On July 17, 1939 jazz composers, Cabell “Cab” Calloway, Frank Froeba, and Jack Palmer collaborated to record “Jumpin Jive” with Vocalion Records. This upbeat piece featured Calloway’s scat singing accompanied by the rhythmic creativity of his famous orchestra, which included trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie and Adolphus “Doc” Cheatham, saxophonists Ben Webster and Leon “Chu” Berry, guitarist Danny Barker, and bassist Milt Hinton.
The late 1930s marked the second half of the swing era and the close of the Great Depression, which, of course, impacted the social climate of America. People needed an escape from the Depression’s misery and something to counter the forces that contributed to the American economy’s decline. With the restoration of the American economy together with the influence of radio, movie, and recordings, swing music emerged at an opportune moment to dominate mass media. In the words of music scholar John F. Szwed, “Swing was firmly established as the pop music of America…There was a form of music for everyone”.
One cannot mention “Jumpin Jive” without discussing its role in the 1943 musical film, Stormy Weather, one of the greatest showcases of African American talent in its time. In the film, Cab Calloway performs “Jumpin Jive” with the Nicholas brothers, arguably the most skilled tap dancers that have ever lived. This scene demonstrates expressive culture as a social process by showing how two different types of genres use their similar histories to participate in mass culture while simultaneously resisting hegemony. Before I continue, it is important for me to explain the context of tap dancing and its relationship to jazz music.
Like jazz, tap arose largely from African traditions. During slavery, African Americans would use their feet to simulate percussive sounds just as many of their ancestors did in Africa. Slave holders perceived this type of activity inferior, forcing many slaves to perform perform these practices in private spaces. But eventually African American dance would work its way into the mainstream of American culture. The Nicholas brothers were brilliant because they pioneered this effort to refine this art and incorporate it into the jazz tradition. Their innovative rhythmic and performance styles influenced swing musicians and the music returned the favor.
These two genres communicated in direct conversation with one another, constantly pushing the other to evolve in complexity. The Nicholas brothers’ tap innovations influenced everyone from Fred Astaire to Shirley Temple to Michael Jackson.