incredible sense of showmanship to become the biggest star in the genre. Many consider his band the basis of rock and roll. They would utilize and further develop the swinging shuffle beat which would later be adopted by groups like Bill Haley and the Comets. Jordan's most famous song is easily the side "Caldonia" where Jordan would implement a brilliant call and response style chorus with the band and he wailed into his upper register and wildly stomped to the beat. His charm was blooming in droves and the audiences loved him. Other hits by the band included "Ain't Nobody Here but Us Chickens", "Boogie Woogie Blue Plate", "Choo Choo Ch'Boogie", "Beans and Cornbread" and "Is You Is or Is You Ain't". All of these would chart topping successes for the band.


During the second World War Jordan would often record for army radio and began to appear in short films that would be played before the main attraction.  in these shorts he would perform many of his hits in his usual lively manner. He tried his hand at leading a big band in the 50's but by the mid 50's his popularity was steadily declining. Decca dropped him and he moved to the Los Angeles based record label, Alladin, where he would record many great sides such as "Messy Bessy" and "Dad Gum Ya Hide Boy". He tried to jump on the rock and roll bandwagon when recorded "Rock N' Roll Call" for the RCA owned X label but this did not translate well to younger audiences. Jordan continued to record into the 60's but, though musicians loved him, was not selling many records. He even signed to Tangerine record label, owned by famed pianist and singer Ray Charles. Jordan continued to make a living working the live club and lounge circuit, where he found steady employment. He died from a heart attack in 1975.








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