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August 15, 2009

what makes a good jam?

Posted by dogpossum on August 15, 2009 7:46 PM in the category djing and lindy hop and other dances and music | Comments (2)

Not, foodie friends, a post about preserves. But a post about jam circles and the dance 'jam'.

When you say 'jam' to most lindy hoppers, they think of that exciting moment at a dance when a particularly exciting song prompts dancers to freekin BRING IT. A couple lights up and dances like serious badasses. The appropriate (and instinctive response) is to watch and cheer and goad them on. In the olden days, if the floor was crowded (as it usually was), a little space would clear around the dances to give them room to really bring it. These days, a circle (often ridiculously big) forms in an unnatural way to allow room for a little entertainment. Today, the initial couple are often replaced by other couples, one after another, entering the cleared circle at the end of a phrase. The dancers crowded around clap and cheer and egg on the 'performers'.
My favourite jam sees dancers crowded close (risking losing an eye), and couples pushing to get in there and show off. The energy in the room leaps and I feel like screaming like a crazy fool. Sometimes I do.
My least favourite jam is 'staged'. In the very worst case scenario someone announces "We're going to have a jam now," and couples enter the circle in a very formal, almost staged order, to pull out very staged, rehearsed sequences of steps. There is no spontaneity, there is no excitement, and often, there's no me - I've gone to the bar for a drink.
My favourite jams are usually to live bands - a band simply brings the energy up and dancers freekin lose their biscuits (in a non-vomiting way).

Jams aren't a new idea, by any means. Forming a circle into which dancers enter and 'perform' is as old as Africa in African American vernacular dance, is found in indigenous Australian dance, in European folk dance and most other dance cultures around the world. The performance ranges from formalised, ritualised and highly prescriptive to ecstatic, out of control, crazed. Audiences are encouraged to participate - to clap and cheer, to sing or chant along, to exclaim; to respond.

DJing jams can be a bit tricky. I've done quite a few now, and I kind of have a feeling about the types of songs to play and the way I can develop the energy in a room to the point where that spontaneous group-hysteria showing off happens*. These sorts of jams usually happen at an exchange or special event, somewhere when people are relaxed and ready to partyhardy, when they're out of town or hosting guests, excited by new dance partners and music and DJs or bands. I usually find them happening on the first night of an exchange, later in the night, or at a late night during the weekend.

If I'm DJing, I've been gradually working the energy and tempos up, so people are charged with those happy hormones and really having a good time. I make sure I work 'the wave'**, giving people lower tempos to rest and higher tempos to challenge them, keep their heart rates up. I also try to play higher energy songs with that fat, four-on-the-floor rhythm that makes it impossible to mistake the beat. Old school, classic big band swing is most effective in these situations, and I tend to avoid lyrics. Lyrics tend to anchor the meaning of the song - like labels or titles on a photo - and I like instrumentals for the way they feature groups and individual instruments rather than just showcasing one singer. The most important part of this working up of the crowd is mood and emotion. They have to be feeling really, really good. Not just a couple of experienced, hardcore lindy hoppers, but the whole room, from the dancers to the people watching on the side lines. Otherwise you get a kind of emotion-sink, where the good vibe drains away. When the whole room is involved, the energy increases exponentially, as people add their good feelings to the mix.

I don't really know how to explain what it feels like to be in there, on that type of dance floor, in that type of room. I think of the process of getting there as 'warming the room', literally and figuratively. I find that if I'm DJing, I have to actually be in there with the dancers, feeling the good feelings. It helps if I'm DJing standing up. It doesn't work if I'm not invested as well.

But when I have them there, before they've peaked and are on the dowhill slope to exhaustion, I suddenly drop in a badass 'jam' song. These are songs that I have either tried before with dancers and seen result in a jam, or which feel like the sort of songs that make it impossible to stand still. They're usually higher tempos, because higher tempos usually mean higher energy. Just freakin exciting, like quick cuts in a film, or quick exchanges of dialogue, or jerky movements in an action film. I also like higher tempos because they're challenging - we want to see badassery in a jam, and we're often moved to stare at or be impressed by faster, badass dancing. But it's not really just being a 'good dancer' that's important here - you have to really bring it, bring some attitude or emotion or delight or excitement or awesome physical sense of the music.

But when I say 'challenging', I don't mean a song that's particularly difficult, melodically speaking. The best jam songs usually have straight forward rhythms - four on the floor and no cheating, as Basie said. That's the simple, straightforward 4/4 time. We're usually up around 200-250bpm, so you're looking at about 4 beats per second. Which works out at at least 4 steps per second, usually more because we like syncopated rhythms in lindy hop. That's a fair bit faster than your resting heart rate. But that rhythm, that beat has to be insistent and consistent. Bam-bam-bam-bam throughout. This is maintained by the engine room of the band - the rhythm section. Basie stuff is awesome for jams, mostly because his rhythm section was just so tight and pumping. Basie on piano, Jo Jones on drums, Freddy Green on guitar and Walter Page on bass. Just chunking away through those big band songs.

Here's one of my favourite Basie songs, Jumpin' At The Woodside. Recording in 1939, this is one of the most-played, best-known Basie songs. You can easily argue that it's overplayed. It is. But for good reason.

It's not slow. At about 230bpm, it's twice as fast as your average pop song. But it swings so you don't feel rushed. Each beat is delayed; it's not bashed into, no one's rushing to reach the next beat. The intro is super exciting. Basie marks out the time with a nice, solid lower-register piano, then the other three parts of the rhythm section come in, one 8 (or two bars) at a time, until by the end of the first phrase you have a nice, fat, chunky rhythm that shouts "DANCE!"

I don't usually play this song intending a jam circle, but I do find that if it's dropped into the room at just the right moment, people lose control.

(That's a picture from MLX6. I was actually playing Jumpin' At The Woodside there, but the 1960 version which is a bit quicker and a bit clearer. It's not quite as awesome as the 1939 version, but it's pretty freakin great.)

Jumpin' At The Woodside also one of those songs that's often played deliberately to inspire a jam, so dancers are wired to read it as 'jam song!'

But one song is often not quite enough for a crowd of crazy jammin' dancing fools. I'm also quite fond of some Jimmie Lunceford, songs like Runnin' Wild have the right sort of chunky rhythm, but Lunceford Special has that same pulse-stirring introduction.

Lionel Hampton's 1942 Flying Home has the right feel, but is a little slow for a really pumping jam. (it's only about 190bpm).

I might play this as a sort of prod to get dancers in the mood. It's an iconic track, one which dancers know well. Not in small part because of this sequence from Spike Lee's film Malcolm X:

Frankie Manning was a consultant for this sequence, and the scene is in no small part a homage to various iconic historic lindy hop sequences (including the longer 'jitterbug contest' scene from the soundie Keep Punchin).

So Flying Home isn't exactly go-to gear for a jam, but it's useful for the way it pumps up energy in the room and gets people thinking about showing off. Having said that, it's so iconic, that playing it at the wrong time can just sound cheesy. If you're playing for a crowd of experienced dancers who've been round for a while, it mightn't be quite quick enough to get their pulses up, and it might bring back uncomfortable memories of earlier days wearing zoot suits.

What exactly makes for a good song for a jam, then?
High energy songs with a good, solid beat. I like a big band, an instrumental, something that sits solidly in the swing era, the lindy hop era - the mid 30s to early 40s, leaning on the late 30s. Something familiar is good, because dancers are better able to hit breaks and really show off.
Exactly which song I play will depend on the crowd. 'Fast' is relative and really is determined by the experiences and preferences of the crowd. Same goes for 'familiar'. But I do insist on something with a solid beat. I also avoid that later 50s sound, or a sort of shuffle super-groove, super-swinging rhythm. I like a nice, solid, built like a brick shithouse beat.

When to stop?
Often when I've played that one song, people are raring to go, wanting more. I'll often oblige with a second song. Something faster, something madder, but in the same style. But I won't do more than two songs, not unless the room is really going off, with couples fighting to get into the jam. If I see energy lagging, the crowd losing interest, the performers pulling out the same-old, same-old shtick, if I see those performers getting a bit full of themselves and not sharing the spotlight, I'll not play a second song. I certainly won't play a third. My goal is to use a jam to lift the energy in the room to climax point. I want everyone in the room to feel it. I usually follow up with something high energy, but much slower - 160bpm is nice, but I can go lower. I want that next song to say 'this is not a jam'. I want it to say 'get on the floor everyone!' I've noticed that if I time it right, all the kids watching will swarm onto the floor. If a DJ leaves it too late, lets things go on too long, the energy fizzles out and things get a bit embarrassing.

*There are few things finer than the dance-and-music inspired group hysteria of social dancing, where you lose control of your body (not in a bowel-loosening way, thankfully), you become totally uninhibited, and it's like you're dancing all the best dances in the world, right then. The room is physically and emotionally hot, and your body is running with awesome endorphines, adrenaline, all those good-time drugs.

** Where the tempos move up and down through a 'wave' - eg 120bpm - 140bpm - 160bpm - 180bpm - 140bpm - 150bpm etc

Posted by dogpossum on August 15, 2009 7:46 PM in the category djing and lindy hop and other dances and music


Posted by: jac at August 16, 2009 3:00 AM

I thought you explained this really well! Love the Malcolm X scene - I should really get around to seeing this movie...

Posted by: jac at August 16, 2009 3:00 AM

Posted by: Alice at September 6, 2009 5:04 PM

YEY! I found another lindy blog!
Fantastic post, btw!

Posted by: Alice at September 6, 2009 5:04 PM

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