A student, who is also a musician, just sent me a message. They’re from a rootsy/folk sort of background, and play a lot of gypsy jazz. They’re just discovering other types of swinging jazz.
The message said:
“Surely there is nothing better to lindy hop to than Oscar Peterson. Surely.”
We had a conversation, and at first I was a bit ‘mmm, not necessarily,’ and it spread into stuff about how groovy stuff with a deep pocket was cool in the 2000s, but isn’t necessarily awesome for all sorts of lindy hop. Then I said something like ‘but that Ella and Louis album features Peterson, and it’s wonderful. Oh, and then there’s this. And this. And this.’
And I have to concede: Oscar Peterson is wonderful.
This sort of jazz has a different groove to a big Webb band in full swing, or Goodman’s small groups, or Slim and Slam.
And it made me think: I don’t want my students to always ‘bounce’ or ‘pulse’ in the same way to every single song. _I_ don’t want to groove in the same way to every song.
Anyhoo, I was listening to a bunch of different types of jazz just now, figuring out how different grooves work in the music and in my body.
Then I watched this video, and noticed how each musician has a different groove in their body, but a shared sense of time, and they’re all listening to each other. And once again, I’m thinking ‘music first: musicians can teach us a lot about dancing.’
This is one of the best films I’ve seen on SBS On Demand. I barely knew anything about Hannah Arendt, so it was a very good watch.
It seems especially relevant now because it’s about a jewish woman, Hannah Arendt (Barbara Sukowa) who’d escaped a concentration camp and is now a big name philosopher/academic living in New York. She goes to the trial of a nazi (Adolf Eichmann) in Israel and writes about (spoiler) ‘the banality of evil’. Lots of people really didn’t like the way she framed her arguments.
It’s a really well made film, with great acting, etc etc. And it’s very unusual to see a film about a very intelligent, middle aged woman from a marginalised group writing and speaking cleverly on screen. It’s especially relevant now, because of its questions about how ordinary people can do great evil.
I saw the film ‘The Eichmann Show’ a few years before I saw this film, and that really helped me understand what was happening when Arendt went to the trial. I’d recommend watching that first. It’s difficult to comprehend, now, what it must have been like for survivors of the holocaust to confront a nazi in a public court. It is, of course, disturbing viewing. As it should be. But the difficulty comes from the stories people are telling, and their sheer broken misery, rather than on-screen violence.
I’m not all that familiar with Arendt’s piece, but now I think about it, this idea of the banality of evil seems to best fit the ‘robotdebt’ issue in Australia and the effect of austerity policies in the UK. The gradual dehumanising and eventual deaths of powerless people caught up in bureaucratic knots. Public servants participating in this dehumanising, just by ‘doing their jobs’.
Speaking of the black experience in jazz and blues dance…
I haven’t yet ready anything in the blues and lindy hop community about the black queer male body dancing.
There’s been some good work on black women’s bodily experiences in modern jazz dance culture, and a bit about black masculinity. Quite a few too many white men have whitesplained how blues works as a black space, and far too many white women and men have avoided talking about vintage fashion as an ethnicised scene.
Apparently the black queer body in a well cut suit or gorgeous gown is too terrifying even for whispers.
I saw Looking For Langston (an art film by Isaac Julien) last night. The whole project – a film made during the 80s AIDS crisis by a black British man, about a black American man of the Harlem Renaissance – is a meditation on queer desire, jazz aesthetics and the blues. The name (and a lot of the content, including some proto-vogueing) reminds me of Desperately Seeking Susan, Madonna, and the queer-eye-on-art. It includes voice work by Stuart Hall and Toni Morrison, Paul Gilroy gets props, Jimmy Somerville plays a cherub (again), and Tongues Untied is referenced. Also there is some cock.
The installation at Rosley Oxley9 Gallery features some beautiful large scale black and white stills from the film, depicting black men dancing in closed embrace. Photos I regularly see linked up on facebook as examples of queer dance in the swing era. Ha.
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:
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 @twobarbreakreplied “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 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:
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.
before the Battle of Hoth, when Leia’s instructing the pilots on their escape plan, not one of the rebels in the group want to know why they are being given their orders by a woman (who, as far we know, is not a pilot like them). She’s an effective general to them, and is afforded every respect.