Black music, white bands: Racist discourse in lindy hop institutions

Eric Heveron-Smith
fb post 25 June at 05:47

A question was posed on a Facebook group called Swingopedia, and I have decided to finally voice my answer. Hey, it’s quarantine, I don’t have any gigs to lose right now…

“I’ve noticed that music trends in the global swing dance community have changed, since I started in 1995.
I’ve heard a mix of Big Band, RnB, Groove, Soul, Hip Hop, lounge/elevator jazz in early 2000s, Gypsy Swing, Ragtime etc. I’ve even heard Madonna!
What do you believe constitutes swing music and what style of music should we be swing dancing to?
Also should musicians only play recreations of original classics by Basie etc or should they be creating their own music?”

I got a lot of opinions about this. I’m a bass player, trombonist, and singer. I’ve been playing the Lindy Hop scene since 2004, with Solomon Douglas, Jonathan Stout, Michael Gamble, and basically anyone else you can think of. I co-founded Moonshine Rhythm Club. As much as I love playing with all the musicians in this scene, my opinion and my approach to music definitely diverges from a lot of them. And I think it also addresses the lack of a serious Black presence in lindy hop.

Here’s what I think:
The way we approach this music, AND this dance, is not at all in the spirit of those who created it.

Let me unpack that just a little bit. Back in the day, musicians were inventing new music that they dug, and that made people want to move their bodies. So they drew big crowds of people who invented new ways to move their bodies to it. That’s it. Does it feel good? Does it make you want to move your body? Then move your body. How? I dunno, let’s make something up together. Does it sound good? Is it fun? If not, whoops, nobody showed up to your gig.

Today, we have a historical dance taught with a preservationist mindset, and we play historic music with a preservationist mindset, or we almost reverse-engineer what music needs to be played so that we can dance this specific dance to it.

We are starting to see more new, original swing music, and I love that. But it still falls within pretty strict guidelines. We are also starting to see more swing audiences actually caring about the music itself, not just as a utilitarian function to dance to; I would definitely credit Michael and Jonathan and the Lindy Focus community for encouraging that, and I think the transcription projects have been a big part of that. It’s been really cool playing at Lindy Focus the past few years and seeing crowds of people standing by the stage just DIGGING the music.

But when you think about what was happening in the 30s and 40s with music and dance, it was a popular movement, and an organic thing. You wanna know what happened to Black musicians and audiences? They didn’t stop playing music, and they didn’t stop dancing. They created new genres, and they created new ways to dance to them. Every single decade up to the present. How can you expect to attract Black musicians and dancers to a scene that is frozen in time?

So ok, what am I proposing instead? I don’t have all the answers, for sure. And yes, I am still a musician that loves playing vintage jazz, and loves playing for dancers. But I look at musicians like Kansas Smitty’s, Bria Skonberg, Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, Gunhild Carling, and so many others that play amazing, badass, swinging, move-your-body music, and who aren’t even CLOSE to cutting-edge far-out modern jazz, and I hear crickets from the lindy hop community.

Here is my point. There is SO much music out there that swings. Modern stuff. Stuff that feels really good, deep in your body, and makes you want to move and groove. And because it doesn’t fit the specific historical constraints of the dance that this community commodifies and REPLICATES, lindy hoppers want nothing to do with it.

Like, how can you ask the question “what constitutes swing music” or “what style of music SHOULD we be dancing to,” and then turn around and act bewildered that you don’t have more BIPOC in the scene??

I envision a world where the historical preservation of swing music and dance can meet the modern world, where there are all kinds of dances being done to all kinds of killer music. You don’t have to drop the preservation stuff, you SHOULDN’T stop studying and presenting and talking about the history of jazz and swing and lindy hop. But what you have done is put walls around this whole situation, and it keeps you in, and it keeps a whole lot of other people out. It’s religion, in the restrictive sense of the word. And if you ever manage to notice how many badass vintage jazz musicians don’t bother with the swing dance scene anymore, it’s because they don’t fit. They got too big for the walls.

Personally, I would love to be able to continue playing swing music for lindy hoppers. But I can’t tell you how many frustrating gigs I’ve had where either the audience barely noticed there were real musicians on stage, or I was playing with really poor musicians, but nobody really cared because they fit the constraints of the dance. I think my favorite gigs are where some people are dancing (whether it is a dance or not, because they feel it in their bodies), and some people are listening (because they actually hear and enjoy the music), and I can stretch out with my fellow musicians beyond the artificial, misinformed, dance-centric constraints of “around 3 minutes song length, not too fast, not too slow.”

Oh yeah, I thought I was wrapping up, but that’s another thing I gotta address. Not every song has to be danceable for every person. That’s another aspect of the utilitarianism of music in the dance community. You think that because all we have are 3-minute songs from the swing era that that was what musicians did live. I can’t possibly believe that’s true. Not gonna go too deep down that rabbit hole, but here’s something to think about: as soon as the long-playing record was invented, Duke Ellington released a 12-minute version of Mood Indigo, and it is glorious. My favorite version of that song ever. SO swinging, so beautiful, makes me want to move, makes me want to play.

Jazz is a living art form. It’s an improvisational art form. The very best times I’ve had playing jazz with people, we’ve found our way to the special spark, the moments that make people look up and shout, the moments that inspire dance. If I’m hired to perform a utilitarian function for your specific dance style, and I’m fired when I go outside the specific constraints, you’re not gonna get my best. You’re not gonna get the magic, the spark. You are missing out. (I have a couple dancer friends in Rochester who figured this out years ago, and started going to the international jazz fest there and checking out all sorts of amazing music. They GET it.)

Music and dance have been co-created since humans have existed. In my opinion, the lindy hop community is creating neither one right now. I don’t think it has to stay that way; but you’ve gotta tear down the walls, if you want it to change.

(Disclaimers. 1. Even though I’m speaking somewhat harshly about the scene, I still love parts of it, and I love a lot of the people in it, and when I play at Lindy Focus and walk around those hallways, I’m proud and glad to be part of it. 2. I’m talking about some historical stuff in here, but I am far from a swing historian. Michael Gamble, Jonathan Stout, Jon Tigert, and a bunch of other musicians and dancers probably know quite a bit more than me about the specific history of the music and dance. The depth of my musicianship is what makes me feel like I have something to offer with this commentary.)

I have problems with the American-centredness of this post. He is generalising from what he sees in the US (at huge events) to the entire world. And it just doesn’t hold up. I’d argue that the ‘mega-event’ is a very different animal (and product) to smaller events that focus on a regional audience, or even hyper-local audience. The usual issues apply to a huge event: you need to entertain trillions of people, you have to appeal to the widest audience (rather than niche audiences), you have a lot of money at risk, you need to do quality control. You and and should (perhaps) use this big budget opportunity to do more big band gigs. The events he’s talking about are largely in the US, and these are unlike things you see in other countries (with the exception of Camp Swing It, which is MASSIVE). So you end up with a relatively homogenous, palatable menu of music and dance held in a boring big hotel, isolated from the local host community.

Because he’s generalising from big US events, he ignores all the smaller, more interesting events. There’s no Upside Down here. No Rhythm Korea. No Jazz BANG. He also conveniently ignores the work being done by Black event producers. Teena Morales, anyone? She’s been running the biggest events in the US for years. And she runs the Houston Jazz Dance Festival, which has all-Black musicians and teachers, and is firmly positioned within the modern Black community’s culture.
He says:

“But when you think about what was happening in the 30s and 40s with music and dance, it was a popular movement, and an organic thing. You wanna know what happened to Black musicians and audiences? They didn’t stop playing music, and they didn’t stop dancing. They created new genres, and they created new ways to dance to them. Every single decade up to the present. How can you expect to attract Black musicians and dancers to a scene that is frozen in time?”

Well, they’re at Teena Morales’ event, doing dances that actually relate to them, with people who make them feel welcome. But let me address this issue: how to attract Black dancers to lindy hop. I’m guessing he means the US? This issue is a lot like the issue of attracting people of colour to other institutions. It won’t work if you don’t deconstruct or analyse whiteness itself:

As result of the invisibility of whiteness, diversity initiatives are often about including diverse bodies into the mainstream without critically examining what that mainstream is” (source: Diversity Means Disruption ; I speak more about this here: A Lot of White People Will Be Uncomfortable).

And if we’re going to deconstruct whiteness, we also need to deconstruct patriarchy, because white supremacy is built on the dominance of heterosexual masculinity.

If I follow that thinking, to truly change the nature of jazz and music in the lindy hop world, do we need to kill off the mega-event?

Here’s the thing. Covid19 has already done this. This is another thing that I see missing from so much of the online talk about lindy hop culture: this moment of change/crisis is the result of a global pandemic. Push has come to shove. BUT, white people have the time and energy to dig into ‘racism’ because they are in iso, or because their usual lives have been disrupted. Black people and marginalised people are busy trying not to die, whether they’re killed by disease, an dangerous ‘healthcare’ system, or the police.

So why does this white male musician assume that things will go on as they did before? They’re not going to. The world has changed irrevocably. The mega-event is not coming back any time in the next few years. That means the the existing market/audience for the mega-event will have disappeared (we know the lindy hop ‘generation’ is only about 5 years long). We also know that all the necessary infrastructure for a mega-event will also have disappeared: international airlines have folded; the arts are in disarray, from sound engineers to restaurants; international guests will not be visiting the US with its unchecked covid. It would also be horrifically selfish for dancers to attend a mega-event… lindy hop = superspreader.

So I think the question has to be,
What will jazz music and jazz dance look like in a covid19 world?
At first I was all ‘no one wants jazz dance during a plague’ and then I remembered that people really want music and dance during hard times. Who gets to dance will be the issue.

My government has taken advantage of the virus to introduce frightening laws, and expand awful powers. The same company that runs our offshore-detention camps for refugees is in charge of the quarantine hotels. Poor, refugee, and migrant people have been detained in housing commission towers for fear of covid spread. The federal police have expanded search and detain powers. … and so on.
The people who are suffering most from this are the Black members of our community.
I haven’t quite gotten there in the thinking, but I think that it’s obscene to consider running a mega-event in this climate. I mean, I have huge, massive ethical problems with fundraising for white people to transcribe Black recordings so white people can play them for white audiences in THIS moment. It’s a great promotional gig, but how does it fight white supremacy?

So if we can’t do mega-events, what do we do?
The same thing marginalised events and dance communities have already been doing: smaller scale events that cater to the local community’s needs and interests. And by local community, I mean the musicians, sound engineers, DJs, dancers, teachers, performers of a particular city. There’s no budget to fly in the same old crew of white men. So we get local. And that, as with governments*, means we have a more diverse body.

We subsidise local dancers on lower incomes with volunteer spots. We see a more sustainable labour model generally. And we see greater diversity in event types and event staff and attendance. The thing about smaller events, is that they often don’t enforce those rules about what bands should play. For all sorts of reasons. But you’ll get the odd funk number, you’ll get 10 minute songs, and you’ll get a range of tempos. Because the organisers don’t have the ‘knowledge’ to control the music like that. And they don’t particularly prioritise that issue – they’re trying to find the light switch or get the key for the late night party.

I think that this ‘definition’ of ‘good music’ is a matter of power and privilege, not objective value or ‘truth’. As the OP says, insisting on ‘good songs for dancing’ gives us a boring menu, and promotes a conservative palate. This in turn gives us boring dancing. None of those sparks of real creativity and emotion.

I think that DJing plays a big part in this. The lack of diversity in the highest profile DJing ranks is a direct result of some serious gate keeping: DJs are selected for their social skills (do they network like a white man?), their availability (do they have the money and time to drop everything for a weekend gig? Or do they have kids and family to care for?), and then, finally, their music taste (how do they talk about songs – loudly in a crowd, or with a quietly brilliant set at 11pm?). This type of musician hierarchy and power structure marginalises anyone who’s not a straight white guy.

If we want to see more diversity in the songs being played by musicians, we need more diversity in the cohort of musicians.
Which means WHITE MEN NEED TO STOP RAPING AND HARASSING EVERYONE ELSE.
And
WHITE MEN NEED TO STOP _EACH OTHER_ DOING THIS SHIT.

* Local governments have more women, poc, and other marginalised groups represented. As we move up tiers of government (state, federal, commonwealth, etc), we see diversity disappear and white patriarchy at work.

….RE sexual assault in the jazz music scene:
That’s my next job. I was starting work on it before covid, by deliberately setting up gigs and sessions that promote women musicians (ie sessions that are safe workplaces). But it’s been derailed. I figure we can use the methods we’ve developed in the dance world to tackle the music world.
One of the things we’ve found in Sydney, is that if we address sexual harassment and assault, we get a safer, more diverse scene generally. More people of colour, more queer folk, more trans folk, more kids.
This why this OP musician needs to address his own power as a white man in America. He is one of the obstacles we need to deconstruct.

Michael Gamble
fb comment on above post
25 June at 10:30

Hey friend, we have talked about this a bunch, and I know we have a lot of common ground, so i feel comfy talking about this “publicly” with you. I also wanna say I appreciate that going out on a limb can be stressful, and I respect you getting into it regardless.
That being said, I think you’re coming at this from a strange angle, one that on the surface looks extremely relatable (I see a “successful” post/video/blog/etc on this topic about once a month for, I dunno, the past 15 years or so) but to me totally falls apart when you zoom in. My issue is that the thing you’re critiquing isn’t some firm opinion that anyone holds, it’s just the emergent properties of a bunch of different people’s subjective taste. And I’m pretty sure you’re ok with it on the micro level, you just don’t like the overall effect, yeah?
Like, I play music in a style I like. To you it’s narrow, but for me it’s actually a wild experiment in combining elements of different swing era rhythm sections with elements of early new orleans & chicago looser collective improv, moving familiar riffs to new contexts, and yes, paying homage to inspiring classic (but never heard live by current audiences) recordings. There’s a ton of room to play there for those of us that are deeply in love with the performers, arrangers, and composers of that era, and importantly, the current dancers, instructors, and organizers are also deeply educated fans of a wide range of old styles, and enjoy playing in that space – that’s why they hire these bands. (They’ve been geeking out on these rare recordings that they and their friends uncovered over the course of years of musical archeology, and look!-> someone’s playing that live?? Hell yeah I’m gonna hire them, that’s a dream come true!!) And unless I read you wrong, you probably think that’s cool, you just wish that wasn’t ALL there is, or something?
Here’s where I point out that there are a million other places to play music, to dance, and to explore like, every iteration of every art under the sun. The WCS scene has much more modern taste. The Blues scene, and especially the Fusion scene know how to break the mold and push boundaries. (also, there was a generation of Bebop dancers at the Savoy, and there is a push within the modern lindy movement to explore that.. which I think is great. Just FYI!) Do you know about those? The swing scene isn’t this philosophy-driven “preservation movement” in the way you’re making it out to be; it’s a loose collective of folks that happen to have a lot of taste in common. That’s…it. Trying to say their taste should be different is just… weird to me.
Like, there’s nothing stopping anyone from experimenting with other flavors like those scenes do, or like another theoretical new scene could do. There are plenty of folks that don’t dig Ella Fitzgerald & Chick Webb, Billie Holiday & Teddy Wilson, Jimmy Rushing & Count Basie. I wouldn’t wanna live in a world where what we’re doing is the only thing.. and it’s not!
I think that’s my other issue with this type of takedown —> do you realize how small the modern swing scene is? Like, compared to virtually any other hobby or “art scene”? It’s a niche within a niche within a niche. We are people who love what, in our evaluation, is actually a very broad range of dance and music forms that one could spend many lifetimes studying and never master. We’ve carved out a little space to do our thing. And still people feel the need to tell us to stop. All. The. Time.
Last thing: I see “this” being the thing that’s blamed for lack of blackness in our scene very casually, on a regular basis. Y’all, the causes of that are soooo much worse than this one singular artistic impetus. Our scene alienates black folks in basically every way that appears on the racism bingo card. Don’t make vintage music the scapegoat for this. Our scene has historically welcomed and elevated racist individuals and ideas for as long as I can remember, to our shame. Also, though it is somewhat rarer (remember: niche within a niche within a niche), there are a lot of great black musicians that play great swing and early jazz. Mostly we honestly just can’t afford them. (yet) And yes, also the overall whiteness of our scene makes it a less attractive place to seek work, which makes sense. THAT is something we can change. I can’t even remotely pretend to speak for any black person in this, but I think at the very least you are making a ton of assumptions about what’s causing what, and there’s a lot more going on.
(and here’s my social media caveat – my life is nuts right now and I totally don’t have time for an extended FB debate, AKA what the hell am I doing?? Regardless, I do love you, Eric Heveron-Smith!)

I’d add this as an example of Michael’s missing some of the political point:
“My issue is that the thing you’re critiquing isn’t some firm opinion that anyone holds, it’s just the emergent properties of a bunch of different people’s subjective taste.”

There’s a chunk of literature about how ‘individual taste’ isn’t about individual subjective choice, but about cultural forces. So while these aesthetics might seem ‘subjective choices’ from the inside, they’re clearly part of broader patterns and structures of patriarchy and white hegemony. As soon as we see patterns, we can look for the forces that are invisible to the dominant group because they are so ‘normalised’.
ie we have normalised the idea that a bunch of white people playing Black music at an event promoted as ‘preserving the past’ is a good thing. We haven’t engaged with the idea that white people are gaining cultural power from this work, that modern Black musicians are marginalised, and that only seeing white people on stage supports the myth that Black people don’t like jazz or do it well.

This is another difficult bit for me:
“There’s a ton of room to play there for those of us that are deeply in love with the performers, arrangers, and composers of that era, and importantly, the current dancers, instructors, and organizers are also deeply educated fans of a wide range of old styles, and enjoy playing in that space – that’s why they hire these bands. (They’ve been geeking out on these rare recordings that they and their friends uncovered over the course of years of musical archeology, and look! someone’s playing that live?? Hell yeah I’m gonna hire them, that’s a dream come true!!)”

My feminist brain is saying “Who is ‘those of us’? And ‘their friends?’?”
Who is running these large events?
Who is managing the music?
It’s mostly white people, and mostly white men.

My follow up question would be, “If white men are doing the music stuff, what jobs do women do on these events?” and “What jobs to people of colour do on these events?” Are they handling the low-profile stuff like catering or volunteer management or budgets? Events like Focus spend a lot of time convincing people that music is the most important part of an event. The jobs men do. When punters might say, “Actually, the person who met me at registration and made me feel welcome was the most important person I met this weekend.”
The dominant discourse of modern lindy hop prioritises and values the work that white men do most highly.

Here’s another issue:
“The swing scene isn’t this philosophy-driven “preservation movement” in the way you’re making it out to be; it’s a loose collective of folks that happen to have a lot of taste in common. That’s…it. Trying to say their taste should be different is just… weird to me.”

This is a misleading premise.
This isn’t how ideology works. If it’s a fascist state, it might. But hegemony in the modern capitalist patriarchy works in a different way. We don’t have a scene spokesman standing at a mic declaiming, “We will only enjoy bands from 1935-1945. We will only dance to bands from the US.”
…wait. :D

But hegemony is more subtle. We get this message that ‘preservation is prime’ from a whole heap of sources and texts:

  • The only bands that get hired at mega-events are preservationist bands led and staffed by white men. Each of those independent messages tells me that big organisers don’t value the work of women or people of colour. It also suggests, implicitly, that the only _valuable_ or ‘good’ musicians are white men.
  • The only DJs who play those mega-events are white. And often white men (those the latter is changing, I’d argue that most of those white women DJs (myself included) are people who engage with dance in a particular way: assertive, relatively ambitiously, etc -> characteristics usually ascribed to hetero white men).

…and so on.

I’m interested in how this works in places like Seoul. There we see white bands flown into the country for big gigs. And they’re the same bands we see at American mega-events. But we also see local gendered and ethnicised relationships of power at work. Interestingly, Sage Minn’s band, one of the very few in Seoul, has women members. I wonder if it’s because they’re playing western music, Korean mores and values don’t apply in the same way? I actually saw a fab conference paper about pop culture in Seoul a few years ago that discusses this.

“Like, there’s nothing stopping anyone from experimenting with other flavors like those scenes do, or like another theoretical new scene could do. There are plenty of folks that don’t dig Ella Fitzgerald; Chick Webb, Billie Holiday; Teddy Wilson, Jimmy Rushing; Count Basie. I wouldn’t wanna live in a world where what we’re doing is the only thing.. and it’s not!”
…so you can do all that other stuff, just not here?

“I think that’s my other issue with this type of takedown —”
This is where this post gets a bit defensive. The original post was actually really gentle (I thought). But you know that saying, “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.”
If you’re used to adulation, a little light supposition feels like a take down.

“Last thing: I see “this” being the thing that’s blamed for lack of blackness in our scene very casually, on a regular basis. Y’all, the causes of that are soooo much worse than this one singular artistic impetus.”
This is a deeply problematic comment. I’ve seen this quite a lot in white discussions about racism (I actually did a Masters on it). If we only define racism as white cops killing Black kids, or KKK lynching Black men, then anything ‘less’ can be positioned as ‘not-racism’.
But we know that racist discourse is far more complex. All those white DJs and white bands and white MCs? That’s racism.

Here’s an example:
“there are a lot of great black musicians that play great swing and early jazz. Mostly we honestly just can’t afford them.”
This is racism.
In this sentence he is literally saying that he/we** do not value Black musicians enough to pay them what they’re worth.

It’s racism because of what is not said, and because of the implicit valuing of ‘historic’ Black work, and devaluing of contemporary Black work. We’ll only raise a zillion dollars to fund the transcription of work by dead Black men; we won’t shell out some of that money to pay living Black men and women a living wage.

More importantly, this statement presented with no facts or evidence, will become a ‘truth’ repeated all over the scene. It will become what we describe in cultural studies as a ‘myth’: a valuative statement that is repeated so often it becomes a ‘fact’ with huge, powerful status.
The effect of this type of cultural myth is that other events and organisers won’t book Black bands or artists because ‘they’re too expensive’. And the myth will grow.

But why. Why is a Black musician more expensive? Does he mean that he’ll only hire a brilliant Black musician, but won’t hire a less awesome Black musician, and is quite ok hiring mediocre white men musicians?

I can’t continue down this reasoning: mediocre white men. Oh to have your confidence and power.
**The way he elides ‘we’ and ‘I’ is telling – he positions himself with an important ‘many’/majority, rather than taking responsibility for his own choices. This establishes his position as part of a powerful ‘many’.

“and here’s my social media caveat – my life is nuts right now and I totally don’t have time for an extended FB debate, AKA what the hell am I doing??”
While I have sympathy for him, I’d like to remind the white world that Black Americans have been fighting like demons while their society rapes and murders them with official sanction. Women work on sexual harassment and assault issues while they are being harassed every day.
This is why we call it disruption: it disrupts the status quo. And if you’re a white man, it’s often the first time you’ve had to do this work while also managing your daily dramas.

As a final note, I’m gonna quote Audre Lorde:

For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change (source: Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider

In this context, I mean that accepting the premise of the original post is misleading. Following the instructions of a powerful white man will not help us deconstruct racism. We need to do something completely different.

I’m going to direct you to this post.
Diversity Means Disruption.

Why hire First Nations people into your mostly white structure and expect/want/demand everything to remain basically the same?
… diversity and inclusion policies and initiatives … are often shallow exercises as they are seldom created to challenge and disrupt whiteness within and outside the sector. We cannot change institutional racism without first changing institutions and without disruption, nothing will change.

Covid19 provides an opportunity for this disruption. Or does it? In the US and here in Australia, people of colour are disproportionately affected by the virus and its effects. They’re too busy fighting racism to think about jazz. Here is a really clever twitter thread, where the writer Abu Owaisi connects up the Victorian government’s locking 9 housing commission towers, the SES removing donated goods, white journalists’ influential commentary, and the devaluing of work by migrant community groups.

So, allies, time to dismantle the master’s house. Let’s do something completely new.

What is Black?

A friend on fb mentioned that it’s tricky to get a handle on how words can be used in different ways in activist literature, and it’s even harder to negotiate this stuff when you’re trying to learn about a particular social justice topic with the goal of doing activist work. She made a really good point: if you want to be an ally you want to understand and use the definitions and language of the people you’re working with. You don’t want to impose your own beliefs.

This is the sort of thing I’ve taught undergraduates quite a few times, and it’s one of my favourite topics. How do you read and evaluate a source, when you have a political goal in mind? It’s a skill, and one we can learn. Anyhoo, here are some of my thoughts.

How To Read Stuff
When we do a literature review widely on a topic, we find lots of different opinions and ideas, and many of them clash. In fact, it’s also totally legit to change your ideas about words or topics over the years… or months or days… as you read more, and learn more. And the very best part is that new things are being written all the time. New ideas to stimulate your brain and get you excited about the world.

Asking Questions About The Text
Something that helps us evaluate each text (each book, article, post, etc), is to ask some questions about the text itself. This questions is also called ‘textual analysis’.

  • Who is the author?
    What is their gender? Their ethnicity? How do they identify themselves? Do they identify themselves? What else have they written? Are they associated with a particular institution (a university, a government department, a think tank)?
  • What is the context of this text?
    Where did you find it? Is it a magazine article? A journal article? A book? A tv series? A film? A speech? When was it produced?
  • What ideology does it express?
    What are the values it portrays? Does it respond to other ideologies? Is it feminist? Activist? Racist? Does the author say things like ‘I position myself within Black radical feminism?’
  • What other texts and authors does it reference?
    Does it say good things about Martin Luther King? Does it talk about Stuart Hall? Are its references all white? All male? All straight?
  • Does it drop any jargon?
    Does it use words that have particular meanings, eg ‘Black’; ‘gender’; patriarchy’; the ‘establishment’; ‘rational thought’?
    All these words are used in different ways by different discourses and ideologies.

Go In With A Goal
There is a lot of fun stuff to read and watch and listen to. But it helps to stay on track. Ask yourself:
What do you want to learn?
What are your goals?

Discourse: The Relationships Between Texts, And Sharing Ideas
In my area (of cultural studies), the word ‘discourse’ means ‘all the words and articles and tv shows and songs and stories on a topic’. So when we talk about the discourse of ‘Blackness’, there are a trillion different texts involved. Some of them agree, a lot of them don’t. And we will argue a lot about what is relevant.

Academic discourse encourages disagreement or critical discussion. It’s common for a specific journal to have an author publish an article, then someone else publish a response article in the next issue. There are famous fights between authors that have led to screaming matches at conferences. But there have also been excellent discussions where authors have gone on to work together and do great work that changes the world.

Now, this friend was referring to two different texts, and was wondering how to read these two different ideas when they seemed to be very different. I think this is a brilliant question. It’s the core of critical thinking, I reckon. So I had a go at answering. The next section of this post uses some close textual analysis to see what each text is saying, and how we might read them together to develop our own ideas about this topic.

Ideology: The Ideas That Explain The Connections Between Texts
The next useful term is ‘ideology’. Ideology is, basically ‘ideas about the world’ and there are lots of competing and contrasting ideologies at work in any one discourse. So in this ‘Blackness’ discourse, we can see the queer Black American masculinity of DeFrantz’s ideology, but also the feminist Latina ideology at work. They have common elements (they both talk about gender, about ethnicity, and about race), but in different countries and cultures. If the two authors met at a party, they’d probably have a lot to talk about and agree on.

How can both these articles be ‘true’ at the same time?
Let’s do some textual analysis.
The articles we’re looking at are:

  • Who is the author?
    Tommy DeFrantz is an American man who identifies as black and gay.
    In the second piece you’ve referenced, the author is ‘Collaborator Sally’, and we can’t find out much more about them than that.
    If you do a search for DeFrantz’ work (in academic publishing, youtube videos, etc), you’ll find a bunch of articles, books, videos and so on. And you’ll discover he’s a university-based academic, working at a very prestigious American university.
    This doesn’t mean that DeFrantz is a ‘better’ source than Collaborator Sally, but it does mean that we know _more_ about him. And his position as a peer-reviewed author means that his work has been interrogated and discussed and thought about by a lot of people.
  • What is the context?
    The DeFrantz text is a section in a book, published by DeFrantz. The second is a post/article in a Spanish language magazine that has a range of articles discussing gender, politics, and ethnicity. One is written in English, the other in Spanish.
    Neither is more important or more valuable than the other, but they are writing for different audiences. While they’re both talking about the African diaspora, one is talking about being a Black man in America today (and during slavery), and the other about being a Black woman in Latin America today.
  • Which is ‘true’?
    It’s a trick question. Both definitions of ‘Black’ can be true at the same time. For a Latin-American woman the word ‘Black’ can be something she reclaims from negative use in her country/region. For DeFrantz, ‘Black’ is a word he uses with other Black folk, often in a casual setting.
    The supercool thing about this, is that they both understand that words are tricky, and don’t have fixed meanings.
    This idea has its roots in cultural studies: the idea that words are just sounds or marks on a page, until someone reads them and interprets them. The _way_ we use them is informed by who we are. So as a white, middle class Australian woman, I don’t feel any ownership (or right to ownership) of the word ‘Black’. For authors like DeFrantz, ‘Black’ is a powerful word for identity and culture, and when he uses it, he’s saying something about who he is, and the culture he belongs to.

So what do we do with this analysis?

Ideas or Practice?
Some academic discourse is all about theory. Some is more practical. For example, I tend to think of myself as a ‘pragmatic feminist’, a term I borrowed from Nancy Fraser. She argued in one of her books that ‘women’s studies’ as a discipline has no value if it doesn’t involve practical activism – feminism. So, for me, ‘doing feminism’ is about doing political activism. And in this case, doing what I can to improve the world for people who are marginalised. As Maya Angelou once famously told a bunch of graduates: now that you are empowered, you have a responsibility to empower others.

You can see in that last paragraph how I took the ideas of two different feminists (one Black and one white, both women, both American and writing in the 80s) to develop my own political ideas. My choosing these two tells you something about me – my age, my background, etc.

I found Tommy DeFrantz’ work very inspiring when I wrote my PhD on dance. Who he is as a person was important to this.
I met him at a conference, and speaking to him was extra inspiring: he’s a dancer. He wanted to go out to dance and to hang out and socialise. He didn’t mind that I was just a student and he a visiting scholar. He was a gentle, clever man with a great sense of humour. And the things he said in his paper about Afro-futurism and film and dance were exciting. I’m not a Black, gay, American man, but I can find his ideas and ways of thinking useful and exciting.

Back to the original point: how can I use the different definitions of ‘Black’ in my practice, as an activist, and an ally?

The word ‘praxis’ is a combination of this thinking and ideology and actual practical work.

What is Black?
The nice thing about all this is that the word ‘Black’ can be used in lots of different ways.
It can be a powerful political and ideological tool. eg in Australia, Black or Blak is a political and cultural way of talking about being Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. It can involve ethnicity (ie culture and identity – who you are, what you wear, the language you speak, the way you were raised, your beliefs, the food you eat, etc), politics (who you identify as and with as a citizen, whether you engage in activism or political action, etc), etc. Lots more than just skin colour.

I read a really nice article the other day where a Samoan woman was explaining to her son that he wasn’t ‘part Samoan’; he _was Samoan_. I’ve also heard Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people say the same thing: you’re not part Aboriginal, you _are_ Aboriginal. You _are_ Blac(k).
This is very powerful and important because white colonial powers spend a lot of time and energy dividing people of colour into groups, and then trying to ‘breed out’ the blackness. Racism is about believing one ‘race’ is better than another. White supremacy is about believing that whiteness and white culture is better.

In Australian history, ‘integration’ policies were about ‘breeding out’ blackness. Children with lighter skin were taken from their Black parents and fostered with white people, while their darker skin siblings were not (there is a great film called Sapphires which has the most touching, wonderful scene at the end where a girl is reminded of this by her grandmother). This ‘Stolen Generations’ of Australia is an example of how white governments tried to break Black culture by removing Black children from Black parents and ‘making them white’.

The phrase “I’m Black and I’m proud!” in 1960s civil rights discourse is a good example of how identifying as Black can be empowering. This reclaiming of a word is a bit like saying ‘queer’ in the queer community in the 80s. A term of insult becomes a shout of pride:
“Yes I am Gay! And it’s beautiful!”
“YES, I am BLACK, and I am PROUD of that, not ashamed!”

Sit down, white people.

So it seems that white people are having trouble dismantling racism in the lindy hop world.

Despite at least 30 years* of hard work, we haven’t seen dancers deconstruct systems that privilege white men (for DJing, teaching, MCing, band, and other high profile gigs).
Because the people with the power are white men, who, when it comes down to it, just don’t want to give up their own spot on a prestigious teaching/DJing/band/event team.
I can count on the fingers of one finger the number of times I’ve seen a white person give up a high profile gig _publicly_ for a person of colour. And that was a genderflex person. I know people** surely do this stuff in private…

…wait. Do they? I know women and trans folk who do. But straight white cismen? Hm.
Basically, if we want shit to get sorted, white bros have to sit the fuck down. Or better yet, book the room, put the kettle on, and get in the kitchen to keep the cake coming, so everyone else can get shit done.

You know, watch and learn, rather than trying to manage other people into doing what they want. Again.

I know that my job, as a white woman, is to shoosh. It’s to be that person who clears the path so that Aunty can get to her seat and sit down comfortably before bringing the smackdown. I know that my job is to get people of colour – particularly women of colour – onto stages, with microphones in their hands to talk about anything they like. To give them the physical space in a class to do and say and teach anything they want. I also know it’s my job not to interrupt a group of black women deep in conversation in the bar, even if I really want to hang out with them.

Sit down and listen, white people. The adults are talking.

I’m actually a fan of letting go of how we (white people) have been doing things _generally_. Maybe waiting for black leadership to get behind isn’t the way forward?
It’s something I’m really interested in.

Instead of assuming that things are basically ok as they are, they just need more melanin, we could start by assuming that we’ve been making a mess here, white people. So stop with the white supremacy. White ideas do not reign supreme; white ways of doing things are not the best.

White people: instead of pushing for assimilating poc colour into white institutions, why not just assume the institutions are inherently racist, and learn something from Black culture about how to do things in different ways?

It’s an idea I’ve been chasing in my thinking about gender roles in lindy hop.

White people: instead of trying to salvage 1950s gender roles and the way they’ve been mapped onto lindy hop, why not just assume _these_ institutions are hopeless, and learn something from Black culture about how to do gender? I mean, Black dancers have been trying to tell us for years and years: we don’t do gender like that, so don’t go reading Black heterosexuality like it’s white heterosexuality. So, white people, why don’t we just believe them? Is it that we just don’t trust Black people to truly be right?

So I’m thinking (especially in this moment of pause, where covid19 is giving us a chance to reboot), why don’t we just assume the way we’ve been doing things in lindy hop is dumb and restart?

I know white people and especially white men, abhor a power vacuum, and perceive alternative modes of interaction as vacuum (do straight white men see in the egalitarian spectrum?), but hold off trying to fix things for just a tick.

Nathan Sentance wrote a great article called ‘Diversity Means Disruption’, and I went to town on it here, so I won’t go into it again now. Also it is bedtime for me

*People have been talking and acting on this same old shit since lindy hop got popular with white people (again).
**And by people I mean white cismen.

Pay the rent

what should we do when a white teacher rewrites history to make them look virtuous?

I’m not sure if this question from a fb discussion refers to deleting comments, or about teaching practice.
If it’s the former, then it’s a matter of poor social media management. It’s quite common for inexperienced SM managers to delete difficult posts. With more experience, SM managers learn to engage with this sort of comment in a more constructive way. So I’ll set that aside as a separate issue.

If it’s the latter (and I paraphrase), ‘What should we do if a white teacher presents a false or misleading view of history to make themselves look like a really good person,’ then that’s a different issue. Again, I’m not really sure how to address this, because Black people have been telling us the answer for years. We just haven’t been listening.

So I’ll present another question:

How should we respond to white teachers who whitewash the black history of Black dance?
How should we respond to white people in positions of power who tell a story of black history where white crimes and Black suffering are marginalised?

White teachers who don’t talk about the Black history of a dance are deliberately devaluing the impact of colonialism, of slavery, of segregation, of racism, (all white actions) on Black experience. If we, white people, don’t acknowledge the white actions of the past, we can avoid being held accountable for our ancestors’ behaviour. If we establish our white ancestors as ‘good people’, we defend and develop our own right to talk with authority about the topic (dance).

In fact, ‘dance’ is stripped of its racial markers and becomes just ‘dance’ rather than ‘black dance’, or ‘Black dance’. That’s a good example of cultural appropriation – taking the culture of another people. And in this case, then commodifying it – making it into a product from which we benefit financially. It’s also a good example of colonialism: white people invading black country, taking the bits they want with violence, then retelling the history of that country to hide their own brutality.

So how should we respond to this?
Our own power and ethnicity make a difference. Our role in reparation and repair is commensurate with our own privilege. In other words, the more power we have, the more we can and should do. So, middle class white people who have and still do benefit from Black oppression, you have a lot of work to do.

If Black dance is cultural country, and white dance teachers today are cultural imperialists, then what should we do?
As Aboriginal Australians say, we must “pay the rent”. I’m going to use this example from Black activist thinking to answer:

Since the, 1970’s there have been repeated calls by Indigenous activists for non-Aboriginal Australians to ‘Pay the Rent’ to the rightful Indigenous land owners for the occupation of land in Australia and/or in recognition of Indigenous sovereignty.

Since then, the ‘Pay the Rent’ scheme, has been actively operating to provide, opportunities for non-Indigenous Australians to support initiatives controlled by the traditional land owners in their struggle for self-determination and economic independence.

Today ‘Pay the Rent’ is a reasonable, rational and responsible way of ensuring the survival of the oldest living culture in the world.

It is a significant contribution to the process of Reconciliation, and embracing its philosophy is a sign of growing maturity among today’s ‘Australians’.

(source: https://www.invasionday.org/pay-the-rent-campaigns)

So here’s a good model for ‘what we should do’ when faced with white colonialism in dance:

– White people should support Black projects and activism.
With money, with signal boosting, with personal support, by contributing labour. _Support_ is the key word. Not co-opt or invent alternative responses.

In this specific case, then, white people, it’s time to pay the rent. I know I personally can’t change the way Egle and other teachers like her (and there are plenty of them) think and act. But there are other things I can do:
– Instead of watching their videos or attending their classes or events, I can watch videos of Black dancers, and attend Black run events.
– Instead of giving these teachers my money, I can donate to funds like the Frankie Manning Foundation, or the Maputo Swing fundraisers.
– I can stop sharing and promoting events, routines, music, and other cultural product by white people, and _start_ sharing and promoting Black dance and music.
– When I hear a white teacher give an historic dance step a new name, I can butt in with the original Black name. I can interrupt white mapping of Black country. Yes, even in class. Speak truth to power.
– If I hear a white teacher teach an historic step without name-checking the Black choreographer or Black history of that step, I can interrupt and say their name. Speak truth to power.

If all these sound familiar, it’s because Black people have been asking you to do these thing for YEARS. You just haven’t been listening.
If all these sound boring or uninspiring, it’s because it’s not about YOU and your creativity. It’s about you getting out of the way so that Black artists can reclaim Black country.
If these sound intimidating or scary, it’s because white imperialism is an act of terror and cultural theft. Be brave. Stand up. Pay the rent.

How to be ‘public’ dancers in a covid19 world

I think you all know that I took a break from teaching and running classes last year in about June, before I went away for a long trip. I found it gave me a real break, and I liked it. Though I truly missed the actual teaching part, I didn’t and don’t miss the everyday pressure of management and promotion.

I pivoted a bit, and put more energy into DJing, running live band gigs and weekend events, and I got a bit more into pattern drafting (completely non-dancing related creative fun). And then I started doing 3 days a week of dance practice with a partner, and I was much happier. It’s been many years since I just did dance stuff for my own pleasure and satisfaction. More, please.

This week I’m actually beginning to feel like being creative in a dance-related way. I was really inspired by the little bit of the WHO fundraiser I saw. It was so nice to see people in my timezone and region (Asia) doing normal dance stuff (Vietnam were social dancing), and to hear and see Sing talking about dance <3 And it was lovely to be an audience and listen to friends DJ. I liked it because it was a new thing for me. When I stopped running the classes, I feel a disconnect a few other dance friends have expressed lately. What should I write in email newsletters? Who was I talking to? What did I have to say? I felt like my personal voice was subsumed by the 'voice of the business', and I was uncomfortable with that. So now I'm working on 'stuff I love' and 'stuff I want to do‘.

I’ve been thinking that small events and projects are going to come first in the post-COVID and living-with-COVID world, for safety’s sake. And that a smaller, local focus will perhaps be much more fulfilling and personally stimulating than huge-market stuff. Whether it’s a small class, or a small party where people just socialise in a normal human way, with talking and food and drink and music and dancing, rather than the strange modern lindy hop way, which is nothing but dance.

This hard reset could be a good thing for all of us. As Jon Tigert says in a fb discussion, “Im much more fulfilled by local interactions,” and perhaps this could be a much better, healthier and sustainable direction for lindy hop. Small scale, fulfilling participation in local culture, that can focus on equity and justice and joy and satisfaction on a smaller, more sustainable scale. Rather than thinking ‘I have to spread and preserve lindy hop’, we can think ‘I want and need to have meaningful social interactions because we could go back into iso any time, and I know I miss this real human contact. It’s what feeds my heart.’

And our ‘marketing’ could take that angle: real social interactions that help us get through hard times.

Landrights in Western Australia and the Yindjibarndi people

Some very good news.
The High Court has upheld the Yindjibarndi people’s native title rights to their land.
Fortescue Metals Group applied to appeal these rights, and got a big ‘nope’ from the High Court.

The Yindjibarndi people live in what has been called Western Australia since invasion, but has been black country for 40 000 years. If you look it up on this great map, you’ll find them in blue on the far left of the continent, above the most eastern most bit.

You can read about the Yindjibarndi languages here, on this epic good map.

Languages are important, because you can trace who lived where by the languages they speak. A people will share some linguistic elements (and languages) with neighbouring people.
Language is culture, and the number of people speaking a language can tell you about that people’s history.
The Stolen Generations interrupted the transfer of language and culture between generations in many areas. Reconciliation Week is supposed to be (in part) about making amends for the Stolen Generation.
You cannot understand Australian history without reading the Bringing Them Home (1997) report.
Please note: this Report warrants a Content Warning for sexual violence, neglect, persons who are deceased, and so on. If you are an Australian, particularly if you are not a Aboriginal or Torres Strait islander Australian, you should try to read this Report.

What is Native Title?

Useful things to think about in regards to native title today:

  • water rights (who owns them, who can buy or sell them);
  • mining (who has access to land to mine);
  • continuous occupation of land (and proof thereof, including rock paintings and burial grounds).

    Note: native title is determined by the High Court. There are 7 High Court judges, 3 are women, none are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. It’s worth noting that one of them, Justice Virginia Bell was a volunteer at the Redfern Legal Centre in the 70s, a centre that provided legal support for the 1978 Mardi Gras protesters (the first mardi gras march), for local Aboriginal community members, and other civil rights activists.
    Read more about the Redfern Legal Centre here.

I’d like to see the Australian Ballet do THIS

Dance people! Argh! You’re home, you can’t dance or see your mates, you are going nuts. What can you do?

If only we had a pool of highly motivated, experienced volunteers and managerial types with time on their hands. If only we had an extensive network of local, national, and international people who liked doing community stuff. If only we had fb groups and email lists and instagram accounts! IF ONLY.

Wait. We DO.
The international lindy hop community is fully sick on the whole organisation thing.

Need a group of tired and confused people sorted into groups quickly and efficiently? Have I got the class-levels-audition judge or competitor marshall for YOU.

Need someone who can organise food and beds for hundreds of people? Have I got the housing coordinator or catering team for YOU.

Need someone who can balance a tight budget, weedle cash out of reluctant individuals, or write a shit-hot grant application? I have the event organisers for YOU.

I haven’t had a chance to think about this properly, yet, but I do know there are a lot of worried, disheartened people in my immediate community looking for something to _do_ to help. Why not put your big brains to work?

Here are a couple of things I’ve come up with:

Hassle our MPs:
– If the dole (newstart, pension, etc) is increased to a liveable wage, we’ll all be better off when we lose a lot more jobs. People with an income spend money, and that means they feed money into the economy. Which is good for all of us, not just those of us who sell bread or run restaurants.

-> So we want to hassle our members of parliament about this. Write letters. Send emails. Get tapping, folk.

Support our local charities:
– Local charities like The Exodus Foundation and Addison Road Community Centre have had a huge increase of people coming in for help in the past month. They need food, basic health stuff (TP, pads, etc), and they need volunteers.
– Lots of us are going to be needing these services soon.

-> So we need to take our extra groceries down there in person. This will give us a chance to scope out the place, and get familiar. Which will make it easier to…
-> Volunteer at places like Exodus or Addison Road. They always need people to do jobs like making food, cleaning up, driving cars, washing things, and so on.

It kind of sucks at the moment, but things will probably get worse. BUT there are things we can do. And the international dance community is kind of crazily competent. I mean, we operate huge cultural events with virtually no government funding. I’d like to see the Australian Ballet pull off the shit _we’re_ capable of!

Time to stop dancing, Sydney

Time to cancel your partner dance classes, Sydney. Gotta flatten that curve.

I know. I’m usually all in favour of curves. The more the better. But not this time.

Our government is only enforcing a ban on gatherings of 500 or more people at the moment. But they’re normal people, not lindy hoppers or (god forbid) balboa and blues dancers. Who don’t seem to recognise personal space boundaries.

As partner dancers we touch a lot more than non-dancing crowds.

We are generally pretty good at sharing germs, but in this moment, we’re going to be too good. Let’s aim to be rubbish at sharing germs. Aim low, Sydney, aim low.

COVID-19 is spread through ‘respiratory droplets’ (drops of wet stuff from our mouths and noses), and through physical contact. When we dance, we often have our mouths open as we laugh and smile, we sweat a lot, we are constantly touching our faces, wiping off sweat, etc etc. Then we wipe those droplets into our orifices, and all over our environment. We blow them onto chairs and tables and sinks and phones and bags and dance shoes. And then it can live there for a few days.

Soz, but solo jazz will not stop us germing all over each other. Solo jazzers are epic respiratory droplet distributors.

Dancing one metre or even two metres apart isn’t going to cut it. Yes, that snot goob flew out of your nose and onto a chair or door handle or table. And someone else will touch it. Or that time you laughed, and threw your head back? You sprayed mouth goobs all over the room. And that sweaty towel you rubbed over your eyes and mouth and nose and face? You’ve just left it on the table. Or your bag. And now you’re touching someone’s hand. EEEEk. Even in a time of un-pandemic, that’s gross.

The best way to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is to avoid transmission through direct contact. No touchy.
And no blowing respiratory droplets onto other people.

Don’t panic!
Here are the important rules:

  • Wash your hands a lot. With soap and water, for 20 seconds.
  • Practice social distancing.
  • If you’ve just come home from overseas, you have to quarantine yourself at home for 14 days.
  • Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze, and then wash your hand immediately. With soap and water
  • Stay in contact with your dance buddies using the Internet.

What is social distancing?
Social distancing is an effective measure, but it is recognised that it cannot be practised in all situations and the aim is to generally reduce potential for transmission.
While practising social distancing, people can travel to work (including public transport). For non-essential activities outside the workplace or attendance at schools, universities and childcare – social distancing includes:
– avoiding crowds and mass gatherings where it is difficult to keep the appropriate distance away from others

THIS ONE: THIS IS US, DANCERS:
– avoiding small gatherings in enclosed spaces, for example family celebrations
> WE ARE GERMY. LIKE FAMILY IN AN ENCLOSED SPACE.

THIS IS ALSO US!
– attempting to keep a distance of 1.5 metres between themselves and other people where possible, for example when they are out and about in public place.
>GOOD LUCK KEEPING 1.5M BETWEEN YOU AND A BALBOA DANCER, FREND.

AND US AGAIN!!
– avoiding shaking hands, hugging, or kissing other people
> JUST TRY NOT TO SHAKE HANDS IWHT A LINDY HOPPER. I DARE YOU.

– avoiding visiting vulnerable people, such as those in aged care facilities or hospitals, infants, or people with compromised immune systems due to illness or medical treatment.

Teachers:
Don’t freak about losing your students or your venue or any of that stuff.
You will lose money. That’s going to happen.

BUT

You can keep in contact with your students using fb groups, and by starting a ‘community’ (discussion on your fb page).
Keep posting on your fb page, and engage people in conversation online.
Post little videos of yourself talking about dance (keep it short!) and your tips for practicing at home.

AND

Prepare for your triumphant return by rebooting some aspects of your business (ever wanted to rejig your teaching strategies? Now’s the time). Rethink your business plan. Start developing a lovely new promotional strategy.

MOST OF ALL

Keep in contact with other teachers and organisers, and get some virtual hand holding and support. Sydney is a ridiculously friendly scene, considering how many different schools and businesses our dance community has. Heck, we’re pretty much the only city in the world that could develop a shared response to sexual assault and harassment. Remember that time in 2016 we ran a replacement exchange when SSF had a stumble? We put together an ENTIRE weekend of parties with a week’s notice. And it was GREAT.

Ways climate change is affecting lindy hop in Australia

– We don’t run events in January and February as it’s too physically hot, and December is on the way out.
This means that we’ll lose a quarter of the calendar year for big weekend events;

– Musicians can’t make gigs because they’ve lost their homes in bushfires.
This means that our world standard jazz scene is losing talent and experience, and dancers are losing potential bands and musicians;

– Bushfire smoke reduces air quality to the point where it’s dangerous to dance in unfiltered air.
This means that regular classes are cancelled, and dancers must reduce practice schedules and venues;

– Classes are cancelled during heat waves.
This means that interruptions to the class program loses students, and reduces the number (and diversity) of people in the scene;

– Public transport (ferries) is cancelled due to smoke haze.
This means that people need to drive to class, or find other modes of transport;

– We can no longer use spaces that don’t have air conditioning.
This means that we have to move into more expensive venues, often ones working within Clubs Australia with gambling and precarious hire arrangements, and we lose our smaller local venue relationships.

– Flights are cancelled because of extreme storms or reduced visibility.
This means that dancers and musicians have their flights rescheduled so they miss events. This in turn reduces numbers at events, band cancellations, and costs attendees in lost registration fees and missed competitions.

– Bushfires and dust storms decrease the lifespan of sound equipment.
This means that gear needs to be stored in safer (more expensive) storage, and needs to be replaced more often, draining the coffers of organisers and societies.

Buy more drinks, or fund jazz in new ways?

The Unity Hall Jazz Band had the longest running jazz residency in the world.

Their host, the Workers’ Bar and Restaurant in the Unity Hall Hotel, has just announced changes to their monthly program. Now the Unity Hall Jazz Band only play two weeks out of every four in the month. The third is given to the usual monthly Dan Barnet Big Band gig, and the fourth week has just been given to rockabilly bands.
This is not good news.

A couple of weeks ago I spoke to one of the younger band members, who was worried about the gig, and more concerned about the band leader, Gary Walford, who’s been leading the Unity Hall band for all the forty seven years of this residency. The venue owners had told the venue manager to increase the earnings at the bar, or the band would be cancelled.
My friend asked me what we could do, and I suggested the usual call-round to dancers to encourage them to spend more at the venue. I had no hope for this ploy. It never works. And I have no shortage of reservations about promoting drinking in the local community. Particularly when alcoholism is a real problem in the jazz musician community.

But I’ve been thinking about this issue.

All over the world, free weekly live jazz gigs get cancelled because there’s a lack of income over the bar. Before they get cancelled, there’s a push to have dancers spend more at the bar.
And then the gig gets cancelled.

We know that lindy hoppers are a bad market for bars, because they don’t drink, and they don’t eat. Because they’re up and dancing, and lindy hop is too tricky if you drink more than a drink or two. At least the way people like to dance it here in Sydney. And the scene generally tends to be people who don’t drink much. Good news for our livers and our domestic lives. Bad news for pub economies.

We also know that bars will book bands specifically to help people have fun and spend money at the bar. If the people don’t have fun and don’t spend money at the bar, the band gets cancelled.

We also know that keno, pokies, and other automatic gambling systems (specifically not social things like bingo) bring heaps of money into a venue (if you have a licence).
And we also know that bands distract people from gambling.

So big corporate venues (who are also members of clubs Australia and have gambling licences) are more likely to encourage gambling, because they make money.
-> there are studies all about these things, and evidence to support this.

So I’m thinking:
– Encouraging dancers to spend money at the bar won’t work, as they don’t spend enough to compete with the pokies and keno. And there are no good consequences to pushing for cultural changes that see dancers increasing the amount they drink;
– Encouraging mixed dancer/drinker audiences won’t work either, as neither bring in as much as a gambling clientele;
– We need another income stream for venues.

I’ve been wondering if venues like the Workers, even though they’re all about money and gambling rather than music and socialising, could be encouraged to apply for grants.
Ironically, there is funding available from the Office of Responsible Gambling in NSW to subsidise arts/live music projects in community venues.

So the venue could apply for grants money, or the group as a whole could do it.

I’m not the first to have this thought about live music venues in Sydney. Our live music culture is at risk, mostly because the venues in which it is played and enjoyed are struggling. And even though they’re not applied in Balmain (home to the Unity Hall Hotel) and the inner west (home to most of Sydney’s lindy hop), the lock out laws haven’t helped with Sydney’s night life.
Fewer gigs, so bands move south to Melbourne or north to Brisbane. The decline in arts funding nationally and in NSW has seen younger jazz musicians going overseas for work. Last year’s ethically dubious redirection of funding from successful applicants to Opera NSW by the state minister, and the Liberal party government signalled not only a general decline in funding, but a deliberate redirection of funding away from community arts projects, and towards high arts projects.

Of course, this government funded approach to paying for live jazz runs contrary to the free market, small-government-advocating capitalist ethos. The Liberal party is doing its best to deconstruct arts funding. And to promote gambling (and gambling revenue). The welfare state, the state that fosters the arts, and public funding for creative thinking in the arts and sciences, has been steadily undone by previous and current governments. And with a newly elected Liberal government in NSW, things won’t be getting any better.

While jazz is no longer vernacular music, a free, afternoon live band gig in a pub is certainly community arts practice, engaging ordinary, local people of all ages. And there is a connection to be made between the NSW state government’s dependence on gambling income (taxes) and the decline of ordinary, community arts practice. Gambling, it seems, is not only destructive to families and small business, it is also dangerous to community arts practice and community social spaces.

And that’s as far as my thinking has gone.