Swinging with Duke

This is a post about Duke Ellington and dance, because he is on my mind at the moment.

I’ve recently discovered the 1951/52 stuff by the Johnny Hodges band on this dodgy digital download album Pound of Blues is really great for teaching dance, particularly choreography which recognises strict phrasing. It’s good, solid stuff, and I’ve used it for DJing in the past, though not with any particular enthusiasm. The steady, predictable phrasing of songs like ‘Wham’ on this album do not really reflect all of Ellington’s compositions, as anyone who’s tried to choreograph to ‘Rockin in Rhythm’ will know. But Johnny Hodges was, of course, a musician who played with Ellington for a long time. One of the soloists the band leader would compose for, and organise compositions around rather than forcing them to fit into a musician-shaped hole in his band.

I’d like to say that this ‘Pound of Blues’ album reminded me of the orsm of Ellington, but that’s not true. Ellington is always on my mind. I love him. I love his music and I own a lot of it. A LOT. I’m a massive fan of the Ellington small group stuff, but I’m also nuts for the bigger bands.
The Never No Lament: the Blanton Webster Band 3CD set was one of the first serious Ellington CDs I ever bought (though it was a lot cheaper then than it is now), and I bought it because dancers and DJs I admire recommended it on the SwingDJs discussion board. It’s great, but as with many of the Ellington recordings I have, the quality isn’t so great. There’s a lot of surface noise (ie scratchy crackly rubbish) and the high pitched stuff sounds awful when I’m DJing. And all that from a CD.
This last point is important, because I recently bought myself another Ellington set, Decca’s Complete Brunswick and Vocalion Recordings 1926-1931. I’d somehow managed to miss this little chunk of Ellingtonia and I needed to rectify the problem. I went with CDs rather than the cheaper downloads because I’m finding download files – especially legit ones – are of such poor quality they make the songs unDJable. The rubbish files plus the scary sound quality of the recordings themselves are just unuseable on shitty sound systems.

I guess I do have kind of an Ellington problem. But then, he’s so interesting, he justifies a little obsessive collecting.
I used to have a long bus commute to uni which I’d spend reading my way through Gunther Schuller’s book The Swing Era: the Development of Jazz 1930-1945 and listening along with my whole Ellington collection on my ipod. I read music (haltingly), and Schuller spends quite a bit of his time examining scores in detail. I’m not entirely convinced by everything Schuller says, but Schuller’s is an interestingly scholarly approach to a musician who was as comfortable with concert halls as dance floors.

Today’s dancers are familiar with many of the soundies and film fragments featuring Ellington’s band. Mostly because they also featured dancers. The most famous of these is probably Hot Chocolate (Cottontail), with Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers:

My favourite is Bessie Dudley and Florence Hill dancing to Ellington’s band playing ‘Bugle Call Rag’ in the 1933 film Bundle of Blues:

Bessie Dudley was married to Snake Hips Tucker, and she appeared with him in Ellington’s 1935 film Symphony in Black. There’s a scene in that short film where Tucker’s character throws Billie Holiday to the ground, and you can’t help but think of the verisimilitude – Tucker was a brutal, violent man who abused Dudley.

Ellington’s relationship with dancers was strong and complex. He worked extensively with dancers at the Cotton Club and on film, and travelled with Dudley and other dancers on tours. And later, as his music became more complicated and challenging, his productions with dancers and choreographers like Alvin Ailey also became more challenging.
There’s an interesting article by Patricia Willard called ‘Dance: the unsung element of Ellingtonia’ (Australians can read the full text version here, but there are other versions available online if you google). In that article Willard writes

Duke thought and spoke in dance vernacular. Maneuvering a remarkably stable roster of assertive, quirky, occasionally aggressive individualists into a consistently identifiable and cohesive big band through the decades demanded an accomplished psychologist and master manipulator, which he was. He proudly referred to his role as “The Choreographer.” (Willard)

This idea of Ellington’s music as dance music (which Willard pursues in that article) is nice. Ellington himself said “Swing is not a kind of music. It is that part of rhythm that causes a bouncing, buoyant, terpsichorean urge.” (Ellington, quoted by Willard) This idea that Ellington was at once engaged in popular culture and able to move on to all that difficult artier music and concert dance is just one bit of proof of his versatility.

Most of my love for Ellington is centred on his earlier stuff and on those small group recordings. My interest tends to wane at about 1950, to be honest, but that’s not a strict rule. There’s a song called ‘B Sharp Boston’ which Ellington recorded in 1949 and which used to get around on those dodgy ripped compilation CDs as ‘Sharp B Boston’. I picked up the Chronological Classics Duke Ellington Orchestra 1949-1950 CD in about 2006, and discovered it was actually called ‘B Sharp Boston’, and that there was a bunch of other great stuff on that CD that makes for top DJing (I’ve written about this before in Duke Ellingon’s Difficult 1949-1950 period). ‘Joog Joog’, for example, is one of my favourites (I like to pair it with Doris Day singing ‘Celery Stalks At Midnight’). A fair chunk of stuff on this CD is, however, already edging over into dissonance and confusing timing which makes for challenging dancing.

These sorts of awkward combinations of note and timing really heralds bop. But years ahead of other peeps. Listening to even Ellington’s 30s stuff, you hear a hint of the dissonance that was to come. I tweeted the other day “It’s like Ellington heard collective improvisation in NOla jazz and went “hm. Dissonance.” In 1938.” And @twobarbreak replied “Look where all of Ellington’s players were from, and who they learned from. your hunches closer to right on than you think!”

Again, though, it’s fascinating that Ellington could produce excellently danceable songs like ‘B Sharp Boston’ and ‘Joog Joog’ at the same time as he was really getting into much more experimental stuff. By the end of the 40s Ellington had well and truly begun to explore crazy arse stuff that doesn’t always work for dancing. Well, unless you’re Ramona and Todd at ILHC this year

I read an interesting blog post recently (cannot remember where, I’m sorry – PLEASE let me know if you know the one I mean), where someone cleverly pointed out a couple of recent lindy hop choreographies that worked with this sort of ‘difficult jazz’. One of them was Giselle Anguizola and Nathan Bugh’s 2011 Classic Lindy entry in ILHC:

I keep an eye on Giselle, because she’s been involved in some interesting projects over the years, from Girl Jam to working with jazz bands on the streets of New Orleans. Both are interesting, not just as exercises in jazz dance and jazz dance skills, but in the enculturation of dancers in jazz tradition.
One of the things I really like about the way dancers like Giselle and Chance engage with bands on New Orleans streets is their recognition of turn taking. Soloists in a band take turns, even (especially) the vocalists. In these street jazz groups, the dancers function as soloists, taking their turn, and then stepping back to let the musicians shine. They’re not only responding to the music they hear, but also functioning as part of the band, and part of the performance. Most modern lindy hoppers barely manage to look up and see the band they’re dancing ‘to’, let alone take a moment out to admire what they hear.

And of course, all this talk of New Orleans jazz, solos and recognising individual talent within a collective ensemble takes us back to that idea of Ellington’s most radical work being a response to the interests of the musicians in his band, many of whom were from New Orleans or taught by New Orleans musicians. The most radical ‘art’ part of Ellington was perhaps his references to tradition and vernacular, everyday culture?

Other things about Ellington and dance I couldn’t fit in this piece of writing:

  • My new favourite ILHC 2012 clip, Melanie and Joshua in the Lindy Hop Classic category dancing to Ellington’s 1941 version of ‘Jumpin’ Punkin’s’:

  • The Lincoln Centre Jazz Orchestra’s album Live in Swing City: Swinging with Duke.
    Probably the most overplayed, most popular, excellent modern big band swing album. Recorded live with a crowd of dancers, this album features the most accessible of Ellington’s work, and is an excellent gateway drug for new dancers interested in discovering swing music.
  • Todd Yannacone again, this time with Naomi Uyama dancing to Ellington’s ‘Main Stem’ in about 2006:


Willard, Patricia, ‘Dance: the Unsung Element of Ellingtonia” The Antioch Review, 57.3 (Summer 1999): p 402

Schuller, Gunther, The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz, 1930-1945, Oxford University Press: USA, 1989.


blackface.com is a useful resource for people who’re into African American dance and music of the early 20th Century (ie, us).
If you’re thinking about using some characters from 1930s or 40s films for your choreography, you may want to read up and avoid offending folk and looking like an insensitive (ignorant) clod.

(NB this image is the logo for the blackface.com website)

Things I would like to read:

  • A critical discussion of the New Orleans jazz revival movement in the US and in Australia (ie not just some awful ‘jazz journalism’ style ‘history’, but an actual engagement with the politics and ideology of these projects
  • A critical engagement with the Folkways and Lomax projects (particularly stuff on the New Deal projects)
  • A critical history of jazz associations in Australia (again, not just another fansquee written in that awful ‘jazz journalism’ style).

…and more.

I also want to look at how Black Power Mixtape (which is a collection of footage taken by Swedish filmmakers in the 1960s, edited together and with a commentary by modern black activist folk and accompanied by a modern sound track) is related to all that Music Inn/Stearns’ Jazz Dance work with Al and Leon.
…part of my brain is also thinking about the French reception to and feelings about Australian Aboriginal art and the Utopia community.


This piece Reflections on Anthologized Recordings: The Alan Lomax Collection on Rounder Records and the John A. and Ruby Lomax 1939 Southern States Recording Trip on the Library of Congress American Memory Website (vol 4, issue 2, 2002 of Echo) by Anthony Seeger is an interesting start. I was especially caught by the discussion of the future of anthologies in a digital environment.

The name Seeger catches my eye for a number of reasons, but most recently for its association with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band:

Edit 2:

I need to follow up this panel discussion on ‘Teaching Controversial Topics in American History‘ in Echo (6.2)

Edit 3:

I’ve just seen This review of John Szwed’s book Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World which may be useful. Szwed is pretty good stuff, but I’ll have to read the book to see.

A snot-addled, animated wander through San Francisco

Forgive the messiness of this article, please. I have a rubbish cold and I’m trying to string thoughts together, and not doing so well. But I want to wack down these ideas now before I forget. They’re not properly researched, and I apologise for that. This post has also suddenly changed tack, and goes a bit far away from my original goal: telling you guys I’m discovering Turk Murphy for the first time.

I’m never an early adopter, and I like coming to new musicians slowly, when I’m ready. So I’ve just discovered Turk Murphy. Turk Murphy was in the Yerba Buena Jazz Band, and he did some interesting work with Sesame Street, including this cool animation for ‘the Aligator King‘:

and ‘#9 Martian Beauty‘:

Turk Murphy was friend with Bud Luckey, the animator for these films. He was also friends with Ward Kimball, a Disney animator, and trombonist for the Firehouse Five. I tend to lump the Firehouse Five Plus Two in with this group of New Orleans revivalists, though I think I favour the YBJB. Kimball is responsible for the 1969 animated short ‘It’s Tough to be a Bird‘:

I’ve been following other San Francisco musicians in a haphazard way for quite a long time, but I haven’t really put much thought into them. Let’s look at them in context.

These guys are pretty much all white (though they did do work with people like Bunk Johnson), and they’re really what we could call ‘New Orleans revivalists’, or even ‘moldy figs’ (which I’ve written about before: here are some links). They’re all really good musicians, and the music they make is exciting and fun. I don’t play them that often, though, as I find they lack that little twist that 1920s New Orleans jazz and blues, and event later NOLA based music holds. It’s almost as though this New Orleans revivalist stuff ignores the complexity of jazz and blues and focusses on the fluffy, light hearted stuff. I know that’s unfair. And I know that though many of these bands are associated with stuff like the Walt Disney Studios and Sesame Street, these relationships are actually more likely to signal a complex relationship with power and politics than ‘silly cartoon fluff’. They use humour and talk to children in a way that is utterly subversive, and really quite clever. Particularly in the case of the Children’s Television Workshop. But I find this stuff just doesn’t combine that seed of pathos that makes comedy and humour really work. Particularly in the blues.

But then, maybe I’m just not paying attention.

Lu Watters, of course, was a musician with a long history in San Francisco jazz, and the Yerba Buena Jazz Band, though formed in the late 30s, is still an important band in jazz history (this somewhat irritating story about the history of the band is useful). The San Francisco Traditional Jazz Foundation kicked off in about 1939 (reference: SFTJ website), and the Yerba Buena band was central to this association. Lu Watters was a trumpeter and band leader, founding the Yerba Buena Jazz Band, setting up the original gigs at the Dawn Club, and then pushing the group on to other shows and recordings. Watters was nuts for King Oliver’s Creole Band, and much of the YBJB’s early stuff echoed Oliver’s band’s recordings. YBJB members included singer and banjoist Clancy Hayes, clarinetist Bob Helm, trumpeter Bob Scobey, trombonist Turk Murphy, tubist/bassist Dick Lammi. The band broke up in the mid 50s, but reformed for one album in 1964. Later on (and here I’m a little fuzzy – I’m so tired of wading through the awful jazz ‘journalism’ that sets out these histories) the Yerba Buena Stompers stepped up, and that band featured Duke Heitger, whose name should mean something to fans of modern day hot jazz. Dood’s got game.

In the 1960s and 70s many of the San Francisco jazz musicians were loosely (or even closely) associated with anti-nuclear power and anti-development causes, particularly the development of the (never built) Bodega Bay Nuclear power plant on the San Andreas Fault and Bodega Bay, 50 miles north of San Francisco. Interestingly, the 1964 album ‘Blues over Bodega’ was recorded by the (reformed) Yerba Buena Jazz Band and features Barbara Dane, prominent protest singer and blues singer:

The founding of the anti-nuclear power movement in San Francisco (and California) is popularly attributed to the Bodega Bay protest
I don’t know much about this at all, but I think that the blues revival in the 1960s is inextricably linked to the counter culture movement and general rejection of mass-produced pop culture in America at the time, particularly in San Francisco.

I’d be curious to see just how close the relationship between this movement and the New Orleans jazz revival scene in San Francisco really was. Today I tend to associate the Australia hot jazz scene with revivalist impulses (which assumes an even more complicated status when you consider the history of jazz in Australia), but not with particularly lefty or progressive politics. It’s difficult to speak of an ‘Australian’ hot jazz scene, for the most part, as each city has quite different local culture and politics. I’ve a book here about it that I need to read, but I can’t get past the bullshit racist language and terrible ‘jazz journalism’ writing style.

(That’s Marshall Stearns there.)

I’m quite interested in the way these ‘revivalists’ researched past masters and then hunted them down in person. That’s pretty much how the lindy hop revival came about – dancers in the 80s researched past masters and then hunted them down. There are all sorts of complicated issues of power and race at work here. White jazz fans hunting down black musicians… hmm. I’m sure – I know – they meant well. But I’m not sure they were really aware of the complex patterns of power and privilege at work in their activities.

(That’s Alan Lomax recording in Spain in 1952, from CulturalEquity.com.)

Frederic Ramsey jr. and Charles Edward Smith wrote a book called Jazzmen (1939) which is important in jazz history because it involved research into jazz history, and later led to a series of scholarships for the researchers, some of which were associated with Folkway records, which is now of course owned by the Smithsonian. This research in the 50s in particular reminds me of the Lomax work.
While I’m on the topic, I want to mention two other interesting examples of white historians and jazz music and dance.

One: Clemens Kalischer‘s photos of Al and Leon from 1951:

of John Lee Hooker in 1951:

and of Marshall Stearns at the Music Inn in 1951:

led me to this story about the Music Inn, a project founded by Stephanie and Philip Barber, but prompted by Marshal Stearns (and of course I always get a bit cranky about the absence of his wife, Jean, from these sorts of histories). The Music Inn was pretty much a big musical party in the country, hosted by rich white patrons. Reminds me a bit of the stuff that happened just outside Melbourne at Heide House, except with music and dance rather than visual arts. Apparently there’s a film about Music Inn, but I haven’t seen it or looked for it yet.

I don’t know anything about Music Inn beyond the stuff in these links, and I need to chase it up. I think I need to revisit Stearns and Stearns’ book Jazz Dance just in case.

This Roger tilton film ‘Jazz Dance’:

features Al Minns and Leon James (and lots of other important jazz figures), and is positioned as a sort of historical record of ‘jazz’ music and dance.
I don’t know anything about this film at all, besides what’s on the youtube page, but I suspect some interesting things are going on.

(This drawing by Brett Affrunti is an illustration for a UTNE Reader story about the recordings Jelly Roll Morton did with Alan Lomax in 1938 for the Library of Congress.)

All this research into jazz music and dance history by enthusiastic white men in the 50s (and 80s) of course, is marked by some really interesting responses from the musicians and dancers themselves. Bunk Johnson, contacted by Ramsey and Smith, was a notorious liar, fabricating not only his birthdate but various other ‘facts’ as well. Jelly Roll Morton, stalked by Lomax and recorded by the Smithsonian, was also quite good at decorating the truth. And my favourite story is of course about Al Minns and Leon James, spinning a whole heap of awesomely bullshit stories about the Savoy and Harlem nightlife for Marshall Stearns. Not to mention Al Minns’ own description of the Swedish Mafia chasing him down in the 80s.
I do like it that all this desperately earnest research by (moderately exploitative) white researchers desperate to capture and pin under glass the ‘original jazz’ was derailed by the tactics of artists who’d lived through segregation and hardcore American racism. I’ve written about it before. It reminds me so much of cake walk, and the long tradition in black dance of sending real meaning underground, and peppering the surface with a fair dose of derision and mocking.

While I do sound quite critical and a bit narky about this well-meaning research, I don’t really mean to be. As I’ve realised in reading about 1950s jazz music and dance ‘ethnographies’, this research was motivated by largely egalitarian, liberal principles. Many of the patrons and researchers involved realised that their high opinion of this art – music, dance, whatevs – was not shared by their largely racist and conservative peers. They repeatedly ran up against the belief that jazz was ‘common’, that (black) music and dance culture was less valuable than white, and that their interest in jazz culture was misguided. As that Music Inn article notes, this was made clearest in the simplest ways: they couldn’t find beds for visiting artists in segregated hotels because those artists were black.

So I think there are lots of interesting things going on here. As I’ve said about a million billion times before, I feel a real tension between my own interest in historical recreation and revival and my awareness of my own privilege. A recent misunderstanding on twitter has made me even more committed to pointing out that while I regard archival footage and older dancers as ‘resources’ for my own research and dance work, this is a relationship of absolute respect. I am aware of the power dynamics at work here. I know that I make money (though very little of it) from the creative work (mostly choreography) of dancers who were exploited in the 1920s, 30s and 40s. But I am also very strict with myself about acknowledging my sources, about promoting projects like the Lindy Hoppers’ Fund, and about remembering the social and cultural context of this music and dance that I love so much. Finally, I also take care not to position these artists simply as powerless victims of the historian-pillagers of revivalism. All those lies, all that misdirection, all that meaning-gone-underground reminds me that power is complex.

Side note: I’m currently working my way through a documentary film called ‘Black Power Mixtape‘ which features footage of black American activists taken by Swedish filmmakers in the 1960s:

Al Minns and the Swedish Mafia

We’re teaching a bunch of Al Minns and Leon James stuff at the moment, so I’m revisiting a lot of fun footage. Al Minns worked with people like Lennart Westerlund in the earliest days of the lindy hop revival. We hear a lot of stories from these revivalist dancers about how they discovered the old timers, so I especially like the way that story is tipped upside down in Al’s description of the Swedish Mafia in this video: (linky: Al Minns Part 2 (the story of the Sweds))


John Lomax

Alan Lomax

Library of Congress’ Archive of Folk Culture

The American folk music revival (NB the blues revival, and the American musicians touring Europe)

the Jelly Roll Morton Library of Congress recordings

The Smithsonian folkways label