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Louis Jordan: On the Cutting Edge

Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five. Adam Green is an associate professor of American History and a faculty member of the Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture at the University of Chicago. Court Theatre’s Resident Dramaturg, Nora Titone, asked Green some questions to put into a broader context Louis Jordan’s role in the evolution of music, his success with a wider audience than other artists before him, and his treatment of women in his lyrics.

You once mentioned that Louis Jordan was an artist who “laughed to keep from crying.” Could you talk about that phrase in relation to Jordan’s path-breaking music and style of performance?

Louis Jordan’s music was known as “jump blues,” a reboot of the Black vernacular form that infused city speed and street-smart avalues into the time-honored folk aesthetic. The music that Jordan’s Tympany Five came up with was witty, topical, avant-garde in its texture and sensibility, yet—as blues—without illusions that the everyday problems of people, and specifically Black people, were often beyond resolution, due to their rootedness in inequality, deprivation, and disempowerment. Behind each lyrical double-entendre or sight gag on stage, Jordan and his collaborators meditated on what it took to endure life challenges, rather than eliminate them. And even as those listening laughed upon hearing and seeing Jordan, they knew they were contemplating circumstances, along with conditions, that could bring tears as well as invite chuckles.

How do you see Louis Jordan’s legacy? What was his influence in his own time, and how did he blaze a trail for future generations of American entertainers?

Jordan was a singular bridging artist who demonstrated how the harmonic, rhythmic, and lyrical conventions of jazz and blues music could evolve as an urban-oriented and youth-forward style that came to be known, on either side of the color line, as rock and roll or rhythm and blues. Much of this was due to his acute capacities as an innovator. But there were structural explanations as well. The music industry experienced a series of shocks in the early 1940s, with jukeboxes and radio playlists constituting disruptive revenue streams. The American Federation of Musicians called a two-year strike on recording between 1942 and 1944—exactly the time when Jordan and his Tympany Five began to create a topical and humor-based format for their live performances during extended stays in Middle Western small cities like Cedar Rapids, IA. Jordan, then, came up with a unique and novel formula for popular music—but he also benefited from launching that sound at a moment of disarray in American popular music. In other words, it may have been Jordan’s understanding of the relationship between changes in music production and shifts in audience taste, as much as his sense of artistic experimentation, that offers the most important lessons to future generations of musicians.

What was Louis Jordan’s relationship with Chicago and the South Side nightclubs?

While Jordan lived during the early and mid 1940s in Harvey, IL, a South suburb of Chicago, and played frequently at South Side venues, his audience was much more national than local, and exceptionally interracial, for an African American performer of the day. Chicago, however, was a key center for the music industry, as far as African American musicians were concerned. Black-appeal disc jockeys were especially prolific in the city during and after the war. Jukeboxes were built and loaded with music by local manufacturers. Small labels targeting emerging genres of Black urban music—gospel blues, urban blues and, increasingly, jump blues—were based in the city. Jordan’s rise, while powered by a national reputation and market, drew on the incubator quality of the music community in Chicago, and disseminated its stories and practices more broadly throughout the country.

Jordan drew a distinction between jazz musicians who he believed “played for themselves,” while he “played for the people.”

How do you think Louis Jordan differed from his fellow performers, who played for themselves, while he “played for the people?”

Jordan drew a distinction between jazz musicians who he believed “played for themselves,” while he “played for the people.” On the surface, the distinction seems overly self-congratulatory. Bebop, a notoriously coded and introverted music, proved resonant with migrating masses just as much as rhythm and blues did, over the long run. Yet Jordan intuited that those masses wanted a music that was topical as opposed to esoteric in its attitude to the social environment, similar to the ways that “gangsta” rap in the 1980s seemed more revealing about the post-industrial circumstances of African American youth than the more “conscious” form of that music. He sought inspiration for his many songs from stage comedy revues, Caribbean and Southern folk stories, and the bawdy, raucous domain of street wisdom on relations between the sexes. Many of those songs were deeply concerned with the African American individual’s role within dynamic urban society, revealing how mass migration (compounded by wartime relocation of military personnel and war industry workers) was a unique moment of status anxiety for Blacks. Jordan’s music de-escalated the stakes of considering such conditions, through humor, familiar vernacular motifs, and a healthy respect for the inherently egalitarian distribution of virtue and sin among humankind.

Louis Jordan’s music and his performance style were wildly popular, exercising an appeal that crossed racial lines. How do you explain his universality?

One reason that Jordan proved so successful as a racial crossover phenomenon was his reliance on humor as a means to get across his musical message. Comedy, of course, has proven the back channel through which the truth of black lives could be made intelligible, if not acceptable to a broader white public in America. But Jordan’s appeal to youthful adventurism—especially as a means to valorize an urban pace of affairs—and his skillful adaptation to opportunities to circulate his music through wartime channels (he toured with the USO and released a number of songs as “V-disks,” which were sent in large numbers to soldiers on the front line) meant that he made special inroads to white audiences that might otherwise not have known of him. Whatever the explanation, Jordan was a pioneer as a crossover musician, who helped pave the way not only for later black performers from Chuck Berry and Little Richard to Michael Jackson and Prince, but also a long string of white performers who adopted the conventions of black popular music to craft the soundtrack of an emerging American youth generation.

Jordan used his music at times to explore questions about gender relations. Could you talk about how he tried on personas in his songs, and played with notions of masculinity and femininity?

Jordan’s take on gender and the balance of power between the sexes was trenchant and at times could be retrograde. He often relied upon the motif of valuing women in his lyrics through looks. He invariably referenced a low-grade antagonism between black women and men, in their social interactions. He occasionally played on domestic violence, for laughs. Yet Jordan’s obsession with how black men and women got on was driven more by questions, rather than answers. He understood, in a way what the greatest Black musical artists have ever since, that how men and women got on was one of the most powerful positive indices of personal self worth for African Americans, in the context of a world where restrictions on wealth, position, and education afforded precious few opportunities to recover reputation and self-regard. He also understood that in such a transforming and unstable domain as the post-migration city, relations between men and women needed to be considered as they were, rather as they might be, or ought to be, in order to compel his audience to see themselves in his lyrics. Those struggles with social representation and meaningful equity continue today, of course, in how music provides a resonant, though by no means flattering, mirror for how communities, including black communities, live out their relations among groups, including women and men. ■

Posted on August 18, 2017 in Productions

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