Jazz fandom in Australia failing again

I’m part of the AUSTRALIAN JAZZ LOVERS fb page, all-caps because ok boomer. It’s generally a pretty unpleasant place to be, because it’s sexist, racist, homophobic, and generally full of shit.

I did notice recently that members of the group’s community had booked two women from the Shake em Up Jazz Band for the Australian Jazz Convention (an event that was first held in my own suburb of Ashfield, Sydney in 1948). But even that couldn’t convince me to go to this whitest of white man events.

I was really surprised to see this on their page today:

The logo for the 2019 Australian Jazz Convention shows a line drawing outline of seven musicians. It seems wrong that, especially when two women musicians from New Orleans were special guests, all the musos shown in the official logo are men – no women in the band. I didn’t notice on the badge – too small – but it was obvious to me on the large posters in the Albury Club on New Year’s Eve.

(link)

There was nothing but shitposting for this comment. And because I am bed-ridden and bored in the Swedish winter, I responded. Of course.

Ken Farmer wrote at one point in the thread:

Ken Farmer But it IS gender specific. I’m sure the artist didn’t think, ‘I’ll be gender specific: men only’, but has done this without thinking. This is culturally imbedded prejudice, stuff that happens without thought and is usually not noticed. It takes time to change, and we must all try to notice, and remark on it when we do.

And I agreed. And I pulled out this reply:

Agree.

To do an old school textual analysis of why the figures in this image ‘read’ masculine:

  • The figures’ ‘hair’, even in silhouette looks ‘short’. This isn’t _always_ a masculine trait, but it is _commonly_ associated with men and masculinity in white Australian culture;
  • The musculature of the figures, particularly around the shoulders, reads ‘masculine’ (broader than a woman’s), another characteristic which isn’t _always_ masculine, but is often used to denote or depict masculinity in white Australia;
  • One of the figures is wearing a brimmed hat, more particularly, the type of hat that men wore in the ‘jazz’ and ‘swing’ eras, and is preferred by fans of this type of music. It’s also coded ‘masculine’ by white Australian culture, but also be a wealth of images depicting ‘jazz’ culture and masculinity;
  • There are no vocalists or singers in the image. In the modern jazz world most women participate in jazz as singers. Again, a gendered and not particularly great trend (because women and girls are discouraged from playing instruments by various social factors). But it does suggest that because there are no ‘vocalists’ in this image, singers and vocalists (women) are not important enough to draw in a logo.

As someone points out elsewhere in this thread, it’s a common trend for an (inexperienced) designer to use iconic photos as source material for a simplified human image. The repetition of this theme – that we can use iconic photos of humans playing instruments, all of whom are men – repeats the idea that ‘all humans who play jazz are men’. It’s not said explicitly, but it’s implied through this repetition. The point that no one has commented on this before, and that so few people are supporting Ken’s original observations suggests that the primary audience for this image accept this normalised idea of jazz = masculine.

It might not seem important to not have figures clearly identified as ‘women’ or ‘girls’ or even anyone who is not an adult man. But a logo is, literally, an abstracted image designed to represent a whole brand. In this case, the logo is intended to be a quick way to identify a flyer or picture or film or website or facebook group as ‘about the australian jazz convention’.

We can make further observations about the logo and what it means by where we see it in context.
The Australian jazz scene (particularly this part of the jazz scene) is predominantly older, white, and dominated by men. If you keep an eye on the feeds from various Australian jazz fan pages on fb, you’ll see that 99.9% of photos of musicians, comments by fans, and fb posts are by men or featuring women. There are only very occasionally pictures of women. A recent post about ‘banjo women’ was notable because it was so unusual to see women – _older_ women! – featured on the page, let alone playing instruments together in a group!

I was actually stunned to see the women from the Shake em Up Jazz Band featured in ads for the event. They are a hardcore feminist jazz band, who also have serious jazz chops. They are incredible musicians and hardcore professional arse kickers. Frankly, I was surprised to see them associated with an event like this. I last saw them in the Swedish countryside at a huge jazz dance event, where they spoke directly about dealing with sexist old white men in the jazz world.

But. These two rare images of women in jazz on this page, and associated with this event made me consider this event as something I might like to go to.

However, the responses (all of whom are by men, but three) in this thread have reinforced the event’s image as not only male dominated, but also actively sexist.

This particular comment was openly sexist and derogatory to women and girls, and the lack of condemnation for this comment by other posters further suggests that this place (this event) not only devalues women, but supports and endorses sexist and sexualised derision of women.

At a later point in the discussion, a woman noted:

I’m not sure who Shaye or Marla are/were but presenting an image of Jazz as all male certainly perpetuates the myth that only men can play it.

And I replied:

For your listening and viewing pleasure, these two artists are part of the Shake Em Up Jazz Band: https://www.shakeemupjazzband.com/

This band draws on some of the best and most influential modern new orleans jazz bands for its membership. All of whom are women. They are truly incredible live – see them if you can.
They are also openly feminist, and engage with issues of race and ethnicity, motherhood and professional musicianship. Their album ‘A woman’s place’ makes this very clear: https://shakeemup.bandcamp.com/album/a-womans-place

They write in the notes to that album (source):
With A Woman’s Place, New Orleans-based Shake ‘Em Up Jazz Band pays tribute to women composers and lyricists. We put this album together with the intention to celebrate these artists and their contributions to the music we love and play daily. The album title, an abbreviation of bassist Vivien Garry’s composition “A Woman’s Place is in the Groove” suggests a more inclusive history of jazz, reminding us that as progenitors of early 20th century music the legacy of women extends well beyond performing, but also includes arranging, composing and influencing this music since its earliest days.

Lovie Austin and Lil’ Hardin Armstrong were both pianists with formal music education who were integral to the Chicago jazz scene of the 1920s. Hardin played piano and arranged for both King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band and Louis’ Hot Fives and Sevens. She contributed some of the most memorable tunes of those sessions, two of which are presented here: “Skid-Dat-De-Dat” and “My Heart,” the very first recording made by the Hot Five in 1925.
Cora “Lovie” Austin, perhaps best known for writing the Bessie Smith hit “Down Hearted Blues,” can be heard on recordings accompanying many of the great early blues singers, notably Ethel Waters, Ma Rainy, Ida Cox, and Alberta Hunter. Austin’s own recording unit, the Blues Serenaders, included various prominent Chicago jazz musicians, among them New Orleanians Johnny Dodds, Kid Ory, Jimmie Noone, and Tommy Ladnier. Represented in this album are “Charleston Mad” and “Traveling Blues,” a variation on the New Orleans warhorse “Weary Blues.”
The Boswell Sisters (Martha, Connee and “Vet”) who are well-remembered for their seamless and intricate vocal harmonies, are represented here with their original “Puttin’ it On,” which features compositional elements such as shifting tonalities, tempo changes, and contrasting sections that make Boswell Sister records so enthralling.
Lyricists are also represented on this album: Lucy Fletcher contributed the lyrics to Clarence Williams’ “Sugar Blues,” while vocalist Alberta Hunter is credited with the music and lyrics to “The Love I Have for You.” Both Lovie Austin and Lil’ Hardin accompanied Hunter in Chicago during the 1920s.

Ragtime composer May Aufderheide, who wrote “The Thriller,” “Blue Ribbon Rag” and “Buzzer Rag,” among others, is represented here with “Dusty Rag,” a tune known to many revivalists through Bunk Johnson.

“In The Gloaming” is the oldest tune on this album (1877). Meta Orred wrote the lyrics of this tune, which were originally a poem. The music was composed by Annie Fortescue Harrison.

Elizabeth Cotten is better known to folk music audiences, though her song “Freight Train” has made its way into jazz performances throughout the years, including a recording by Preservation Hall. Represented on this album, “Shake Sugaree” was written in her later years with the help of her grandchildren.

Although we know little about the life of blues singer Geeshie Wiley, her name is familiar to fans of early blues and especially among collectors of 78 RPM records. “Last Kind Words Blues” — with guitar accompaniment by Elvie Thomas — is one of only six sides she made for Paramount Records between 1930 and 1931. Adding to the allure of the original performance is the fact that only three copies of the original 78 record are known to exist.

Rather than being the impossible task of an exhaustive survey of early 20th century American female composers and lyricists, this album is much more intended to be a celebration of these songs and the women who created them, and more could be said and learned about each of these songs and artists.

We hope you enjoy listening to A Woman’s Place as much as we enjoyed making it.
– Shake ‘Em Up Jazz Band, 2018

Should every lindy hopper know these people?

Art Kane’s famous photo of jazz greats, titled “Harlem 1958”; approved for one-time use only. MUST CREDIT: Photograph by Art Kane – courtesy Art Kane Archive NOTE: this is a downsized low-res photo for web use

I feel a bit preachy saying “These are some band leaders every lindy hopper should know”…. but then, shouldn’t every lindy hopper eventually get to know Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Fletcher Henderson, Chick Webb, and so on… ? It doesn’t seem too much to ask, does it?

I mean, isn’t it kind of part and parcel of learning a historic dance form, that you learn about the people who made the music that they did this dance to?

And if we namecheck the OG band leaders, surely they’ll also start asking why we don’t have many women band leaders on those lists? And if they don’t, shouldn’t we point it out?

And if they see pictures of those band leaders and realise so many of them were black, and then look at the band leaders on stage in their local scenes and see that they’re all white, surely they’ll ask some questions about that?

And if they see that jazz was born in black working class neighbourhoods, won’t they start asking how come jazz is a middle class white people thing now?

I don’t want to get all Revivalist Evangelical on the kids, but I do think those kids should learn about the elders and custodians of this knowledge of jazz… #blacklindyhopmatters

(photo of course ‘A Great Day In Harlem‘ by Art Kane in 1958)

Why do I go back to Herrang each year?

Why do I go back to Herrang?

I’m going to assume that you know what Herrang dance camp is, and that you have some passing familiarity with concerns about the enterprise. People who know me are surprised that I keep returning to an event that seems to break all my personal and professional rules. Why do I keep going back, trying to be useful and to contribute to constructive political work at this huge, rambling pile of a dance event?

Why do I go back each year?

It’s a huge enterprise. 300 odd paid staff + volunteers + 20-odd DJ + dozens of musicians + dozens of teachers, over 5 weeks of camp programming, and two additional weeks of set up and bump out in a small village in rural Sweden.
There is no other event like it in the world.

Buildings need to be cleaned, food cooked, classes taught, music played, bills paid, cars driven, sound gear fixed, dance courses administered, classrooms booked, dance floors built and repaired, sets built. For 7 weeks. Each week a new group of staff needs to be inducted. A huge, volunteer and largely untrained staff. Managers start from scratch, with staff of varying ability and inclination.

Because it’s the only long term event in the world, we get to see processes and ideologies play out in real time, in a durational sense. We see the usual tensions of late nights and high adrenaline play out over a longer time. Which means that we see things that we don’t at other events. We see how humans from a range of cultures and language groups interact with each other in a pressure cooker environment. Structures or systems that might be stable over a weekend or a just a week might not remain stable over 5 weeks. Ideas or processes that work for 3 days with a staff working to the brink of exhaustion show cracks over longer periods, where staff must begin thinking about care, rest, recuperation, down time. All elements that don’t come into play at other dance events.

Sexual harassment and assault are symptoms of power relationships and dynamics between individuals and within groups of humans. They aren’t inevitable, but they are characteristic of patriarchy. They can be managed and eradicated, but only through concentrated, strategic planning and policy. And most of this work is conducted by inexperienced ordinary people. This work is increasingly professional and sophisticated. I often wonder, though, if the codes of conduct and safety policies of American events, for example, would stand the test of a five (or seven) week time frame. They are, essentially, experiments in social politics, and working largely against the broader patriarchal culture of their home societies. Would Lindy Focus’s exceptional approach to sexual violence remain steady over five weeks? I think that it could, perhaps, but it would require a lot of on-the-ground, real time adjustment and tinkering. Because shit changes over time.
While Herrang does not have an over-arching code of conduct or safety policy, each of its many departments _does_ have a particular set of rules and guidelines for determining how staff and volunteers should treat each other and the general campers. As DJs, for example, we were reminded again in week 3 that drinking to excess while DJing is not ok. That we have to treat fellow DJs with respect and professionalism, by turning up on time for our sets, checking in with our DJ peers, and being supportive of their work. We were reminded of emergency procedures and shown how to use the emergency phones placed around the camp.

Each of Herrang’s departments change staff each week, so the managers and more permanent staff have the opportunity to edit, change, and adjust processes to respond to their participants’ changing needs. And the work of training and enculturating an entirely new group of people each week.

This agile people management is the most fascinating part of Herrang. Shane and Spela are juggling hundreds and hundreds of staff members across hundreds of roles. They are dealing with changing and unpredictable conditions (too many campers! a water shortage! disease! excessive heat!) within a framework that has to be reflexive and responsive. It’s a truly impressive thing to see in action.
These staff coordinators manage a base of general staff and volunteers, but work through and with a group of department managers. Each of those managers juggles a 24 hour schedule and a shifting group of workers of various skill, ability, and inclination. If you thought it was difficult managing entitled middle class white men on the dance floor, imagine trying to get them to work hard in an industrial kitchen for a black woman manager.
One of the primary concerns of the staff coordinators and managers is morale. How do you keep so many people feeling good over a long period of time under difficult circumstances? They don’t sleep enough, they don’t eat properly, they’re saturated in endorphines and adrenaline, and they’re doing unfamiliar work. How do you keep the whole machine running?

Herrang has a broad system of processes for handling these issues, from staff appreciation parties to balanced shift lengths and times, and a fairly efficient process for handling complaints, concerns, and questions. It is certainly not perfect, and it has flaws. But not because no one is trying. The staff managers and coordinators are caring people, and they work hard to improve processes every year. They’re also clever and inventive. Because they are also jazz dancers :D

What I’ve noticed about Herrang, is that the more permanent staff (people who are there for more than two weeks) tend to be curious, inventive, industrious, cooperative people. To the point of obsessive. Living in the countryside for 7 weeks, they start making things. Inventing things. Experimenting with things. While a conventional office workplace might foster pranks, Herrang staff move beyond your random ‘wrap a car in toilet paper’ prank to ‘wrap every item in the camp in toilet paper’. They come up with brilliant ideas, but then they truly relish figuring out how to execute these plans, and then do so within a contracted time span and limited resources. Someone might decide that the theme for this party is ‘Savoy’, and by the end of the day, staff have build an entire New York neighbourhood out of cardboard, wood, and fabric. A woman might have lost her phone, and by the end of afternoon, staff have built a human sized phone, put a jazz band on a truck (including a piano) and moved the whole thing across the village to her dinner table where she’s serenaded by her friends and peers. And giant phone. Someone else finds a giant glowing model moon, and by the end of the week she’s not only suspended above the square, she’s lit from within with a suspended table and chairs beneath her to be enjoyed by dining lovers.

This is the part of Herrang I like most. It’s exciting. It’s stimulating. Over-stimulating. I really enjoy real-time problem solving at the best of times, but on this scale it’s invigorating. Thrilling. Dangerously addictive.
I really like working with such a clever, creative group of people from all over the world. They manage language differences, tiredness, negative budgets, and sexual tension with enthusiasm and professionalism. And good will. Yes, people crack the shits and get overtired. But they also laugh a lot every day, and seek out ways to delight each other.

They’re also some of the kindest, most generous-hearted people I’ve ever met. One of the most common things I see and hear in the camp is a person going to great lengths to find out what their colleague likes best, hunting it down (even going driving hours to find it), then surprising them with it. Just because they looked tired or a bit sad. Or because they love them. Yes, there are pranks, but they aren’t cruel pranks. They’re loving, affectionate pranks. Filling a new teacher’s classroom with balloons for their first class. Swapping wardrobes with another dancer for a day. Learning an entire, complex jazz routine in a day, then recruiting a jazz band to surprise someone with it in their office at lunch time. Organising a parade of children and adults playing musical instruments and wearing costumes to tramp through the camp, just to entertain the participants and audience. Leaving a punnet of perfect strawberries on a colleague’s desk, because you know they are lovely.

And on top of all that, they love to dance and sing. To eat and cook and make love. To work hard and sleep deeply. To argue and talk and laugh.

These are the reasons I, personally, go back to Herrang. I like to spend my days visiting people’s offices, learning about their work, seeing how they do things. Watching people be kind and generous. Laughing til I can’t breathe.

Eat Your Jazz: Herräng’s ‘no’ list and the advantages of limitations

The now-infamous ‘Herräng no list’ came up in my interview with Ryan for his podcast. I’m not sure how it developed, but this ‘no list’ was a complement to the ‘yes list’, which sadly gets a lot less attention. These lists were playlists on spotify developed as a general guide to the type of music you may or may not choose to play at Herräng. The ‘yes’ and ‘no’ titles are typically Swedish. Functional. :D

The first year I DJed at Herräng (2015?), there was an actual booklety thing, setting out the same sort of information, but as a pie graph, with percentages.

Last year I made up a new version of this pie graph for myself. You can see it at the top of this post.

That’s three ways of saying the same thing: this is the type of music we’d prefer you play, as a staff DJ at Herräng. This is a fairly specific description, and it aligns nicely with Herräng’s branding as ‘vernacular jazz dance’ blah blah.

The rules for DJing at Herräng are as you’d expect:

  1. Play swinging jazz from the 1930-40s (with a smear of 50s)
  2. Don’t just lean on the standards

So really it should be a ‘do’ list, not a don’t list.

Does it sound like there are a lot of rules for DJing at Herräng? Not that I’ve noticed. In fact, DJing at Herräng is lots of fun because our bosses simply assume we know all this and won’t play any bullshit, then they just set us up with a time slot or a task, and say “GO.” And then we just go sick. There’s a microphone, there’re lighting switches, there’s a dance floor full of Europeans in a democratic socialist country with far too much daylight. NO RULES TIL BROOKLYN

Advantages of each of the ‘rules’:

Point 2.
You have to really work on your set, not just play your easy-win faves. This makes you work harder and play more interesting sets.
This is especially true because we are on staff for a week, playing every night. One set in a weekend means you can phone it in, but 7 or more sets in a week means you really have to stretch.
This makes the whole week more interesting for dancers, because they’re hearing a wider range of music (within a genre): they get a deeper taste of swing music. But it also makes it more interesting for DJs, and much more creative. You’re more likely to take risks. Here is the good bit. More risks = potentially more errors. But really good DJs know how to recover from errors, and how to avoid them.
So while a DJ’s collection is on display, their skills are too.

I actually love it. I come away from the event with a much better understanding of my collection, having played far more than my usual ‘safe’ songs. And I’ve heard sets that are far more than just a handful of Naomi Uyama and Gordon Webster favourites.

Point 1.
This seems obvious. Playing from the swing era makes for good swing dancing. I see far better lindy hop at Herräng, in part because the music makes it easier to lindy hop.
Less jump blues. This is one that caught me by surprise. I hadn’t realised how much I leant on 40s jump blues. Louis jordan, Big Joe Turner, and others. Wonderful, but when I pushed myself to limit the number of these in my set, again they improved. How? a) different rhythmic emphasis and structure to the songs, b) less vocal driven, more ensemble driven melodies and structure, and c) a shift away from jump blues = shift towards small and big band swing. More complex songs and arrangements. Much more interesting for dancing lindy hop.

So the point isn’t that the no list stops you playing songs. It’s that the no list asks you to start playing a whole heap of other songs. Songs that are just much better for lindy hop and balboa.

I know I come away from the event a much better DJ. Two thumbs up from me.

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.

Kate Wadey’s Presidential Holiday is very very good

Kate Wadey is a gem.
Based in Sydney, she is a jazz singer in the proper sense. Informed by history, but not constrained by it, she’s one of the few modern jazz vocalists that I really, truly enjoy. No, I love her singing. As a person, she’s warm, interesting, clever, and engaging. As a vocalist, she’s warm, interesting, clever, and engaging.

Last night I saw her sing with her band Kate Wadey’s Presidential Holiday, and I danced every single song in the first set. Which is a big deal, as I haven’t been dancing as much as I like lately. But the band came in with a lovely, accessible dancers’ favourite at a comfortable tempo, and then continued, moving up and down tempos, in and out of classic swinging jazz styles. And i danced every one. Then I put the band break to good use, and had a drink of water and a nice sit down.

What made the band so great?
I think it was the combination of voices in the band. Sam Dobson on bass has been anchoring the younger generation of Sydney jazz bands for a while, and in this band he set down a swinging beat that managed to rein in even the overly enthusiastic OG drummer Ian Bloxsom. He has that type of playing that melds into the whole sound of the band, not pushing forward, but you’d miss it if wasn’t there. Just right for lindy hop. Andrew Scott, band leader for the Corner Pocket Trio and other good swinging combos, plays piano, and that is also nice. But the real business is the relationship between Kate and Chris O’Dear on saxophone.

They’ve recently done a show of Billie Holiday and Lester Young music, and you can really hear that influence in their musical relationship. It’s not that they’re trying to be those two icons, it’s more that they’ve paid attention to the way the two musicians worked together, call and response, combinations, echoes, conversations. Kate and Chris are both talents to watch, but together, they’ve developed a mutual sensibility that really makes you _listen_.

I think that’s the most interesting part of Kate’s style: she draws you in. She’s really present in every single note, really singing every single note to _you_, to the band, to us all. And we can’t help but pay attention. What is she saying to us? We need to know. If she was a dancer, she’d be present in every single step, committing her weight, playing with time and rhythm, but right there, giving every single beat her whole attention. There’s the delay and stretch of a very good blues dancer, but with jazz sensibilities. As a singer, she fills up the room, and you can’t look away.

For dancers, it invites us into the music. What does this mean, here?
When she sang My Baby Just Cares For Me, an almost too-tired standard in the dance world, suddenly it became interesting and new. I wanted to know _what_ her baby cared for, if it wasn’t Lana Turner or shows or clothes. And then, Kate added a note of… was it smugness? that he cares for her. The tone is just perfect. She moves us from that that confidence of a woman with a man who loves her, to an almost-feeling of sorrow. Perhaps he’ll leave. After all, she asks, ‘what is wrong with baby, that he just cares for me?’ The song builds, with Chris taking turns, adding clever notes of humour as he picks up the riffs from other standards, and by the end of the performance, we are all dancing.

I was too busy dancing to take photos or record any snippets but that last vocal number. And I’ve been listening to it over and over since I got home last night. I’ve never thought so much about the lyrics. I’ve never realised that balance of pathos and love. But I think that’s the talent of a good vocalist: we find new meaning in old standards.

Kate’s band doesn’t have an album (yet), but she does have a solo release, which is just lovely. Watch out for her recording of ‘Sit right down and write myself a letter‘. It features some of Australia’s best musicians (Eamon McNelis!), but Kate’s vocals gives Fats’ hit just a little more melancholy.

linky

Topic: improvisation, and musicians teaching us to dance (2)

Watching this post, here. As per usual, I’m not a musician, so my facts are not facts but made upness.

So if we think of this as a class exercise, and plan it accordingly.

  • At 2.34 all the sax do a synchronised bit.
  • 3.10 sax 1 does a solo for a phrase (4×8), and then the other 3 have a go each for a phrase.
  • And then they continue, each round taking less time for each solo (from 1 phrase to 2 x 8 to 1 x 8).
  • With finally everyone together again.

[ in class, we have students in groups of 4 take the role of each musician, taking turns to solo for decreasing lengths of time ]

As you watch, you can see:
[ in class, these are skills we are working on, but don’t need to point out explicitly to students. ie talk less, dance more – let them learn by doing]

  1. How the excitement builds through the structure (all together, then improvised, with less time for each, until TOGETHER: so together – solo – together is a structure that builds excitement and interest. It tells a story.
  2. How the solos within the phrase don’t have to stick to 8 or bar-long chunks. So the first sax in particular in his first solo plays across bars (8s), creating a phrase-long piece of rhythm/notes.
    -> I see this as one of the biggest weaknesses in modern lindy hop – people dance in sets of 8, rather than dancing through 8s, in one continuous block of rhythm
  3. How everyone can find the bar, the 8, the phrase (they’re all keeping time without counting numbers)
  4. Everyone comes in when they’re ready, and out when they’re done without being told (they keep their own time). So they are all paying attention and listening to each other.
  5. Individual musicians pick up an element of the solo before them, so it becomes a conversation, but the whole section holds together as a piece of music, not just as a lump of sound.
    -> this teaches students to listen to each other, to recognise the rhythms in each other’s dancing, and then to incorporate them into their own dancing.

Again, this is a common tap exercise.

Over all, students learn these basic skills:

  • keeping their own time
  • swinging the time
  • hearing and keeping bigger structures like phrases and bars
  • hearing and keeping a sense of a bigger, song-length structures – dynamics (loudness), energy, excitement, mood, etc
  • making up stuff on the spot (improvising)
  • they learn, in practice, that it’s easier to use simpler shapes and rhythms in this setting
  • how to engage with other dancers while they’re improvising (they always end up being really connected to each other, emotionally, supporting each other, when they do these games) -> ie lindy hop connection
  • they learn to watch and use their eyes to learn a rhythm or recognise a pattern
  • dealing with nerves or worry, by just going along with it and giving it a go with a group of supportive friends
  • they learn that making mistakes is less important than picking up the pieces and continuing on

All this stuff makes for great solo jazz, but it also makes for great lindy hop.
And as you can see, it’s not a matter of leads doing X and follows doing Y. It’s about learning about musical structure in a practical way (not as theory), and about learning to try and give things a go with your body.

What is ‘frame’ and do I want to use it when teaching?

Frame, a key element in lindy hop. With the diversity in students we use several different methods of showing/feeling/explaining what frame is. Still I notice that we have some students who we don’t seem to reach.
What are the ways you use to explain frame to your students?

I’ve been thinking about this issue since I read a post about it on fb. Miro’s comment, “I don’t know what frame is and we never use this term in our classes. Can you please explain what is your understanding of frame?” really stuck with me.

I think I’d like to turn the original question around, and ask “What do you want to teach in your classes that you’re grouping under the word ‘frame’?”

Again, this is where planning classes in terms of ‘goals’ and ‘values’ is so useful.
What do you want to _achieve_ in this class?
What stuff do you group under the term ‘frame’?
Why are these things important to you?
How can you get students experimenting with these things in class without you spending 10 minutes on a long explanation?
…or, what are some fun dance steps that employ this principle, or a single step with a bunch of variations (eg turns) that you can work on in class, with gradually increasing levels of difficulty, until students have a sense of how it works?

Discursive differences: rhythm-first and ‘technique’
I know quite a few teachers who focus on old timers, and/or who’ve been teaching for a very long time, learning originally from old timers insist that they “don’t teach technique.” This is patently untrue, as of course they teach technique, they just don’t use jargon or frame it as ‘technique’. An insistence on a solid rhythm, for example, and how to do it, is of course a discussion of technique.

So I think there’s a general trend in some of the modern lindy hopping world to revisit the roots of lindy hop… or rather to imagine how an OG might have learnt or taught other people (primarily by show-and-do), and to abandon verbal descriptions and language-oriented classes.

There are, of course, lots of problems with white middle class people imagining how black working class people from previous generations learnt and taught. I mean, why not just go to a street dance class today, or join in on a cypher if you want to learn how black kids learn to dance?*
I also think there is some low-key racism going on, imagining that black dancers just ‘naturally have rhythm’, rather than their devoting extensive hours and focus to developing physical movements and techniques. Learning to dance, or developing a dance style is a matter of craft, far more than it is an act of ‘creative inspiration’. The inspiration might get you on the floor, but it’s hundreds of hours of good, solid work and craftsmanship that keeps you honing your art.

So while I’m all about ‘natural movement’ and all that, I’m also very much aware that becoming a really fucking good dancer requires lots of work, and lots of iterative experimentation. I mean, Remy’s great, but he didn’t get that good just by stepping onto the dance floor. Dood practices a LOT. Endlessly.

*Because doing that would be admitting that a black kid in urban Baltimore knows more than a white middle aged, middle class person running a dance class.

So what is ‘frame’ anyway?

If I was to take this idea of ‘frame’ and untangle it, within this ‘rhythm first’ teaching paradigm (which I guess i do belong to, with some equivocations of course), what would I think of as ‘frame’?

It’s a hard one, because i simply don’t think of dancing that way any more. Sure, I was on board in the early 2000s when all the (American) kids were wiggly hopping and focussing on technical exercises and some mystical ideal lead/follow dynamic. But these days I aint got time for that. I want to have fun.

So I’m guess the idea of ‘frame’ is to do with how we communicate movement between partners?
I notice in a lot of discussions of ‘frame’ the focus is on follows, with the attendant idea that a ‘good dance’ is about a lead transmitting movement/leads to a follow, who then perfectly executes them? That sounds very boring to me. The idea that we need to develop a perfect way of holding our bodies and muscles (whatever that may be) so we can be a conduit for a lead’s creative vision makes me want to go do some crocheting.

I mean, it’s also not historically useful. If we look at footage of the OGs in the olden days, we see lots of bodies that isn’t technically ‘perfect’ in a 2000s sense of frame. But it gets the job done, and it’s bloody good dancing.

So, if we rework the concept to sit more comfortably with a more equitable and interesting idea of leading and following as partnership, the goal of ‘frame’ is to share musical ideas. Cool. But also not cool.

How do we communicate ideas to our partner?

I have a lot of tools available to me for sharing musical ideas: my eyes and ears, as well as my sense of touch. I can literally call out a move, or tap or clap out a rhythm, or demonstrate a rhythm for my partner to see. All this in addition to what they may feel when we are touching.

I think this sense of touch is really important in lindy hop, but I also think a lot of peeps who are really into the idea of ‘frame’ neglect all these other, truly social ways of communicating. It’s ok to talk to your partner, for example. I can shout out “charleston!” in a big apple, and it’s all good. I can scat a nice melody as I dance. etc etc etc.

I also like to rethink concepts of ‘momentum’ and ‘energy’ in musical terms. So while I might use ‘frame’ as a way to explain how a partner maintains or increases and decreases a rate of movement in concert with their partner, I have another tool. Music.
Rhythms are, in dance, a way of explaining how a body moves through time and space. ie, how long it takes to move a body part.

Rather than using a bunch of words or abstract exercises to teach students about ‘momentum’, I could have them experiment with a stomp off and a triple step at various tempos, figuring out how much weight to commit on a stomp off without getting ‘stuck’, and explore the things these two steps have in common and and how they are unique.
I could use a bunch of words to explain these similarities and differences, but then I’d have spent a bunch of time and brain making a dance step into words. When I don’t really need to do that, not to teach, and definitely not for my own dancing.

The advantages of see-and-do vs talk-heavy teaching tools

I am increasingly convinced that verbalising dance (ie teaching with heaps of words) slows down learning and teaching. It privileges some people (the ones who are good at words, and translating words into ideas into visualising movements and then into actual movements). It’s not really helpful if my goal is to get people moving their bodies and laughing. And when I’m actually social dancing, breaking down a lead (if I’m following) into words and concepts and then back into actions is far too slow a process for actual dancing.

If we only have an hour each week, I don’t want to give all my attention to touch. I also want to avoid verbiage, and find quicker tools for sharing a concept. I want to play a lot of music, I want to have a lot of fun. I want students to feel confident and enjoy what’s happening.
This is why instead of using complex jargon and explanations, I like reminding people that they have a lot of useful skills for social dancing. They know how to hold someone in their arms, they know how to hold hands with someone they love, they know how to lead someone to the snack table to get a plate of food. So I don’t need to explain these things in incredibly technical detail.

I keep thinking about the way I’ve had teachers explain a handhold in lindy hop. Lots of talk about ‘energised fingertips’ and precise position of fingers and palms and stuff. But I _know_ how to hold hands with people I like. As a teacher, I’m actually less and less interested in telling people how to actually hold hands and which fingers go where. I honestly don’t care. They should hold hands in a way that makes it work, doesn’t hurt, is culturally appropriate for them, and feels right.

I want to let go of jargon like ‘frame’ because it slows down learning, it privileges a very white, over-thought idea to dance, and it steals time from historically-grounded classes. And we talk too much.

Echoes of Sophiatown

I’m a bit lax in promoting this, but the South African Echoes of Sophiatown project is VERY exciting.

I saw a documentary film about Sophiatown years ago, and the music and dancing (YES, lindy hop in South Africa in the 1950s!) has stayed with me. I still DJ songs I heard in that film, and some of the vocalists (MIRIAM MAKEBA) are unparalleled, now or then.

Sophiatown was a neighbourhood in Johannesburg where musicians, artists, activists, writers, dancers… _people_ lived and worked. In the 50s it was bulldozed by the white government. Much of the creative work these people did was unrecorded because apartheid.

Now South African dancers and musicians are raising money for “A transcription project to pay tribute to the South African jazz musicians of the 1940s and 50s.”
This means that living musicians are transcribing and recording some of the best jazz in THE WORLD. And they need some help.

Every dollar you can spare will make a difference. They’re only aiming for $12000, and they have a month to go. Which means that if we all chuck in $5… they’ll have enough to do the job properly.
AND some of the proceeds will be used to benefit the families and artists who originally recorded this music.

Check the Indigogo here.