Dancing music in the C20: jump blues (1938-45)


In Billboard history, who is the black artist that has scored the highest number of weeks at #1? Michael Jackson? Prince? Whitney Houston?

Louis Jordan, mate. Though he may be less well known than Stevie Wonder (his nearest challenger for the most number of weeks at #1), Jordan, in his day, was second only to Duke Ellington and Count Basie in sheer popularity.

And as well as being a peerlessly a charismatic bandleader, Jordan was also a musical innovator. His two-part 1950 hit, Saturday Night Fish Fry, is regarded by some as the first rock ‘n’ roll record.

But before he invented rock ‘n’ roll, Louis Jordan was the driving force behind a music known as ‘jump blues’.

Spotify playlist: early jump blues (1938-45)

Like western swing, which we looked at in the last Dancing music in the C20, jump blues was a derivative of swing. Unlike western swing, it was predominantly black, unashamedly modern, and fizzing with energy.


Jump blues, and Louis Jordan’s jump blues in particular, was exciting, sexual, funny. It retained the scale and instrumentation of the big band but injected it with adrenaline.

It was also personality-driven music, both Jordan and Harry James – the white bandleader who recorded the first jump blues single One O’Clock Jump/It’s The Dreamer in Me in 1938 -├é┬ácarved out careers as motion picture actors alongside their flamboyant stage work.

Jump blues reconciled the seemingly opposing dance musics of big band jazz (opulent, excessive, meticulous) with boogie woogie (stark, minimal, spontaneous)

Louis Jordan & His Tympany Five – At The Swing Cats’ Ball

Louis Jordan & His Tympany Five – Caldonia

Jump was known for being even more lascivious than its more popularised grandchild, rock ‘n roll – which cleaned up the lyrics while dirtying up the music. Apparently, Jordan’s Show Me How You The Milk Cow isn’t even about a cow!

Ella Mae has a great big fat cow
A good looking cow I would say
What I want to ask of her now
Is a favor if I may

Show me how, show me how
Show me how, you milk the cow
Oh bella mia, oh bella mia

Tell me please, what you squeeze when the milk goes woosh woosh woosh
Oh bella mia, show me how you milk the cow

I don’t know what’s the matter, I try and try and try
But every time I go woosh, the milk gets in my eye