Album Assignments: Jumpin’ Jive

When my Dad was my age, jazz was not respectable. It played in whorehouses not Carnegie Hall. These classics of jump, jive, and swing are all from the 1940’s. “Jumpin’ Jive,” “We The Cats,” and “San Francisco Fan” from Cab Caolloway; “Symphony Sid,” a Lester Young tune with words by King Pleasure; “Tuxedo Junction,” our tribute to Glenn Miller; and the rest, all performed at one time or other by our main inspiration, Louis Jordan, the king of juke boxes, who influenced so many but is acknowledged by so few. Like us he didn’t aim at purists, or even jazz fans — just anyone who wanted to listen and enjoy, reap this righteous riff. –JJ

That’s Joe Jackson’s full “statement of purpose” from the liner notes of his 1981 album Jumpin’ Jive. Now check out the statement from his previous album, Beat Crazy:

This album represents a desperate attempt to make some sense of Rock and Roll. Deep in our hearts, we knew it was doomed to failure. The question remains: Why did we try?

By 1981, Joe Jackson had released three successful (though decreasingly so) albums of spiky, melodic pop with the Joe Jackson Band, music which was labeled “New Wave” and “Angry Young Man”. He’d had an international hit with “Is She Really Going Out With Him?”, and a UK Top 5 hit with “It’s Different For Girls.” So a full album of 1940s swing covers was quite the unexpected move, but looking at these quotes, the choice starts to make a little more sense.

Beat Crazy was the third Joe Jackson Band album, and for all its freneticism, it does have an exhausted quality about it, a sense that the tank is running dry. According to Joe’s longtime bassist Graham Maby, drummer Dave Houghton left the band after that album, giving Jackson the opportunity to choose a new way forward for the Joe Jackson Band.

Album cover for Jumpin' Jive

He decided instead to dissolve that band entirely, dismissing guitarist Gary Sanford and instead hiring three horn players, a piano player (!), and drummer Larry Tolfree. Maby was the only one who stayed. This dissolution became Jackson’s first opportunity to reinvigorate his music by going in a new direction, a trend that would continue throughout his career with departures like salsa music, a symphony, a film score, a concept album, and various points in between. As I’ve written before, Jackson hates to be pigeonholed, and refuses to sit still — audiences had already seen some variety from the jazz, ska, and punk influences of his first three albums, but Jumpin’ Jive threw down a much bigger gauntlet.

Which is not to say that the album comes off like a stiff-necked exercise. On the contrary, it’s incredibly fun! Jackson sounds like he’s having the time of his life in his vocals, and he jumps all the way in on weird character work (like the beginning of “What’s The Use Of Getting Sober (When You’re Gonna Get Drunk Again)” and the entirety of “You Run Your Mouth and I’ll Run My Business”) and period slang. Every song is alive with exhilaration, the sound of a loving tribute that comes close to a full resurrection.

In fact, some have argued that this album kicked off the swing revival that hit its peak around 1998, when suddenly bands like Squirrel Nut Zippers, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, and the Brian Setzer Orchestra were having hits with songs that came from (or might as well have come from) the 1940s. I don’t see much of a through line there, though. I wouldn’t even say that Jumpin’ Jive predicted the trend, because it’s pretty clear that Jackson doesn’t give a damn about trends. But I will say that this album makes those songs sound better, crisper, and more fun than any of those late 90’s bands ever managed to do. Which is no slam on those bands, just a recognition of Jumpin’ Jive‘s musical achievement.

The key here is that the musicianship on this album is just impeccable. Check out Nick Weldon’s smooth piano intro on “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby”. (So strange to me that Jackson stayed off the keys, limiting himself to “voice and vibes”, but I can’t argue with the results.) Check out Tolfree’s crrrrazy drum breaks in “How Long Must I Wait For You”. Check out the perfectly locked-in and interplaying horns at the beginning of “You’re My Meat”. (Also, everywhere else.)

Most of all, check out the staggering skill of Mr. Graham Maby. Jackson has used Maby at every possible opportunity throughout his career, the only player to whom he’s stayed so faithful, and this album makes the reasons for that loyalty crystal clear. Pretty much every song contains jaw-dropping examples of Maby’s bass virtuosity. In “You’re My Meat” he’s bouncing all over the scales. In “San Francsico Fan” he’s mournfully underlining the melodrama of Fannie’s tragic tale, marching in her funeral parade. The beginning of “We The Cats (Shall Hep Ya)” finds him nimbly soloing before settling into a vivacious walking groove.

It’s pretty impossible for me to pick a favorite Maby moment on this album, but I would put in a word for the iconic beginning of “Tuxedo Junction”, which perfectly sets the stage for the song. He revisits the theme throughout the song, adding flourishes and filigree as the spirit moves him, and makes the entire thing sound so great. Maby had never played this style of music before Jackson invited him to this album, and he rises to the occasion with such incredible aplomb that Jackson pretty much never lets him go from that point forward. I wouldn’t either.

One more note — Jackson gives a shout-out to vintage vocalist King Pleasure in the liner notes I quoted above, but he’d circle back in a much more substantial way much later. “King Pleasure Time”, from his excellent 2008 album Rain, turns the name into the personification of pleasure itself, who “rules the world, but not everybody knows it.” The song extols the idea of pure pleasure as the driving force in life, and if that’s true, Jumpin’ Jive is a pretty good path to get you there.

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