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August 7, 2006

it's a tall order to claim yourself a guiding force in the dancing lives of a few thousand dancers

Posted by dogpossum on August 7, 2006 4:29 PM in the category djing and music

I have in the past noted the difference between 'classic' swinging jazz of the 'Swing Era' (ie 1930s-40s) and 'new testament' swing (ie post WWII), focussing on the role of the rhythm section.
I still find julius' discussion of the topic over on yehoodi the most useful for discussion of jazz and lindy hop:

This is all based on informal research, i.e. facts that I cannot document. They are opinions based on watching clips and talking to oldtimers and people who have talked to oldtimers and watching oldtimers and new dancers dance "now" and "back in the day" ... and listening to a LOT of music.

Swing-era music (henceforth called "swing") is driven primarily by the rhythm section. The bass would play on the quarter note and the drummer would beat the same quarter note with the bass drum. The guitarist would also chord on the quarter note along with the bassist and drummer. In addition, the drummer kept the rhythm swinging by playing a swung rhythm on the hi-hat. Rhythmic motifs (such as horn riffs) were often played in unison rhythm (although not unison notes, which were a feature of bop later on). Drum solos often featured march-style drum rolls and rarely used polyrhythmic devices such as playing three with the left hand and four with the right.

The combination of guitarist, drummer, and bass playing on the quarter note made swing music very propulsive. At that time, jazz was not played behind the beat as much as it is now. The rhythm section was almost, but not quite, playing in unison on the quarter note.

The dance reflected this propulsion by emphasizing quarter notes and the swung rhythm. The steps of the basic that we know today are derived from that rhythm: 1, 2, 3 and 4 (swung), 5, 6, 7 and 8. There was very little upper body movement, although the limbs were extensively used to reflect energy and excitement. Charleston steps (often in unison with your partner) were very common because of the tempo and feel of the music. (Note that 20s Charleston is much more staccato and than 30s Charleston, because hot jazz was much more staccato than swing music.)

If we listen to post-war music, we detect a difference in the feel compared to pre-war music. Jimmy Blanton revolutionized bass playing with Ellington's band by using more ornamental techniques on the bass, and Ray Brown brought bass virtuosity to the fore by playing far less staccato than swing bassists did. His playing virtually defined the feel of post-war straightahead jazz by holding the bass notes and creating a much deeper "pocket" for the rhythm section. With the advent of bop, the drums began to lay behind the beat, which was now kept almost entirely by the bassist. Drummers moved the swing rhythm to the ride cymbal; the bass drum was used to "drop bombs" -- playing very loud accents, only barely playing quarter notes, and sometimes even playing on the offbeat.

Arrangements for bands began to feature more rhythmically complex parts and the solos began to use more than the basic major, minor, diminished, augmented, seventh, and ninth chords of swing. The upshot of this new harmonic and rhythmic complexity was a change in the dance, with Frankie notably complaining to Dizzy Gillespie (I think) that you couldn't dance (lindy hop) to it.

In the modern era, people commonly dance to straightahead jazz from the 50s ... not bop, but music heavily influenced by bop's harmonic concepts and post-war, way-behind-the-beat rhythm. The music chosen by DJs today also tends to be on the slower side than swing era music taken as a whole, and there are a lot of influences from West Coast (which was itself derived from lindy hop) observable in modern lindy hop. For example, the upper body is used often to express the music; frequently dancers will acknowledge musical "hits" with motion.

Why this change has occurred, I cannot say. One of the first people I encountered who taught this style of dancing were Paul and Sharon. When I was first learning I learned from people who had learned from old-timers directly, and were commonly emulating the rhythm-based style of lindy hop dancing. Then I saw people in San Francisco dancing and they were doing a more melody-based style of lindy hop.

Over time I think lindy hop has embraced both aspects of musicality (rhythm and melody), but some areas of the country are still locked in one or the other.

Edited to add something a bit more judgmental:
Dancing to the melody makes it very hard to dance fast, because it feels as if one is being unmusical in not acknowledging the music going by. Dancing to the rhythm makes it very easy to dance fast and requires better balance and technique because there is less time to recover from mistakes. However, dancing to the rhythm makes dancing slow less interesting.

The very best dancers in the world dance to the music, employing whatever is appropriate and not worrying whether the music is "too fast" or "too slow", because they have integrated everything about the music into their dancing. Dancing reflects the music, not the other way around. I am fairly sure that lindy hop, alone of almost every social dance in the rest of the world, is danced to the widest tempo range of music. That's one of the things I really like about it, that I can go balls-out on some insane flag-waving swing anthem, or dance more intimately if I want (Posted: Tue May 23, 2006 8:55 pm).

Personally, I prefer the sort of 'classic swing' sound to the post WWII sound, which I tend to think of as Old and New Testament, respectively, in part as a response to the influence of Basie on this issue - the man's career ran from the 20s to the 80s, and he was one of the most influential band leaders in the big band swinging jazz genre.
I've been listening to some Jo Jones recently, and reading the Allmusic entry here, where they note:

Jo Jones shifted the timekeeping role of the drums from the bass drum to the hi-hat cymbal, greatly influencing all swing and bop drummers.

This is an interesting point, as Jones played with Basie's band for a chunk of his career, and formed the backbone of Basie's rhythm section, with Walter Page (bass), Freddie Green (guitar) and Basie himself (piano). To think that this man might have played a key part in the shift from bass drum to high hat in the foundational rhythm of a big band is kind of a tall order. I know nothing beyond the stuff I read in liner notes and on the internet (hardly excellent sources, but you know how it is - I'm too busy with other stuff to read up on this... though I'd dearly love to audit a decent undergrad course on the history of jazz), so I can't really comment intelligently on this topic. But it's worth thinking about.

I am a fan of Lionel Hampton, who was a percussionist (drums, vibraphone, assorted other) and bandleader (though I'm not sure what role he played in his bands' arrangements and compositions), and I've noticed that big bands tended to reflect the instruments and interests of their leader - so you get a different emphasis in Benny Goodman's stuff, than you do with someone like Basie, in part because they played clarinet and piano, respectively.
This stuff is really interesting to think about when you're comparing the work indivdidual members of a group did with their other bands - I'm obsessed with Benny Goodman's small groups, and have been enthralled by the differences between this group, Goodman's bigger band stuff, and the role of Lionel Hampton, Gene Krupa, etc, in those small groups and in their own big bands. You can really hear the musical emphasis shift from Goodman and the clarinet to, for example, the vibes/rhythm section in Hamp's bands.

So the fact that Basie played in his rhythm section, and that his band was so influential in swinging jazz is kind of important.

...I'm not sure where I'm going with this, really.

But I suppose that one of my ongoing concerns as a DJ is how how to balance the old testament sound with the new testament. As a dancer, I much prefer the chunk-chunk sound of the old testament rhythm section - that high hat action in some of the 50s stuff (and late 40s, depending on who it is) gets up my bum. As a DJ, I'm much more flexible - I will happily play stuff from the 30s through to the 50s for lindy hoppers (with deviations into more modern stuff in the old school style), and from the 20s (and more recently if it rocks) for charleston and other dances. I feel I have a 'responsibility' as a DJ to sample good music from all these historical periods, and more importantly, from the range of swinging jazz that is available. While I feel I can comment on musical choice and taste and its impact on dancing in my local community as a dancer, I am more reluctant to make those value-laden judgements as a DJ, perhaps because of the perceived power and influence of DJs in the swing scene. I've seen people do some awsome shit on the dance floor to all types of music, and who am I to dismiss something simply because it reflects the music of a period which post-dates the 'original' swing era?

It's a difficult issue, because I do feel that I need to promote the old testament stuff in Melbourne because it is so under represented in the DJing of local DJs, and in the teaching of local dance teachers. We have a preponderance of 'groove' music, a definite emphasis on not-old-school dancing, to the point where new dancers frequently fail to recognise someone dancing in the 'olden days' style as lindy hop (and often don't know that name for 'swing dancing' at all).

Yet, at the same time, my job as a DJ is to get people dancing, and if old school jazz doesn't do it for them... I can either trick them into it, leading them gently back to the Good Old Days, using such tools as the Lincoln Centre Jazz Orchestra, Mora's Modern Rhythmists and the Kansas City Band, or I can hop on the old high horse and play with no reference to what's going on on the dance floor around/below me.

This seems the perennial question for a DJ who plays almost exclusively in their own, local scene (particularly one which is as parochial as Melbourne).
My solution, though, has been to follow my nose - to seek out the artists and music that I really enjoy, and to combine them in ways while I'm DJing that will get dancers out onto the floor despite themselves. Kind of a honey rather than vinegar approach. There are a number of on-the-spot techniques for doing this, from quick transitions between musical styles and tempos, through to using a combination of old recordings, new remastered recordings, and recordings by new artists, and I'm endeavouring to master as many of these skills as possible.
One of the key parts of this process is simply collecting and listening to as much music as possible.

In Melbourne today, many, hell most of the DJs simply swap their collections, rather than seeking out new music on their own. One of the clearest results of this has been a definite lack of variation in the music we hear out dancing in this town. One of the less direct results is a lack of diversity in the dancing and improvisation we see on the floor - if dancers do not hear 'new' music (whether in terms of individual songs, or different styles), and dance is about making music visible, we are unlikely to see 'new' stuff on the dance floor if DJs continue with these small-pond approaches to music and DJing. And speaking as an old school hippy feminist, diversity = good. It's sure as fuck more interesting than homogeneity.

As I am finding, though, the exchange of music between DJs serves as more than simply the sharing of music and the expansion of individual collections - it is a key vehicle for the development of interpersonal and professional relationships between DJs, and between new and more experienced DJs. To refuse to swap is a delicate matter, and one must tread carefully the line between ethical approaches to copyright legislation and forging relationships with other DJs. Particularly when one does not access to other avenues of becoming part of 'the gang' in this community.

With all this in mind, then, how can I go about both satisfying dancers' desire for the familiar, and exploring and sharing my own musical tastes and passions, and consequently, encouraging DJs to include music that suits my tastes, so that I have the opportunity to dance to this stuff as well?

One the one hand, there are the practical DJing techniques I've discussed above.
But I'm also increasingly of the conviction that DJing for new dancers is really important.

I enjoy DJing for new dancers. The first set of the night is usually considered the 'beginners'' set in Melbourne, in part because of the importance of pre-social dancing classes (usually populated by beginners). When I began DJing earlier this year, that first set was dismissed by most other DJs, many of whom wouldn't accept sets in that slot. As a new DJ desperate for experience, I happily took on thost sets. I discovered that the new dancers were not only fresh and excited about dancing (unlike the more jaded, cynical and decidedly picky more experienced types), they were also excited about the music, and far more open to a wide range of music.
So I enjoy playing for beginners, even if it means that I have to be careful with tempos.
And it means that I'm wondering if perhaps I should be strutting my stuff as a DJ at more beginner-friendly, after-class venues in order to advertise my tastes, create a market and perhaps ensure a greater tolerance for wider musical styles in the future?

Those sorts of claims feel insufferably smug and arrogant: it's a tall order to claim yourself a guiding force in the dancing lives of a few thousand dancers.

But I'll report back, and we'll see what happens.

Posted by dogpossum on August 7, 2006 4:29 PM in the category djing and music