house update + (much) exchange-inspired DJing thinking

Well, we are in our new house, and have been since the 2nd November. It was a bit of a push, and neither of us is all that keen to do any more painting, though we did manage to do the kitchen the weekend before last, which was necessary, as it stunk. It still stinks, and we want it OUT. But if the bathroom is leaking, that’ll be the next job on our list, and then we’ll have to wait til we save up lots more money for renovating. I’ve already been to Ikea to check up on kitchen and bathroom options and prices, and I can say, categorically, that Ikea sucks. It sucks because it’s horrible shopping there, and because they don’t deliver (they can organise an expensive delivery for you, though). But we are tough.
Otherwise, the flat is very nice to live in. The wide doors from the lounge room onto the verandah are very pleasant, and the long views out this door and the large windows in every room make the place seem much bigger. It’s also a positive delight to live in a community (because it really is a community – people are very friendly and involved in the grounds and facilities and general community of this complex) with so many large trees and, consequently, so many birds. Lorikeets, rosellas, mynah birds, cockatoos, curlews, magpies, pigeons, sparrows, etc. The rosellas are my favourite at the moment. There’s a pair considering moving into a hole in one of the big trees, despite the mynah’s bullying attempts to see them off. There are also lots of bats at night.
On other fronts:
We’ve just had the Sydney Swing Festival weekend, and that was quite busy. I was organising DJs for the weekend, and I was very happy with their professionalism and capable skills. It was a delight to work with them all. It was also very nice working with the organisers.
As a punter, SSF was much improved on last year, though my stupid foot is still limiting me; not nearly enough dancing as I would like. Though everyone else made up for that. I liked the Sunday night band quite a bit as well. If you have faceplant access, you can listen to them here.
It was also nice catching up with a number of DJs and listening to their music and talking DJing talk. It’s also very nice to see how exchanges inspire new DJs… (this DJ in particular was inspired and challenged by the good work she heard.) There were a number of interesting conversations about DJing in general, and about DJing skills in particular, which caught my attention. I’m of the opinion that a scene needs a DJing critical mass to maintain the interest and inspiration of both DJs and dancers, and that as new DJs develop they challenge the old sticks to keep their skills on-track and to think critically about their own work. A body of DJs also provides buddies for DJing nerdery talk.
The latter are things I find particularly useful. I really like the way new DJs not only make me move out of my comfort zone musically (making me move beyond my ‘safety songs’ and streeeetch), but also critique my own work and think critically about what I’m doing. Why did I play that song? Why did it work? Why didn’t it? I especially like it when other DJs come up with songs in their sets in combinations I’d never expect or think to use. Especially when they play musical styles I don’t usually use.
I think that having a few DJs in the scene keeps me working rather than just sitting back and being lazy. They remind me that I’m not actually the best DJ in the world, and that I actually have a lot to learn. I know. Really. I suppose this issue best points out the limitations of hierarchies within a cohort of DJs (and there certainly are hierarchies, even when you’re all buddies) and the benefits of humility.
Exchanges are particularly useful, because they’re the one time you know that every other DJ will also have that same collection of ‘safety songs’, and that just playing CJam Blues or Lavender Coffin won’t work. In fact, just sitting on those favourites will really highlight how lazy I’m being, when I have a big, fat collection of music sitting there unused.
I’m not arguing that we should neglect the favourites at big events; I think that the faves are very useful at these events, especially on the opening night, for newer DJs, or for adding a little squirt of familiarity if you’re playing a varied set. But I am arguing… or rather, I am suggesting, that in these situations, surrounded by DJs of sound skill and collection, I don’t feel I can just hack through the same 20 songs. I really feel inspired to take my DJing to a new level. Having the faves unavailable (whether because I’ve chosen not to play them, or because they’ve already been played) pushes me to play a wider range of music.
And exchange crowds – particularly ones like those who attend the upcoming MLX9 – are not only willing to dance to new music, they’re also looking for a wider range of music, in part because they’re ‘at an exchange!’ but also because they’re dancing with a range of new people, and they’re feeling all energised and willing to play and experiment and be stretched themselves.
So this past weekend, where the other DJs were all capable, competent DJs who had that body of faves as well as a range of new and interesting and not-played-very-often songs, really reminded me that I can do better. And that a lazy DJ is a dull DJ who isn’t learning anything new. And I like DJing because it challenges me. Challenges my knowledge of music and of my collection, but also my knowledge of rhythms and musical styles in combination, and my ability to judge the crowd. And I like the way DJing can fall flat; I like the element of risk, of possibly looking dumb in front of a crowd of people. It keeps me sharp. Ish.
This sort of relates to an issue that came up over the weekend, and comes up every now and then… or, rather, an issue I’ve seen on SwingdDJs once or twice in the past. Do DJs have a responsibility to ‘educate’ dancers? I kind of feel as though this one’s a straw man. An argument that exists mostly as an argument, and not as a real issue. The premise is that DJs owe it to the dancers to play music that the dancers don’t know. The other (more ideologically loaded premise) is of course that DJs know more about the music than the dancers (which isn’t necessarily the case) and that DJs have more importance and influence than dancers. It also implies DJs occupy a position of power and privilege which I’m not entirely comfortable with.
I find that experienced dancers are very likely to have a broad musical knowledge, and that dancers with good musical and dancing skills tend to have a very complex understanding of music. In many cases, the DJ is not as capable a dancer as the people they’re playing for, and so it’s likely they won’t understand the music in the way that these dancers do. And that’s a particularly provocative statement, I know. I’m not suggesting a ‘those who can’t dance, DJ’ scenario, but I am making the argument that DJs do not have a monopoly on musical knowledge. I am also increasingly of the opinion that you cannot DJ well if you’re not also dancing. And the more you dance, the more dancing you experience (partners, scenes, events, tempos, styles, etc), the better your DJing will be.
I do feel, very strongly, that we should avoid privileging the power and status of DJs. After all, they didn’t play the instruments or write the score, they’re just very good at buying it. And, hopefully, very good at listening to it and predicting how a crowd of dancers will respond to it. Not to mention having good observation skills. So I find the suggestion that DJs are in some way ‘educating’ dancers both patronising and arrogant. Problematic in the extreme. So I avoid it.
How, then, do I imagine my role in playing music? Particularly in terms of playing ‘familiar’ and ‘unfamiliar’ music for dancers? I think, first and foremost, my DJing is all about me. Me. Me. Me. I buy and collect and listen to music that I love. When I first started DJing I did set out to collect the standards and songs that the dancers would like, songs that I knew would be an ‘easy win’ with the dancers. I still do occasionally seek out songs that will suit a theme or an event’s style rather than my own personal preferences. But, ultimately, it’s a waste of my time and money and energy to buy music I don’t like. So I don’t. I buy music that I love. I seek out new artists who catch my interest and fuel my passion for dance and for music itself.
I tend to follow individual musicians between bands and cities and through time. So I might go on a Louis Armstrong bender. Or an early Chicago kick. And when I play this music I’m certainly not thinking ‘with this song I will educate the dancers about early Chicago hot jazz.’ I usually think ‘I fucking LOVE THIS SONG! I MUST PLAY IT THIS WEEK!!!!’ And then I do. And I hope people will like it. If they don’t, and I still think it rocks, I play it again at a different event or on a different night, in different combinations with other songs. Sometimes I look at people dancing to it and think ‘these guys are struggling, but more experienced dancers would be ok.’ Or I think ‘hmm, this is great for newer dancers, but it’s not quite structurally challenging for experienced dancers.’ And sometimes hearing it on a loud system and watching people try to dance to it makes me realise that, well, I was wrong. It’s a good listening song, not a good dancing song. Or it just isn’t a good song.
I think that my judgement of whether a song is going to work improves every time I DJ. The more scenes I DJ in regularly, the more exchanges I DJ, the more I travel and dance, the more live bands I listen to and watch, the more confident I feel about judging a crowd and their responses to the music I want to play. That’s not to say I’m actually any better at it, but more that I have the confidence to experiment.
That bit about live bands is important. There is no comparison to a live band for dancing. DJs simply don’t cut it. Even if a band sucks, there’s something about watching a group of people making music, and then dancing to/with them, that wins every time. And when a band’s really good, and really working with the dancers (and it is a conversation), then it’s sublime. Bands, unlike DJs, aren’t looking to present a ‘range of music’ for dancing; they’re just playing their songs, their way. So they’re not interested in finding ‘new artists’. It’s quite acceptable for a band to play _only_ songs or compositions by a single artist or band. They are interested in new compositions, but they’ll usually arrange them to suit their band’s size and skills and interests. They’ll rework a song.
Isn’t that a fabulous idea? That’s the sort of idea I really love. That’s how dancers work, too. We take an existing or common or shared step and rework it to suit our personalities or abilities or what we hear in the music at that moment. And that’s jazz, really. Unlike popular music, where doing a ‘cover’ is kind of a big deal and an act of homage to another artist or an attempt to co-opt their cred or whatever, ‘standards’ in jazz serve as a shared set of parameters for band and dancers, where each can work through their interpretation. And as with jazz dance, the shared structures allow for – require! Demand! – improvisation within those delineated spaces. So you’re ‘copying’ but you _must_ also make it your own.
The problem with DJing is that while you can, to a certain extent reframe and recontextualise familiar recordings of songs by recombining them with other songs, or playing them at different times to different dancers, you’re still stuck with playing the same, exact recording. The notes are always the same. The intonations are always familiar. It is the exact same expression of emotion or intention or idea that it was last time. DJs can get around this by using different recordings or versions of the same song, but, ultimately, each of those recordings is still a static object, a moment caught in amber.
So I think, really, the ‘educating’ comes when you dance to a live band. Otherwise, it’s simply DJs doing what a dancer could do for themselves – play recordings they’ve found online or in a CD or a record or wherever. But bands do something we can’t, as DJs – they _make_ music.
I think the idea of DJs educating dancers really is a straw man. It’s fake target, a distraction from more interesting discussions. It’s also a way of ideologically framing the DJ’s role within a community or discourse. And it’s most interesting effect is to establish a hierarchy of knowledge and power with DJs at the top. And that’s crap. Let’s be a little more interesting, shall we?
Writing about bands working from the songbook of only one artist reminds me of another issue that came up over the weekend, and which I’ve talked about with other DJs quite a few times. When – or is it – ok to play more than one song by an artist or band in a single set? I remember Brian Renehan’s response to this when it came up on SwingDJs years ago. He played a set of nothing but Basie. I know Trev did this recently as well. Nothing but one single band for the entire set. And because it’s Basie, the rhythm section would be the same. When Brian did it, no one noticed it was just one band, but they _did_ notice that it was a great set.
I regularly play more than one song by the same artist in the same set. This is usually because I’ve just bought a bunch of stuff by one artist and I just _have_ to play as much of it as I can. Sometimes it’s because I’m working a ‘wave’, where I move between styles, and eventually come back to where I started. I even play two songs by the same artist in a row. Or more than two! Sometimes nothing suits the previous song like another by the same artist.
I think that there’s only a problem with repeating an artist if you’re accepting the idea that a DJ must play a diverse set, or that they are ‘educating’ dancers or otherwise intent on exposing dancers to as wide a range of music as possible.
…actually, I draw the line at Lou Rawls. One Lou Rawls song is too many in my book. More than one… sheesh. Shoot me now. But that’s just my personal opinion and an expression of my musical taste, not a definitive stance on the technique. I just don’t like Lou Rawls…
To return to that issue of a DJ playing a diverse set versus a DJ playing a fairly ‘samey’ set. This is something I’ve wrestled with myself. Should I play a diverse set, covering a range of styles, or should I specialise? There are advantages to each, and which approach I take depends on the set and the crowd and the time and the place. I tend to play a diverse set if I’m playing for new dancers, mostly because it’s all new to them as dancing music, so I like to offer a sort of smorgasbord. But I have also done all old-school for new dancers as well, and had just as positive response as when I’ve played a mixed set.
As a DJ doing larger gigs, it can be an advantage to be known as someone who can play a mixed set – you have more flexibility. But by the same token, if you’re a specialist, you’re hired specifically to play that stuff you specialise in. And when you specialise, your knowledge of a particular styles acquires a depth and rigour that a mixer mightn’t have time for.
As someone who organises DJs for exchanges and large dance events, I like to have both types of DJs on the program. Mostly, I look for DJs who have a decent collection (ie, they will be playing beyond the ‘safety songs’), and a decent collection (in other words, songs of a reasonable sound quality and of a style suitable for lindy or other jazz era dances). Whether this collection is of one particular style, or of a range of styles is neither here nor there – either is good. Either is useful. I might favour the mixers for an opening night, but not necessarily. I’m far more interested in how a DJ combines songs, and their judgements about song length, suitability for that crowd and so on. I want a full, crazy dance floor. The rest is icing.
If I have DJs who can offer icing on hand, then I’m extra happy. Dancers are generally easier to get on the floor at an exchange, so I’m not just looking for full floors, I’m also looking for DJs who work the energy levels in the crowd (up and down the tempos, up and down the emotional scale, back and forth across styles within an era or general ‘type’). And who really stretch themselves in terms of rummaging through their collection for ‘new’ stuff. In my experience, music collectors tend to also be music fans. And that’s good. But not enough. You might have a large and esoteric collection, but if you can’t get every kid out on there on the floor and keep them there, you’re just a wanker.
As a dancer at an exchange, mind you, I like to hear unfamiliar songs. I like every song to be new to me. The good thing about jazz, especially swing, is that it has consistent and fairly predictable structures. So even if a song is new, you know what’s coming next: phrase by phrase, chorus, verse, whatevs. You feel it building to a crescendo, you preempt breaks, you feel the easing or release of tension. So even if it’s new to you, a song is still ‘familiar’. I guess this is why live bands are so great – they’re harder to predict, and so much, much more interesting.
But back to the issue of playing more than one song by any single artist. Here, I think it’s worth asking, ‘what counts as a single artist?’ I mean, are we talking the exact same band, with the exact same personnel? That’s a tricky one. Many of the bands from the 20s-40s really only recorded a few songs together in any one session. Then it was likely the personnel’d switch out as musicians went off to other gigs. So it’s very difficult to play songs by the ‘exact same artist’ in a row.*
… though now I’m thinking of that ripper session the Mills Blue Rhythm band did in 1936, the one with Algier’s Stomp….
So, if it’s not the exact same band that counts as the ‘artist’, is it the composer, the person who wrote the songs? I doubt many dancers could pick that one. I know I couldn’t. The same arranger? That might be interesting – some Henry Red Allen action, perhaps. Or Ellingtonese. The same vocalist? Sure, but even if you’re working within just that criteria, there’s a world of difference between Billie Holiday’s stuff from the 30s and her stuff from the 50s. Same goes for Ella Fitzgerald. Or Louis Armstrong. I wouldn’t tend to play a set entirely made up of vocals anyway. I’d actually be more likely to play a set of all instrumentals.
What about a particular soloist or musician? Now, that’d be a fun set to DJ, especially if you’re talking about someone like Charlie Shavers, or someone who most people don’t recognise immediately. Even if it was a particularly recognisable musician, I think it’d be ok. I mean, a set made up only of songs featuring Louis Armstrong could be perfectly awesome. You’d get some King Oliver, Armstrong’s Hot Fives, Armstrong’s orchestra, Sy Oliver’s bands, Ella/Oscar Peterson/Louis supergroove, Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra, Jelly Roll Morton Red Hot Peppers, Bessie Smith accompanied by Armstrong alone, Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, some stuff starring Sidney Bechet… and so on and so on. It’d be a diverse and really interesting set.
How about a band leader? That’s a bit more telling, particularly when you’re talking about band leaders who had shorter careers, or whose best music was recorded during a shorter period. But if it’s a truly cracking band leader, with a really awesome band during an especially awesome period… I’d probably draw the line at a set of 1930s Basie alone, but not because it’d be crap music. It’d still make for a ripper set, with lots of dancing oomph. And that’s the goal, isn’t it? Good dancing?
This issue is, again, something of a straw man, I think. It assumes more importance if you don’t have a list of personnel and arrangers in your library… which many of us don’t, I’d suppose. Even me, with my obsessive time in the discographies has a long way to go before I have all that information for all my music (and it’s a bit of a mobius strip – the more I collect, the further behind I get, the more I get, the more I want…). I’m sure the hardcore collectors are more up on this stuff, and that the longer you’ve been in the game, the better you get at picking particular musicians or arrangers, but generally…
I also think that a DJ sharing their passion for a new (to them) artist or band with repetition is ok. I think we all do it, eventually. And sometimes it turns out that the band we were obsessing over is crap. And sometimes it doesn’t. I like to hear a DJ’s enthusiasm exposed this way. So long as it’s not Lou Rawls.
My position on this is: more than one song by a single… artist/band/whatever is ok. So long as I’m not playing songs that all sound the same.** So long as I’m actually going for a diverse set. If I’m doing a Bessie Smith retrospective, showcasing Basie or working my way through the best of contemporary street jazz bands… well, then I’m going for it.
My final point is, I guess, that many of the ‘rules’ we give ourselves as DJs are fairly arbitrary, and don’t really accommodate the range of circumstances in which we play. Each of us is a different DJ with different musical interests and ways of watching the crowd and understanding what we see. We all play different types of gigs (well, we’d hope so) and we all articulate what we do in different ways…. if we even bother with that at all.
Generally, I don’t have any DJing rules for myself, beyond:

  • Make all the people dance.

No exceptions. I want 100% strike rate. Anything less, and I’m not working it hard enough.
To achieve that I might add some general guidelines:

  • Watch the dancers; spend more time looking at them than at my computer.
  • Stand up, don’t sit down when I’m DJing (this is a new one for me, and surprisingly important.)
  • Don’t go into sets with an agenda. Don’t say “Tonight I will play x% of this and x% of that, I will play y number of artists and z range of tempos.” This always go wrong, and at the very least, limits my DJing; it means I’m following rules rather than following the dancers.
  • Work a wave. Whether it’s a range of tempos, a range of energy levels, a range of styles, a range of band sizes or a range of eras, vary what I play so that I can best manipulate the dancers’ energy level and mood.
  • Be prepared to be wrong and to start again. Sometimes I just suck, and sometimes I just need to play CJam Blues.

I might approach sets for different events in different ways – lots of energy and higher tempos for exchanges; mellower stuff with a sparser sound for a smaller gig; a few more ‘simpler’ structured songs for a beginner-heavy gig – but this stuff will really vary with my mood. And I try not to pre-plan. Because it’s bad news.
So, ultimately, the rules are “There are no rules!” and, quite possibly “Keep it simple, stupid.” The latter meaning, of course, “MAKE THEM DANCE! ALL OF THEM!”
*Which in itself is interesting. These days we might think of a band as a group of artists creating art for our arty ears. But the big bands – and the swing era in particular – really emphasised the idea of bands as working enterprises. Music – live music – was an essential part of everyday leisure time activities. So it carried a more workmanlike quality (well, so to speak… I exaggerate). Of course, we can still talk about swing musicians as artists, particularly when they were _on_, but the act of playing swinging jazz professionally certainly wasn’t in accord with a romanticised vision of the artist in a garret creating art. It involved a lot of long, hard, dirty hours on the road, on stage, in shitty studios and in late night diners. The race politics at work meant that if you were a black musician (particularly in the south), your job was pretty fucking hard. And racism was not only rife, it was institutionalised. No hotel room for you, baby.
** So no freeking Lou Rawls. Well, just one song. But someone else can play it, not me.)

6 Replies to “house update + (much) exchange-inspired DJing thinking”

  1. My mum and dad ran as volunteers a local 60/40 dance every fortnight out in the bush where we lived – very successful. The bands varied but were essentially strict tempo. Even though it was a strictly tee total dance – mthere were laws governing drinking within 100 yards i think – anyway for some bands he had to bring drink along and smuggle it backstage because he reckoined they nev er loosened up or followed /led the dancers correctly until they had had a certain number of beers.
    Other bands he had to ration the grog to get a good dance night – too many too early and theygot sloppy.
    also there was a bunch of people (dancers) who would freely complain about the band bein g too fast or ahead of the dancers or too slow or just all over the place- they would also complain about dance order and the state of the floor.
    I used to do the floor in the afternoon before the dance – candle wax to slow it down sawdust and kero to speed it up.
    Do DJs get very much consumer/dancer informed involvmen t these days?

  2. Holy crap. I got lost somewhere in the bottom, but here’s a novel thought. Chew on it and let me know what you think –
    There’s a minimum level of knowledge and a minimum amount of music you have to have to be a DJ good DJ. I think the “don’t repeat artists in a set” directives really comes from trying to force newer DJs to discover music and keep from walking in the door with three CDs. Perhaps it’s a bit of job security. Perhaps it’s an academic challenge.
    Ultimately, the “education of dancers” thing IS a strawman, in the way in which it’s presented. The education a DJ provides isn’t in exposing dancers to new music like, “Ha! Here’s something NEW! DANCE, MONKEYS!” (although, there’s a bit of pleasure I take from moments like that). A DJ’s instruction comes in creating the environment for dancers to grow with each other to great music. Sometimes it might be a stretch for them, sometimes it might be in their comfort zone, but by providing the space and setting the tone, the classroom becomes more apparent. I have a feeling it will be easy to misread my comment – but at the heart of it, it’s the DJ’s job to set the mood of the room, and that mood provides a space for dancers to learn how to dance with each other.
    I will say, though, there is some small importance to being a DJ. The DJ is the one singular person in the room who has the ability to ruin EVERYONE’S night. Which of course means the DJ has far more responsibility than anything else.
    There’s a lot of talk between and among and around DJs all trying to get to the same thing – how do we keep the floor active without getting bored of our music? How do we serve an ever changing audience of new dancers who aren’t even familiar with jazz AND the long-time dancers who are looking for the esoterically challenging pieces more and more AT THE SAME TIME? And how do we do it without playing the same damn set every week?
    Ultimately, the only rule is, don’t suck.
    What do you think?

  3. Great post DP; lots of interesting ideas manifested. And Keith, I agree with everything you wrote. This: “It’s the DJ’s job to set the mood of the room, and that mood provides a space for dancers to learn how to dance with each other.” is nail-on-head stuff.

  4. RE your question FX:
    “Do DJs get very much consumer/dancer informed involvmen t these days?”
    To a certain extent. I’ve seen instances where dancers have heckled crappy DJs, but they are SO rare. I’ve also had dancers come up and ask for ‘something good’. The latter tend to be older men. And so I give them a smile and a mental fuck YOU.
    Dancers are more likely to vote with their feet – to just leave if they don’t like a DJ, or to just _not dance_. Most of the time you judge a crowd’s responses to your music by:
    – whether they’re dancing
    – how they’re dancing – with energy? Dutifully? With enthusiasm? After a while you understand how a dancer is feeling by the way they move, and this gives you an idea of how they’re feeling about your music. Numbers on the floor aren’t everything; it ain’t what you do, but the way that you do it that counts.
    Some dancers do give feedback to the organisers, but mostly they’ll talk to their friends. I encourage my friends to give me feedback. Last night, for example, my Squeeze and a good friend gave me a solid thumbs _down_ for a new song I was playing. I’d already figured out it was crap, but they made it very clear that it really _was_ crap.
    Keith, you make all good points. I’ll have a think and respond when I’m clearer-headed.

  5. Yeah, Trev, that point:
    “It’s the DJ’s job to set the mood of the room, and that mood provides a space for dancers to learn how to dance with each other.”
    is an interesting one. I think that the one thing that I really like most of all about DJing is that it’s creative, and that it is a discussion or a collaborative relationship between dancers and DJ. I like it that it’s not just dancers responding to my musical choices, but my responding to their energy, and to what _they’re_ finding interesting or inspiring. If I see them dig a particular type of instrumental treatment (eg a little focussed energy or BAM when they hear x), then I try another song that features that same energy. And I really like it that the challenge is knowing when to stop pushing that same barrow, and when to switch up, to shift the musical mood or instrumental emphases or themes to something new. I mean, it’s not just about working a wave, but about knowing when to ramp it up just a little higher, when to crest, and then when (and how) to let it down again, and where to set the trough. Those decisions are the ones that make me feel creative, that really feel like creative work. I also think that its that interaction between dancers and DJs that makes a room feel alive. And that makes it possible to really know when a DJ is DJing and when a laptop is just running through a ‘safe’ playlist’.

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