An Annotated History of Jive
By Bill Milkowski
Billboard Books, 288 pages (paper), $18.95
reviewed by Don Rose
In those happy swing-filled days when jazz was America's popular music, when there were few lines drawn in the musical sand (other than those designed to keep the longhairs at bay), there was a language and a musical idiom shared by the hep (who would soon become hip).
We speak here of jive talk, the ancillary lingo to swing and jump music; a slang, an argot, a patois. But hey—as they say these days—jive was also a subset of swing music and jazz itself.
Cats like Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, Cab Calloway and later Louis Jordan and Slim Gaillard worked the lingo into some of the lighter, more playful lyrics of the music they played. The music and the slanguage seemed to meld hand in hand and we came up with a musical as well as a linguistic idiom.
The word "jive" was first uttered by Louis Armstrong himself, we learn here in Bill Milkowski's entertaining but misnamed "annotated history." As he points out, the word was first meant to mean stuff the in-group should know (they would be "hep to the jive"), but morphed through the years into several different and ultimately contradictory meanings: once it meant marijuana, these days it's usually a term of derision (as in "that jive-ass motherf—"). The term thus becomes emblematic of the street slang of African Americans, which itself branches into musician slang—a closely overlapping parallel.
It isn't unusual, of course, for meanings to change through the years. Somehow, "hep" morphed into "hip." The term "up tight" once meant everything's cool rather than tense or anxious as we use it today. Cool, somehow kept its meaning through the years. It was a musician's in-group term of approval back in the late '40s when I first learned it, and it still means "great" today, but everybody says it now, even my grandchildren, you dig?
Well, this book at first seems to be devoted to the linguistic issues. There's a super-hip sounding foreword by Tim Hauser of Manhattan Transfer, then a short preface and introductory chapter by the author dealing primarily with the language. He shows the relationship of black talk and jive talk and carries us through the years up to the retro swing and jump stuff of today.
He cites all manner of reference books, such as those by Dan Burley and Ben Sidran, and gives some absolutely preposterous examples of early jive talk. (Personally I'm convinced that nobody ever really called a clarinet a "licorice stick" except in the movies.) He misses a trick here and there, even in this brief discussion. For example, he notes that "ofay" is/was Black slang for a white person, but fails to point out the origin of the term, which is pig-Latin for "foe."
But after a mere 18 pages, "Swing It" suddenly shifts gears and becomes little more than a long series of biographical sketches of individual musicians and groups from Satchmo to Setzer, who somehow manage to meet his definition of jivesters.
Indeed, he casts a wide net to incorporate seventy-some individuals and groups through the years, categorized in succeeding chapters as godfathers, golden agers, jumpsters, beboppers, neworleanians, whites, women and retros. Comingled are some of the most serious jazzers in history, acknowledged comedians and miscellaneous blues and pop acts (the Andrews Sisters fall into the last category).
Charlie Parker makes the list because he appeared on a part-novelty Tiny Grimes session and another with Slim Gaillard, introduced by the Slimster as "Charlie Yardbird-orooney." Lester Young is a more logical candidate, considering the many contributions he made to the argot: "gray" for white people, "eyes" for approval or disapproval, as in "big eyes" or "no eyes" being among his more lasting contributions. Still, it's hard to imagine them encased between the same covers as Candye Kane or the Squirrel Nut Zippers, but what the hell, inclusivity is the in thing these days.
Though some of the threads in the fabric he weaves may be a bit loose, it's still useful to have some background information and biographical sketches of a lot of artists who may not make it into the major jazz histories-folk such as Leo "Scat" Watson, Professor Longhair, Harry "The Hipster" Gibson, Ella Mae Morse and, yes, perhaps even the Jet Set Six. But, for example, why is Dave Frishberg missing?
It is annoying, however, to stumble on all manner of errors running throughout the book, indicating hasty writing and sloppy editing. There are numerous discographical mistakes—placing Parker, for example, on a couple of cuts with Gillespie where he never appeared—plus misspellings of even common brand names and getting song titles wrong.
None of these miscues undermine the thesis or inflict damage on the artists, but a savvy writer such as Milkowski, who contributed to the "Oxford Companion to Jazz" and wrote a biography of bassist Jaco Pastorius, ought to take just a bit more care—to say nothing of his publishers, who don't seem to have any proofreaders.
This is, nonetheless, an often entertaining look at a socio-musical subculture—and that's no jive.