I’m doing my first ‘public’ blues set* at the blues pit this Sunday, and’ve been going through my music to sort out stuff I might play. I Â got to thinking about how I may handle it, as a DJ. My feeling is that the deal will work much as with lindy hoppers – combine tempos, careful transitions, manipulate energy levels.
But I’ve noticed a few things that make it a bit different to DJing for lindy hoppers:
– the tempo range is far smaller. While I’ve been reading that varying tempos is actually more important in blues dancing in the States than one might expect, the range is actually fairly limited. With lindy, I tend to think that I’m working between 115 and 250bpm (pretty much – give or take). With blues, I’m looking at a range between about 45 and 115bpm.
I know that there are other DJs who may vary the tempo range a little more for blues (but I can’t really talk more about that), but from my experiences at the Blues Pit, I reckon this is the safe range.
– the energy levels are more important as a result. Working with such a small tempo range, I think you have to be a bit more aware of how the music makes you feel.
I’ve seen blues DJs get up and play a series of songs seemingly at random – it feels like they’re just playing ‘their favourite songs’, one after another. Just being ‘slow’ isn’t really enough to make songs work together. The problem with blues is that the tempos are so low, the vibe in the room can be so mellow, that it’s all too easy for the crowd to sit down, start chatting, and not get up again. So I really do think you need to work the energy levels and mood of the room. Just as with lindy, I guess.
– there’s a greater tolerance for a wider range of musical styles in blues dancers than lindy hoppers (in Melbourne atm, anyway). I know there are purists who won’t tolerate ‘non-swing’ or ‘non-jazz’ or even ‘non-blues’ in blues dancing, but I’m tending to lean towards the camp who feel that ‘blues dancing’ is such a wide and flexible notion, that we can really borrow ‘blues music’ from a wide range of blues styles: 20s blues, slow drags, 12bar blues structures and the ‘blues key’, rhythm n blues from the 50s (60s, 70s, etc), etc, but even move into stuff like funk and soul. Not to mention the more ‘arty’ piano- and small combo- driven instrumental stuff (like Junior Mance, Oscar Peterson, Jay McShann, etc).
My personal feeling as a dancer is that ‘music for blues dancing’ feels best if it has a solid beat. By solid beat I don’t mean insistent beat, but that kind of deep, solid and low-down bass that makes you move your hips. So I’m happy with a kind of hip hop beat as well.
Having said that, it makes complete sense to me to play mostly from the jazz and blues genres, not just because it suits blues’ positioning within a swing dance community which favours lindy and other jazz dances, but because that stuff is simply often so much more musically interesting and challenging than some of the newer or non-jazz stuff.
I also feel that you can’t really do, say 20s charleston without doing slow blues or drags – it just feels like you’re leaving out half of the musical and emotional story.
– the lyrics seem more important with 12 bar blues (in that traditional form) than they do to lindy. So I think that playing more songs with vocals is perhaps more workable than lindy. I really like this style of blues music, mostly because I like the combination of humour, sadness, longing, desire and irony. In his book ‘stomping the blues’, Arthur Murray talks about how ‘singing the blues’ isn’t just about singing sad songs. it’s also about singing (and dancing) to drive out the blues. So you get these interesting contrasts between sad, sad lyrics and upbeat, energetic melodies and rhythms. Or you get seriously slow, saucy rhythms and melodies with funny, sarcastic or ironic or just plain funny lyrics. All this hung on a relatively simple musical structure (A, A, B or whatever it is).
So it feels like the lyrics are especially important, and encourage us as dancers to move in these layers of meanings – not just sexy all the time. Not just super-slow.
Having said that, I think it’d be a bit dull if we left out other musical styles, such as slow drags, which have all those other wonderful musical and social meanings.
-> I think that all of these points are a result of the fact that (or contribute to) blues dancing is less ‘structured’ than lindy (well, not when you do lindy the way I do: “structure? What, you can do lessons in this shit?”), so people feel free to experiment and innovate.
In addition, blues is so slow, you really have time to work on expressing all these feelings and contrasting emotions. So you can do technically difficult steps which aren’t possible at higher tempos, and you can really milk every musical iota out of the songs. Because you’ve got the time. So it really helps if the music is more interesting.
Other things I’m thinking about as a DJ:
– the set is an after-class set, and most of the dancers will be new to blues dancing (as regular blues dancing nights are relatively new to melbourne), but most of them will be familiar with swinging jazz or blues music (from their lindy).
– I’ve only got 45 minutes, which is tricky, as blues dancing takes a while to warm up to, good blues nights last late into the night, it feels right to take longer with each partner (more than the 2 song rule for lindy, definitely right for loooong songs), and it takes longer to work through moods – the curve or wave is kind of longer.
– the room is seriously crowded – it’s small, there’s far, far, FAR less room for each couple than in lindy rooms. And I’m standing at floor level to DJ, so my view of the dance floor will be limited.
As per usual, I’m set on avoiding the ‘teach dancers about music’ thing or ‘expand their minds’ thing, or ‘be historically accurate’ thing, even though it’d be nice to really get into some old scratchy blues, eg. As with lindy, if I go in there with a mission, I will almost certainly stuff up. It’s always best to work with the vibe the room is giving off.
It’s going to be really interesting: I’m wondering if these ideas I have about the similarities between DJing for lindy hoppers and blues dancers will hold up in practice.
I’d be interested in any feedback from people who’ve DJed for bot …
*ie not a private party
…yes, you have read this post before. but not here. here