Joe Jackson’s Jumpin’ Jive was seen as a sideways career move into 1940s swing jazz & jump blues

By on April 16, 2019

A little over two hours into this full episode of “Night Flight” from August 17, 1984 — now streaming on Night Flight Plus — we’re treated to a live concert performance by Joe Jackson’s Jumpin’ Jive, his 1981 sideways career move into 1940s swing jazz and jump blues, covering tunes originally made famous by Louis Jordan, Cab Calloway, and Louis Armstrong, among others.

Here, Jackson’s band covers Calloway’s operatically tragic melodrama “San Francisco Fan” and Jackson performs a vocal version of Benny Goodman’s 1936 hit “Stomping At The Savoy.”

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Two events were at the heart of Jackson’s decision to veer away from the snarling new wave pop he’d been recording during the late ’70s.

According to Jackson, writing on his website: “Around 1981, I was quite sick for a while and I swear my recovery was due partly to listening to old Louis Jordan records. I never planned to do a jump-blues/swing project; it snowballed from ‘Let’s get a few guys together and do a few pub gigs for a laugh’ to an EP and then to an album and a tour. All in all a little musical vacation, from which I returned refreshed.”

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The second event which prompted this change was his longtime drummer, Dave Houghton, leaving his band.

Houghton’s departure provided Jackson with the opportunity to make changes in his career and pursue music that he truly loved.

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Jackson hired an old drummer friend and big band fanatic, Larry Tolfree, and three horn players — Dave Bitelli (tenor sax, clarinet), Raul Olivera (trumpet) and Pete Thomas (alto sax).

After adding a second keyboardist, pianist Nick Weldon, Jackson moved over to vibraphone. He kept his band’s longtime bassist, Graham Maby.

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By May of that year, they were recording a full album of covers, including Calloway’s “Jumpin’ Jive,” which he took as an eponym for his new band.

The album was released in June 1981, and was, somewhat surprisingly, charted at #14 in the UK and at #42 on the Billboard 200 album chart that summer.

The album’s only single, “Jumpin’ Jive,” was also a modest UK hit.

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Jackson’s interest in jump blues may, in fact, have anticipated the retro-swing revival of the mid-90s by more than a decade.

A little indie film, shot in L.A., Swingers, helped usher in a new craze for dressing up in your granddad’s 1940s suits and going out to nightclubs like the Derby to swing dance to music popularized by alternative rock acts like Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Cherry Poppin’ Daddys, Squirrel Nut Zippers and the Brian Setzer Orchestra, among others.

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By the mid-’90s, however, Joe Jackson had already moved on to playing and recording other types of music.

Read more about Joe Jackson below.

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David Ian “Joe” Jackson was born on August 11, 1954, in Burton-upon-Trent, Staffordshire, England, but he grew up in the Paulsgrove area of Portsmouth, Hampshire, a port city and naval base on England’s southern coast.

For most of his early working-class life, the skinny, asthmatic Jackson — who loved books and originally wanted to be a writer — was known as David.

His nickname “Joe” came later and stuck for life when someone decided he looked like the Peanut’s cartoon’s Snoopy character in his “Joe Piano” persona, playing cool jazz.

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In his 1999 autobiography, A Cure For Gravity: A Musical Pilgrimage, Jackson writes that music saved him from becoming “one of those sad bastards you see milling around outside the pub at closing time, looking for a fight.”

His memoir details how he first took up the violin, eventually switching to piano, and by age sixteen, was playing his first paying gig for drunk, bottle-tossing sailors in a pub next door to a glue factory, just outside of Portsmouth.

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Jackson then won a scholarship to study Musical Composition, Piano and Percussion and spent the next three years at London’s Royal Academy of Music.

He was soon branching out into jazz, playing with the National Youth Jazz Orchestra, and playing pop music covers with his first band, a proto-punk combo called Edward Bear, and another group called The Misty Set.

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Edward Bear eventually became Arms and Legs, putting out two singles on the MAM label before splitting in 1976.

Jackson then played piano on the cabaret circuit — he was also musical director for the Portsmouth Playboy Club and played with the Koffee N’ Kreme duo — while trying to earn enough money to record a demo.

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Jackson’s A Cure For Gravity book traces his early musical career up to his twenty-fourth birthday, in August ’78, the same week he was in the studio re-recording his demo tracks for his A&M Records debut album, Look Sharp, released in January 1979.

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Jackson had quite a lot of success with several singles, starting with “Is She Really Going Out With Him?,” originally released in ’78 and then re-issued in the summer of ’79, charting at #13 UK/#21 U.S./#9 Canada.

Jackson’s sophomore effort I’m the Man, featured his biggest charting UK single, “It’s Different for Girls,” which topped out at #5 UK/#4 Ireland.

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Jackson then collaborated with Lincoln Thompson in a reggae crossover EP, which featured a cover of Jimmy Cliff’s classic, “The Harder They Come.”

1980’s Beat Crazy followed that, showing his audience that Jackson — in addition to ska/reggae — was also interested power pop and punk.

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Over his career, Jackson has also composed classical music among his nineteen studio albums and received five Grammy nominations.

Watch Joe Jackson’s Jumpin’ Jive in this full episode of “Night Flight” from August 17, 1984, now streaming on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.