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Exist Yesterday.

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1943: Louis Jordan

 

This week I'm thinking about Louis Jordan's 1943 recording of "Is You Is or Is You Ain't My Baby."

Issued in 1944 as the B side to "G.I. Jive" on Decca 8659, and promoted on the label for Jordan's appearance in the cheapie Universal morale-booster Follow the Boys, "Is You Is Or Is You Ain't (Ma' Baby)," as it's written on the original label, is not immediately obvious as one of the all-time greatest records of the twentieth century.

It is not in any sense new, even for 1943: a lightly swinging shuffle rhythm, a dialect phrase that owes more to blackface hokum (the formulation "is you is or is you ain't" was first attested in a story by Octavus Roy Cohen, a southern white writer of theoretically comic Negro fiction whose work was Amos 'n' Andy avant la lettre) than to genuine AAVE of any period, and a unison-sung chorus with an effect more like a drinking song than an expression of genuine sentiment, all mean that it was originally taken as, and for all I know was originally meant as, a bit of fooling for the white folks, Black performers donning spiritual if not actual burnt cork and enacting a caricature of blackness which could be embraced under the umbrella term of Coonery.

And yet. The gentle, textured opening winds, layered on top of each other in a way that Duke Ellington had pioneered more than a decade earlier and which I can't help reading as anything but emotionally vulnerable; the rolling piano figure which punctuates the chorus, throwing a slice of staggering funk into grinning all-fellows-here misogyny in a way that a later generation of musicians would use a breakbeat; and finally Jordan's own sensitive and even soulful performance, very different from the hyped-up jive entertainer he plays on the more uptempo a-side, not to mention the way he sings against the muted trumpet, which almost functions as a duet partner. The ultimate effect, given the minor key in which the song resolves, is of genuine emotional longing rather than of hokum.

For comparison, see a performance which may well have informed Jordan's own. Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, acknowledged within his lifetime as the supreme master of African-American popular dance, starred in a 1932 "race" movie called Harlem Is Heaven. In one sequence, he sings a comic duet with pianist Putney Dandridge called "Is You Is or Is You Ain't." The sentiments echo those of Jordan's song, and there may even have been some borrowing of melodic phrases, but Robinson's performance to the camera is pure minstrelsy, all rolling eyes and exaggerated lip movements, while Dandridge takes the female role with a caricatured falsetto. Which isn't a condemnation of Robinson's work or worth: minstrelsy was and remained a necessary condition of Black performance, especially in mass media, for many years, and he's still a magnetic performer at the peak of his craft. The possibility that had been opened for Louis Jordan's success was predicated on the achievements of earlier generations, including Robinson's, just as the ground that Jordan's work laid made the achievements of a later generation possible — Ray Charles, Chuck Berry, and James Brown all began as Louis Jordan imitators.

Indeed, Jordan would re-record "Is You Is or Is You Ain't" on a 1956 LP, with an updated arrangement (by a young Quincy Jones) for the era of rock n' roll and cool jazz, but he already sounds old-fashioned and hammy despite — or because of — the plush production. He would be dropped from his label soon after, and recorded only sporadically until his death in 1975. Like many African-American musicians caught in the drift between the Jazz Age and the Rock Era, he got a raw deal: neither jazz enough for the Verve crowd nor blues enough for the folk-revival circuit, his genial, highly professional jump blues helped to create rock and roll, but he remained eternally hep in the age of hip, and the young Baby Boomers driving the rock market couldn't forgive him for that.

Black as well as white: for as African-American entertainers (and especially musicians) in the 1960s became more militant in their refusal of the second-class citizenship which was the best their country would offer them, the less acceptable the necessary compromises and ingratiations of earlier generations appeared. In the words of one scholar, "Louis Jordan ... embodied the codification of the comedic on the bodies of African American men in mainstream consumer markets" during and in the aftermath of World War II; and the fact that multiple generations of U.S. consumers only know "Is You Is or Is You Ain't" from a racist 1946 Tom and Jerry short rather than as a cornerstone of African-American pop-music history makes its own case for the role to which Louis Jordan and the broader jump blues generation have been relegated by the wider culture.

But it is a cornerstone of African-American pop-music history: a sensitive midtempo quasi-ballad from a performer best known for raucous party music, a reclamation of minstrel history and white projection into something emotionally authentic enough for a self-respecting adult to live with, a charming illustration of the strategies that superior musicians — especially pianist Arnold Thomas, trumpeter Courtney Williams, and oh yes alto saxophonist Louis Jordan — used to maintain jazz fluency within circumscribed pop forms. It's meant to be funny, yes, but it's also meant to be real. One of the lessons of Black cultural production from slavery to the present, regardless of form or era, is always, always, that it can be both.