Small Band Swing



The swing period was dominated by the big expansive bands and their orchestrations. The orchestrations flowed from the contributions Louis Armstrong made on the Fletcher Henderson Band. 

However the regimentation & discipline of section playing didn't suit the innovative spirits of the giants of jazz. They were compelled to play their swinging improvised blues.

Sure they were given their solo spots were they could let rip, but always within the context of the restrictive score.

Within the band or in the clubs after the concert the small band collective improvisations of swing continued.

Sometime, perhaps significantly the small band swing was often labeled 'mainstream' ...

And all the famous big bands had their small band off springs, and it was there in the small bands where most of the great jazz of the 1930s was recorded -

Fletcher Henderson - Red Allen & Coleman Hawkins

Benny Goodman - Benny Goodman Trio & Quartet & Sextet - Teddy Wilson, Lionel Hampton, Charlie Christian, Cootie Williams.

Duke Ellington - Barney Bigard,  Cootie Williams, Johnny Hodges, Rex Stewart.

Count Basie - Lester & The Kansas City Five/Six.

Arty Shaw - The Gramercy Five.

Tommy Dorsey - The Clambake Seven.

Bob Crosby - The Bobcats.

Goldkette - Bix & Tram.

Duke Ellington - Johnny Hodges, Barney Bigard, Cootie Williams, Rex Stewart

1937 John Kirby - Buster Bailey & John Kirby Sextet.

1937 Nat King Cole Trio

Andy Kirk - Andy Kirk Clouds of Joy.

Other swing small bands survived unattached -

Red Nichols - Five Pennies

Mound City Blue Blowers

Wingy Manone

Austin High Gang - The Wolverines

Joe Venuti & Eddie Lang - Blue Four

Fats Waller - Fats Waller & his Rhythm

Eddie Condon Mob

Muggsy Spanier Ragtimers

Stuff Smith & his Onyx Club Orchestra with Jonas Jones

Harlem Hamfats

Mills Brothers

Hot Club of France - Django Reinhardt, Stephane Grappelli  ...

Significantly for American popular music the contributions of Louis Armstrong flowed directly into R&B via both the classic blues bands and singers and the typical band of Louis Jordan, 'the father of R&B' ... Bird was not for him, he wanted to play for the people ... not just the nerdy hepcats ... Milt Gabler produced Haley's 'Rock Around the Clock' as an imitation of his other protégé, Louis Jordan ...

Louis Jordan (1908-75) & The Timpani Five, the greatest little band in the world. Superbly drilled potent music for everyone.

Louis was from Arkansas raised by his grandma & aunt but his dad was in the minstrel shows, a brass band musician, studied with W C Handy and had the knack of teaching, his idol was Bert Williams.

Louis Jordan knew the blues.

Louis leant the clarinet and the soprano sax like Sidney Bechet! His first job was with The Rabbit Foot Minstrels. When cut by an improvising Lester Young he vowed to practice ... more ... 6 hours a day. He moved from C-melody sax to alto and dance bands, in El Dorado & Hot Springs. He played with The Ruby Williams Belvedere Orchestra and learnt his songs, all of them, from Coon Sanders on the radio. North to Philadelphia and The Charlie Gaines Orchestra and records with Louis in New Jersey.

Louis Jordan recorded with Louis Armstrong.

In 1934 Clarence Williams recorded a song Charlie Gaines had written featuring Louis Jordan - 'I Can't Dance I got Ant in My Pants' ... superb ...

In 1936 with LeRoy Smith at The Apollo, New York top of the bill featuring Louis Jordan, 'I'm Living in a Great Big Way'. And Chick Web was looking for an alto replacement for Edgar Sampson & Hilton Jefferson ... Louis got the 600 song book, The Savoy Ballroom and Taft Jordan & Ella. And he was ain the battle of the bands at the Savoy Ballroom when Chick cut Benny Goodman. Chick fired Louis in 1938, clash of temperaments.

Louis Jordan knew big band swing.

Timely influences were; Bert Ambrose, used tympani to change key; Slim Gaillard & Slam Stewart's 'Flat Foot Floogie'; The John Kirby Sextet. Benny Carter. In 1938 Louis formed the Tympani Four at The Elks Rendezvous, Lenox Avenue for eat, drink and dance -

Louis Jordan - alto & vocals

Drums - Walter Martin, Shadow Wilson, Wilmore 'Slick' Jones, Alex 'Razz' Mitchell - Eddie Bird, Chris Columbus (Joe Morris)

Trumpet - Chester Boone replaced by Courtney Williams, Eddie Roane, Lee Trammell, Leonard Graham - Aaron Izenhall

Piano - Clarence Johnson, Arnold 'Tommy' Thomas, William 'Bill' Austin - William Davis, Bill Doggett

Bass - Charlie Drayton, Jessie 'Po' Simpkins, Al Morgan - Simpkins, Billy Hadnott, Bob Bushnell

Tenor - Lem Johnson, Freddie Simon - Joshua Jackson, Eddie Johnson, Paul Quinichette

Electric Guitar 1945 - Carl Hogan, James 'Ham' Jackson,

J Mayo Williams of Decca took note. Their first recordings were as 'Race Records'; 'Honey in the Bee Ball', 'Barnacle Bill the Sailor' and in a repeat session; 'Keep A-Knockin'', 'Doug the Jitterbug', 'At the Swing Cats Ball' ... 'Keep A-Knockin'' (Bucket's got a Hole in It) became a minor hit with a Jimmy Dorsey cover ... and a radio line went in at the Elks ... and later at The New Capitol, under the same management. Decca were pleased.

During the late 1930s more and more folk were drawn back to the blues from the powerhouse big bands of swing. The small groups were playing swinging improvised blues.

A land mark, listen to the rhythm, 'A Chicken Ain't Nothin' but a Bird', a smooth shuffle bounce. And 'T bone Blues' written by T bone Walker.

Then to Chicago and The Capitol Lounge and The Mills Brothers. 'Knock Me a Kiss' ... and a winner 'I'm Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town' ... Louis Jordan was a major recording star ... jukeboxes and radio deejays got to work ... a hit!

On tour at The Fox Head Tavern, CEdar Rapids, Iowa then back in Chicago with a polished repertoire and new routines ... they swing, they sing, they clown ...

Milt Gabler now at Decca and 'Five Guys Named Moe' brilliant sax playing ... for white & black ...

In 1939 he filled the same big dance halls as Ellington & Basie at a fraction of the cost because he only used 5 or 6 sidemen. The dancers loved him the Jordan sound suited the big dance halls, no problem. It was clear that the band style was very difficult to copy, a successful one off.

They played swinging improvised blues right from the gut ... 12 bar blues, boogie woogie, rhythm changes, with the driving shuffle beat ... this was R&B. Listen to Lionel Hampton's 'Flying Home' with Illinous Jaquet's 1942 solo, Jordan generated the same drive. 16 bars of repeated notes. Honkers with rhythmic drive.

On the West Coast in the movies and at Billy Berg's with 'Is You or is You Ain't My Baby' ... 'GI Jive' a mega hit ... 'Buzz Me' a smash hit ...

Everybody was fighting over their 'share' of Louis Jordan's success. Berle Adams, Lou Levy, Fleecie Moore, Sippie Wallace, ... 'where there's a hit there's a writ' ... Louis Jordan seemed to have big problems with lawyers, sidemen. and 'uncle Tom' criticisms ... but the black fans loved him and the white ones too ... and they criticised Louis Armstrong ... the black side of success was jealousy?

Then 'Caldonia' and a movie, a short all black affair, a huge success. This was a bar room blues, Caldonia Caldonia what makes your head so hard? Just a plain old blues ... but it wasn't! Woody Herman recorded this Jordan song before Jordan himself.

In 1945 Louis had become over dominant in the group and obsessive with discipline and all the sidemen were sacked.

 The new group were a highly polished outfit ... sharing the billing at The Paramount with Stan Kenton ...

Louis would play his lines on his alto and Bill Davis would write down an arrangement for the band. Market research was done on the road. Country wide success but Chicago was always 'home'.

At The Zanzibar Club, New York opposite the Duke.

Ella & Louis did 'Petootie Pie' and BG heralded it as 'the best jazz record in 10 years'.

By 1946 Louis Jordan was being emulated everywhere, the shuffle rhythm, the riff arrangements and Carl Hogan's electric guitar ... led directly to Chuck Berry ... and James Brown acknowledged Louis Jordan 'he was everything' to him ... and 'Beware' was the earliest form of rap? Sonny Rollins, 'Louis Jordan was a bridge between jazz and blues' ... Art Pepper, 'Louis Jordan on alto knocked me out' ... Charlie Parker was a friend ... and 'Rock 'n' Roll was nothing but the blues hopped up' ...

'Choo Choo Ch'Boogie' ... the biggest of all ... just a blues but what a blues!

'Ain't Nobody Here but Us Chickens', 'Let the Good Times Roll' ...

In 1951 Louis Jordan tried a big band ... unaware of his own innovative success with his 'jump band' he became yet another 'me too' big band ... his old agent Berle Adams had warned him years ago ... hubris overwhelmed his creative artistry ... his small band had a happy swinging panache that no other band had ...

In 1952 Louis health failed again and the big band was disbanded and a new Tympany Five formed.

Jerry Wexler was establishing R&B as vigorous interpretations of the blues and other songs with uncomplicated harmonies on small independent labels. An Rock 'n' Roll was emerging as emotionally charged rhythmic impetus. Louis at Decca disassociated himself from the genre he had been leading and tried calypso! His was wary of unmusical honking tenors and the big beat ... things were slowing down ... in 1953 Decca did not renew his contract ... Louis place at Decca was taken by Bill Haley ... he had evil moments with the tax man and prejudice ... Aladdin Records produced no hits, then RCA, then Mercury, then Tangerine ... but the youngsters had taken over ... they were dancing to a different beat ...

Ray Charles, 'Louis Jordan has had a great and lasting influence on my appreciation of music and perhaps even on my performance'. In 1963/3 Chris Barber toured the UK with him ...

Louis Jordan kept big band swing close to the blues ... he jumped the blues ...

Louis Jordan can be heard in Chuck Berry & Ray Charles ...

Louis Jordan was mainstream ... pivotal ... seminal ...

Louis Jordan, 'the blues that's me' ...

Gigging to the end Louis Jordan died on February 5th 1975 at 67 ...


The golden heart of jazz is small group improvised blues music. Folk want to be free to do their own thing in social settings where coherence and pleasure can emerge only with small manageable numbers and simple musical structures.
The original New Orleans music was based on three front line horns and the blues.
Mayo Williams gave Decca the 'Harlem Hamfats', the first 'Jump Band' in 1936. Then Louis Jordan in 1938. And 'Rock 'n' Roll was on its way!
In Chicago and then New York - 
Red Nichols
The Jam sessions and small group improvised jazz was alive all through the Big Band Swing era ... 
Bob Crosby and The Bob Cats
Artie Shaw and his Gramercy Five
Andy Kirk and his Clouds of Joy
Benny Goodman and his Trio, Quartet and Sextet
Billie Holiday and Lester Young
Colemen Hawkins and 'Body and Soul'
A new name was coined for small group jazz after the demise of the big bands 'Mainstream'
In France Django Reinhardt exploits the freedom of jazz as an antidote to the tyranny of the Vichy Regime.
Louis Jordan (1908 - )
Father Jordan was his inspiration, a cornet/trombone player in Brass Bands and in minstrelsy. Louis started on the clarinet.
In New York Louis Jordan was playing small group jazz which was clean, fun and good for dancing ... folk loved it. The start of 'Rhythm and Blues' ... the competition at Birdland was music for musicians ... the Beboppers were playing for themselves, for 'horse' and for listening not dancing ...
Ray Charles was merging blues, jazz and Gospel into the excitement of 'Soul' ...
Saxophonist Louis Jordan leaves Chick Webb's sax section to form his Tympany Five. This might well mark the beginnings of what we know as Rock and Roll. 'Somebody Done Hoodooed the Hoodoo Man' and 'Bounce The Ball (Do Da Ditle Um Day)'
Jump bands begin to form. These are small, Swing oriented bands featuring off colour lyrics and commercial arrangements. Louis Jordan has the most famous Jump band. These bands will evolve into Rock and Roll bands, possibly in response to the later Bop revolution.
Small swing bands innovate
1936 Basie's 1936 record 'Lady be Good' featured a very cool, behind the beat, sax by Lester Young in an era of very hot solos. Lester's sweet and light sound
Basie's small band the K.C. Six records such songs as 'Dicky's Dream' and 'One O'Clock Jump'
Lester considers his solo on 'Shoe Shine Boy' his finest.
Jay McShann arrives in KC 
Billie Holiday Did I Remember?, No Regrets and Billies Blues.
Goody Goody- Benny Goodman
The Music Goes Round & Round- Tommy Dorsey
Django Reinhardt and the Hot Quintet make a recording of I Can't Give You Anything but Love.
Big Joe Turner ( - )
During the 1930s, Big Joe continued his dual role as a singing bartender at the 'Sunset Club', where Pete Johnson's band was featured.
In an interview, John Williams, former saxophonist for Andy Kirk, recalled how Joe would be 'chasin' and pourin', and he'd get high about 3 o'clock in the morning and start singing the blues. The Sunset had an outdoor PA system, but Big Joe didn't need any amplification when he stepped outside to call 'his children home' in his half-shouted blues style.
In 1936, with the help of John Hammond, Big Joe and Pete Johnson moved to New York, where their reception was less than enthusiastic. They came back to Kansas City briefly before returning to New York to participate in the Spirituals to Swing concert produced by Hammond. They recorded two selections--"Goin' Away Blues" and "Roll 'Em Pete" -- for the Vocalion label on December 24, 1936.
Beginning in 1939, Joe and Pete played an extended engagement at Cafe Society in New York. On November 11, 1940, Joe Turner and His Fly Cats (featuring Pete Johnson) recorded 'Piney Brown Blues' in tribute to the manager of the Sunset Club. Produced by Dave E. Dexter, Jr., for the Decca label, "Piney Brown Blues" was included in the first album of Kansas City jazz. 'Piney' was issued as a single and became a hit, selling 400,000 copies in 1941.
Big Joe added rock to the roll and became one of the fathers of rock'n'roll when he recorded 'Shake Rattle and Roll' for the Atlantic label in 1955.
Andy Kirk and His Twelve Clouds of Joy 'Until the Real Thing Comes Along'
'Jump Blues' genre emerged after WW 2. Popular OKOM performers in the genre were Louis Jordan and Louis Prima.
They were a precursor to Rock & Roll and us old farts remember well the power of jump blues, the DANCE MUSIC OF THE LATE 1940s THROUGH THE 50s. Dixieland was art music, played now for listening and so the kids danced to Jump Blues.
Who could forget the power and feeling of "Big Joe" Turner, Louis Jordan, Wynonie Harris, Roy Brown, T-Bone Walker, Louis Prima and B.B. King. It was a happening' thang. JUMP had it all - it was (and is) able to blend many different musical styles, colours & textures. It is a canvas upon which one is able to paint clear and pure, colour with tone. Many, were the times that the great artists from the orchestras of Count Basie and Duke Ellington would sit in on these small combo settings during recording sessions. Surely this was due to their love for the simplicity, purity and clarity of the Jump sound. One artist that was a part of that era is tenor sax player "Big Jay" McNeely.
It derived in part, from the Kansas City Sound of the late 30s, early 40s. Then, of course, in the 50s, ELVIS picked up on Jump Blues. It is what he sings on his first recordings. And Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys made it a country thang.
Louis Jordan was, like Louis Prima, a jazz musician who left trad jazz and/or swing for r & b and the world of entertainment. His first million seller was 'Is You Is Or Is You Ain't My Baby' about 1944, or 45. Second one right after WW 2 was 'Caldonia, What Makes Your Big Head So Hard?. Then came his biggest seller, 'Choo Choo Ch Boogie'. My favourite is: 'I'm Gonna Move To The Outskirts of Town'. IMO this blues is a classic. More below.
In the Forties, bandleader Louis Jordan pioneered a wild - and wildly popular - amalgam of jazz and blues with salty, jive-talking humour. The music played by singer/saxophonist Jordan and his Tympany Five got called "jump blues" or 'jumpin' jive', and it served as a precursor to the rhythm & blues and rock and roll of the Fifties. Jordan was born into a musical family - his father was the leader of the Arkansas-based Rabbit Foot Minstrels - and he majored in music at Arkansas Baptist College. After serving stints as an alto saxophonist with jazz bands led by Clarence Williams, Chick Webb and others, Jordan broke off in 1938 to form his own band, whose specialty was small-combo jump blues delivered with madcap wit to a danceable beat."
Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five launched 54 singles into the r & b charts in the Forties, including 18 songs that went to #1. During the period 1943-1950, Jordan held down the top slot for a total of 113 weeks - more than 25% of the time! For good reason he was dubbed 'King of the Juke Boxes'. Jordan's best-loved songs include 'Choo Choo Ch'Boogie' (#1, 18 weeks), 'Ain't Nobody Here But Us Chickens' (#1, 17 weeks) and 'Saturday Night Fish Fry' (#1, 12 weeks). His songs' appeal stemmed from their lively evocation of good times and the swinging sounds of Jordan's band, from hot jazz to shuffling boogie blues. Jordan not only supplied a good deal of the slang of early rock and roll but also directly influenced the freewheeling spirit of its progenitors, including Bill Haley and Chuck Berry. The latter paid tribute to Jordan with this simple declaration: 'I identify myself with Louis Jordan more than any other artist.'
All of us kids, musicians and hipsters back in the late 40s, early 50s loved this music, the way it was presented and the sexy dancing that went with it. At the end of WW 2, how could one not like it? Wine, women & song were back again after some hard times in the depression, and then the World War. 
Prima and Jordan were no fools. They swung like crazy and produced some really great dance music and entertained their audiences. No wonder the kids left Dixieland for R&B and then Rock 'n' Roll.
Yes, the 'jump' shuffle beat patented by Jordan was a great lift and a great gift. What R&B added via Earl Palmer and others was a heavy backbeat to intensify the pulse. Too bad it became an automatic pile-driving effect, like someone shooting a pistol on 2 & 4.
I felt that Prima's shuffles had more of a manic energy whereas Jordan's was relaxed and well suited to the hip humour and bluesy feeling he generated. Two of my favourites were the classic 'Let the Good Times Roll', plus a calypso number called 'Run, Joe'" and the pre-rap rap 'Beware', with advice to guys about how to psych out feminist wiles.
Re 'Caldonia', one of the great stunts in jazz was Woody Herman's record of it, after Jordan's hit but not a 'cover' of it. It's a superfast tempo with Woody singing in his own humorous way while the band cooks like mad behind Don Lamond's totally hot drums. Not to missed, and once heard, not to be forgotten.
'Jump Blues', a Chicago outfit in the mid-1930's - Harlem Hamfats - were playing, and some say originated, jump blues. There was also a long tradition of small Chicago piano, guitar, drum sessions by Big Bill Broonzy, Little Brother Montgomery, Big Maceo and Washboard Sam that performed some up-tempo blues as part of their repertoire. Memphis Minnie and the jug bands from the Memphis area certainly were precursors of jump blues as well. Then there's Sammy Price from Texas, Slim Gaillard w Slam Stewart, the Spirits of Rhythm and, yes Wingy Manone in the late 1930's.
Cab Calloway was mining the 'jive' vein of swing throughout the thirties and gave us such jump/rock precursors as 'Straighten Up And Fly Right' and 'Jumpin' Jive'. Not a small group setting, for sure, but certainly spiritually related to all that came later.
People who remember Nat Cole primarily for silky smooth love ballads may be surprised to learn that he came to the world first as a highly influential pianist and that many of his earliest recordings were distinctly in the jump vein. Check out his work with Eddie Cole (his brother) and his Solid Senders and with the early King Cole trio. These were the direct inspiration for Johnny Moore's Three Blazers, Charles Brown, and eventually Ray Charles, whose recordings showed a heavy Cole influence before he tumbled on the soul approach that made him a legend.
Hit That Jive, Jack!


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