1938: Slim and Slam
This week I'm thinking about the irrepressible jive song "Flat Fleet Floogee" by Slim Gaillard and Slam Stewart, recorded and released in early 1938.
If you've followed any of the blogs I've written under the title Exist Yesterday for the past decade, you might have noticed that the tagline for each of them has been a nonsense phrase lifted from this song: "Floy joy floy joy floy joy." (Wikipedia and the printed sheet music say the phrase is "floy doy," but I know what I've heard in the record's grooves for two decades.) Taken literally, the phrase means "venereal disease joy" — floy-floy was hepcat slang for gonorrhea in the 30s — but my appropriation of it to mean "whatever nonsense brings me joy" is, I think, entirely consonant with the spirit of the original recording.
Guitarist, pianist, and vibraphonist Bullee Gaillard, nicknamed Slim due to his lanky physique, had lived a colorful life before washing up in Detroit as an essentially orphaned adolescent: his stories about being abandoned on the island of Crete at the age of twelve and learning Greek, Arabic, and Armenian while working his way back to the Western Hemisphere may have been highly embroidered, but he certainly included a wide linguistic repertoire in his recordings, and dubbed his fanciful jive language, a mixture of underworld slang, hybridized immigrant English, and pure scat-syllable nonsense, "Vout-o-Reenee."
His 1937 partnership with conservatory-trained double bassist Leroy "Slam" Stewart produced an electric combination of jazz virtuosity and loopy energy: Stewart's habit of humming along to his bowed bass and Gaillard's eclectic hepcat vocabulary meant that they were received as a novelty act despite their proficient musicianship and intricate rhythms. Technically their music fits into the swing genre, and they were part of a larger trend of eccentric vocal performers within swing (the tradition would be formalized as "vocalese" in the 1950s) which included big-band showmen like Cab Calloway, small combos like the Spirits of Rhythm, vocal groups like the Mills Brothers (whose delirious a capella renditions of jazz standards like "Tiger Rag" were a pipe bomb thrown into the genteel supper-club jazz of the early 30s), and even white hipsters like Harry Gibson who used that unpredictable jive energy to foreshadow rock & roll.
"Flat Fleet Floogee" (later standardized as "Flat Foot Floogie" by the publisher) became an unexpected hit in the late 30s, and was quickly covered by more established acts like Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, and Count Basie; Slim and Slam were popular enough to appear in the screwball opus Hellzapoppin in 1941; and Slim's "vout" coinages became absorbed into the wider hepcat slang vocabulary, showing up regularly in caricatures of Those Absurd Youth well into the 1950s. The success of the song, and of Slim Gaillard's work generally, gave rise to endless jokes, and sometimes serious commentary, about jazz music being meaningless noise (cf. Jack Benny's attitude toward Phil Harris's orchestra into the television era), a broad cultural attitude about youth music which would only be transferred over to rock & roll starting in 1956, as the specifics of what the kids were into changed but the attitude of their elders toward it did not.
Slim and Slam went their separate ways in the early 40s; Gaillard continued to plow his brilliant jive furrow for decades, becoming something of a nostalgia act after the 1940s, while Stewart went in more highbrow directions, playing on key bebop recordings and working as a session man for major bandleaders before going into academia and training the next generation of thoughtful jazz musicians.
But their slender discography, anchored by this swinging masterpiece of rhythm and palaver, remains a minor miracle in the history of popular music, a gleeful noise that doesn't care what the highbrows or white gatekeepers think of it, and just slinks along its merry way regardless. When Gaillard and Stewart unite their voices in that "dah-dah-dah-dan-da-dan-ah" emulation of a brass fanfare, it's an elegant insouciance, a burlesque of big band music that nevertheless participates in big-band aesthetics, proving as generations of Black musicians would do under different material circumstances that they could make do with what they had and beat the establishment at its own game; and even change the rules of the game, so that for a few short years everyone else was playing catch-up to them.