In the mood

Author (and drummer) Chris Welch enthuses about the rollicking dance music of the Forties
Click to follow
Big Band Swing, the most dominant force in Forties popular music, had actually evolved during the previous decade. Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson and Count Basie were among the pioneers of a musical style later popularised by Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller. America's millions wanted to dance, and scores of excellent bands, both black and white, criss-crossed the nation playing riff-laden, exciting music at one-night stands that filled hotels and ballrooms.

The Glenn Miller Band provided many of the hits of the early Forties, such as "In The Mood", "Tuxedo Junction" and "Sun Valley Jump", tunes still linked in the public's mind to wartime images of rationing, GIs and the Blitz. However, the black orchestras, led by Count Basie, Cab ("Minnie The Moocher") Calloway, and Jay McShann - with a young Charlie Parker on alto - provided the real inspiration for the rootsier aspects of Swing.

Many of the best musicians had been drafted into the forces, and petrol rationing made touring expensive, so big dance bands were gradually superseded by smaller groups such as Al Cooper's Savoy Sultans and Louis Jordan's Tympani Five playing fast-paced jump, jive and R&B. While instrumental jazz evolved into Bebop and became more cerebral, the craze for boogie- woogie and jump-jive proved irresistible to dancers escaping from wartime depression. These blues singers and electric guitarists emerging from the big cities would later fuel the rock'n'roll explosion of the Fifties and Sixties.

Jump music and jive dancing became the Forties equivalent of today's rave scene. It, too, was considered shocking, and anxious dance hall managers put up warning signs - "No jitterbugging!" The records - the old shellac 78s - were three minutes of musical ecstasy blasting through primitive speakers. The word spread further through jukeboxes, movies and radio.

The Savoy Sultans, a nine-piece led by Al Cooper on alto sax, cut a succession of supercharged instrumentals such as "Jumpin' The Blues" and "Second Balcony Jump" which provided the right tempo and rhythm for the Lindy Hoppers (whose dance was named after transatlantic flyer Charles Lindbergh), stomping nightly at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem.

The undisputed kings of jump jive, however, were Louis Jordan's band, which sold a million copies of his most famous hit, "Choo Choo Ch'Boogie", in 1946, and thus became undisputed kings of jump jive. Jordan, an alto sax player and singer from Arkansas, had already recorded a string of classics, including "Is You Is Or Is You Ain't My Baby", and "Saturday Night Fish Fry". His shouting vocals and wailing sax solos over a pulsing shuffle beat became a trademark, and his records have since inspired generations of musicians and dancers.

The back-beat rhythm that typified the Jordan style was at the heart of many of the Forties' best-known hits, including Big Joe Turner's original performance of "Shake, Rattle & Roll", which later became a rock'n'roll anthem. It was also integral to the driving music of Lionel Hampton, who introduced honking saxophone battles, screeching trumpets, and such innovations as the electric bass guitar. Hamp, a legendary vibraphone player, drummer, pianist and singer, performed a frantic version of "Oh Lady Be Good" that tested the stamina of even the fittest jitterbugs.

Many of the big bands smartly adapted to the new trends. The Gene Krupa band with Roy Eldridge (trumpet and vocals) and Anita O'Day (vocals), performed their own hit versions of "Saturday Night Fish Fry", "Knock Me a Kiss", and "Let Me Off Uptown". Even the Bebop trumpeter, Dizzy Gillespie, would employ jive singer Joe Carroll to perform boisterous material such as "Swing Low Sweet... Cadillac", "Oo-Shoo-Be-Doo-Be" and "School Days".

Other notable singers included the pianist Nat "King" Cole, whose trio enjoyed early hits with "The Frim Fram Sauce", "Straighten Up And Fly Right", and "Hit That Jive Jack". There was singer and guitarist Slim Gaillard, who introduced a cool, hip humour with his best-known hits, "Cement Mixer" and "Flat Foot Floogie", and delighted in giving bizarre names to his various bands, such as Slim Gaillard & His Peruvians, or Slim Gaillard and His Musical Aggregation, Whenever He May Be. The delightfully named Bullmoose Jackson, a tenor saxophonist and singer from the Lucky Millinder Orchestra, also summed up the good-time Forties spirit with novelties such as "Big Fat Mamas Are Back In Style Again". Exuberant and raucous, these and other tunes, including the Wynonie Harris speciality, "Don't Roll Those Bloodshot Eyes At Me", are joyfully recreated today on Britain's thriving swing scene by bands such as Kit Packham's One Jump Ahead.

As the big bands gave way to the small groups, the way was cleared for the arrival of Elvis Presley in the Fifties. But it was a fragmented evolution that took its time to filter across the Atlantic.

It's interesting to note that London's Teddy Boys of the early Fifties were still jiving to the music of the Ted Heath Orchestra and fighting over the latest records by Stan Kenton. They wouldn't know how to shake, rattle and roll until the arrival of Bill Haley & The Comets.