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.

DJing band breaks: my rules

So far as skills for playing band break sets go, I usually have a few rules:

  • Don’t go into the hardcore high-energy territory. Keep the vibe bubbling along, but never quite climaxing. The band should be the peak;
  • Don’t get too low energy – keep the room bubbling along;
  • li> Play something with a ‘building’ energy just before the band goes on (like that brilliant version of One o’clock Jump), so that the band go on stage to an amped up, excited crowd;

  • Don’t play songs the band will play. So this means introducing yourself to the band, getting a set list, and getting an idea of the type of music they’ll play;
  • You’re not the star here, your job is to be the support act for the band, warming the room for them, keeping the dancers interested, and generally helping the band have a good gig. So don’t show off, don’t do any stunt DJing, don’t be a jerk, be on time, be easy to work with, MC if you have to, keep you eyes on the band and be ready to play with zero notice;
  • Introduce yourself to the sound engineer, the MC, the band leader, and the stage manager. Be helpful and useful, and do a soundcheck if you can;
  • Don’t play hi-fi stuff, especially not hi-fi 50s bands like Basie’s, because no modern band will sound as good;
  • Complement the band’s style, but don’t echo it too perfectly. eg SSAS often play a lot of Ellington, so I try to stay away from the Ellington favourites;
  • Don’t go nuts on tempos; keep the music accessible and don’t tire out the crowd before the band comes back;
  • Don’t play anything too crude or too memorable. A band break DJ is just filling in music, keeping the vibe going while the band literally take a break. So don’t outshine the band.

And finally, all this holds true if the band is good. If the band really sucks, then you follow all these rules, except you play really good songs that give everyone a chance to dance.

what even is 32 bar chorus v blues phrasing?

Swinging jazz is really formulaic and predictable. This is mostly because of the constraints of the recording industry: the 3 minute pop song is all that fitted on one side of a record. Which makes it great for improvising with. Live music is very different, and was very different.
This is partly why dancers should dance to live music: it’s less predictable, and you really have to pay attention, in case someone adds something.

This predictable formula is also why peeps get so shitty with DJs who play awkwardly phrased songs in comps: you have to really work hard to ignore the structure of a standard swing song.

I actually like to sit down and draw out the structure of a song if I’m thinking about choreographing or using it for a routine. It really helps me understand to see a ’32 bar chorus’ written out – that’s 16 lots of 8. Which is 4 phrases. You can teach that in an hour. My ‘thinking brain’ likes me to do this to help me become conscious of some things in a song. Especially with tap. But my ‘dancing brain’ gets confused and flustered if I try to count or think about the markers of phrases and choruses consciously, so when I’m dancing (esp social dancing), I don’t think ‘here comes the phrase!’ I listen to the music, and let the musicians tell me when a phrase is over or a chorus is beginning. eg a solo might go for a phrase, or a particular musical theme might go for a chorus.

The shim sham is 4 phrases (3 basic phrases + an added phrase), and that helps me think about the relationship between dancers and bands in the olden days. A dancer would get up and do a chorus, then bow out.

You can also hear it in a standard swing ‘pop’ song: the main ‘story’ of the song is in that chorus.
A really standard pop song will play 4 choruses, with some intro or outro stuff or perhaps a bridge or something somewhere.

If you’re listening to a nola type song, or something like Fats Waller’s Moppin And Boppin, you can clearly hear the choruses, with a final shout chorus:
– there’s an intro-type bit with drums (Fats shouts out “You want some more of that mess? Well here tis, Zutty take over – pour it on ’em!”) and then Zutty plays about 3 phrases (2.5 really).
– then the band kicks in with the main ‘theme’ of the song for a chorus, with everyone playing together sensibly.
– then there’s a chorus with lots of solos

– round about halfway Slam Stewart does 16 phrases (a chorus) on the bass with some humming.
– Then Zutty Singleton does a chorus on the drums.
– Then there’s a final chorus where everyone joins in, which ends up feeling a lot like a ‘shout chorus’. A shout chorus is a big, exciting end part, where all the musicians get crazy. If I’m DJing, I know that if I hear that shout chorus, I need to get my next song sorted.

Because it’s Fats Waller, that ‘starting sensibly then getting crazy’ vibe is a clever play on the predictable 32 bar chorus structure: he takes you on a journey.

All of this feels really nice and balanced:
– 4 choruses plus a shout chorus at the end and an intro at the beginning.

This is the structure that makes swinging jazz so nice to lindy hop to: it’s predictable. It means a dancer can step up with a band and take a chorus and know when/where to come in.

I’ve been doing some work with a band lately where I have to MC/narrate stuff during a song, and while I know all this with my brain, in the moment I get a bit flustered, so I watch the band leader who cues me with a nod. A band that plays head arrangements (vs using sheet music) develops a nonverbal language of nods and so on that cues each other in. There was actually a whole language of nonverbal cues that big bands used to use, but of this language isn’t used any more and is lost :(

Ways to learn this stuff:
– with paper and pen;

And, much more usefully, with your body, so you can turn off your counting brain and let it work on choreography or being creative:
– Dancing the shim sham to different songs. You figure out which songs are blues phrased pretty quickly :D And you realise why Ellington was so wiggedy wacked.
– Calling the freezes, slow motions, and dance! in a shim sham. It feels really natural do to it on the phrase, but a whole phrase at 120bpm is boring, so you do it at half way points.

Why should DJs play standards/favourites?

At Jazz BANG on the weekend, we set up a little story about jazz history and music. The band would play a song in a particular style, and the dancers would dance to it.

I just said to Andrew something like “Make it feel like this, in the 30s, swinging properly,” and I gestured 4 beats to the bar with even emphasis. And he figured out (because he is a genius) that I meant a standard 32 bar chorus type structure (ie 4×8 to the phrase) in swinging timing.
Then he played a standard – Honeysuckle Rose: https://www.facebook.com/sam.carroll.545/posts/10155437058953483

And because we all know Honeysuckle Rose (because it is a standard/favourite), the dancers could dance to it, even though they’d never heard the band play it before. Then when they were done (after about 4 phrases (or 16×8 or 32 bars), they’d leave the stage, and the band would play a final phrase or chorus to finish up.

And we did that about six times.

It’s only because we have a shared vocabulary that this could work. We had a shared set of jazz standards – the songs that DJs and bands play over and over – and a shared sense of timing and swing. This gave us the language to do an improvised performance.

So this is why DJs should play favourites. Not Lavender Coffin, so much, but Honeysuckle Rose, Jive at Five, Flying Home, Shiny Stockings, Tiger Rag, Sweet Georgia Brown, etc etc etc. It allows us to do improvised art over a shared structure.
Then end,
By Sam.

Some notes to bands about playing for dancers

I work with bands quite a bit for dance events.
The type of music you play and how you play it will depend on the dancers. Are they dancing balboa? Blues? Lindy hop? If the organiser has just said ‘swing dance’, then they usually mean lindy hop, with a sprinkling of balboa.

There are really two main issues for dancers:
1. How fast is the music, and
2. How long is the song.

1. Tempo
150bpm is about a jogging pace. So remember that when you launch into your favourite speedy song 😀 Experienced lindy hoppers with good technique can handle 5 minutes at 180bpm, but mere mortals… not so much.

For us, 120bpm is slow and beginner friendly, but kind of draggy. 140bpm is easy and comfortable. 160bpm feels like fun. 180bpm makes us work a bit hard. over 200bpm is fast.
So if you’re playing for two hours, you’d work the tempos like this (if you wanted to play a very safe set):

Balboa, however, is a much smaller dance. So they like to start at about 180bpm and can dance… well, they like to go fast.

Lindy hoppers can really vary. As I said, experienced dancers with good skills at a big event are very comfortable anywhere from 110 to 240bpm. Brand new dancers are also happy to do any tempo, but have zero stamina. The pickiest are people with moderate skills but plenty of opinions 😀 Their comfort zone is 120-160bpm.

2. Song length:
No more than 10 minutes. Seriously. I’d keep it to 5 minutes to be honest.
Here’s the thing: while sitting down audiences really enjoy each musician in the band taking a solo, that’s not how dancers work. They’re not sitting quietly and listening; they are right there with you inside the music. So my usual rule for bands is: only take a solo if you have something to say. A band is not a democracy; we don’t all get a solo just because we turned up.
And bassists and drummers? Soz, but your solos are the least danceable, so keep it to a phrase or two max.

So what do you play?
Lindy and balboa are members of the swing dance family. So play swinging jazz. Like Basie said, four solid beats to the bar and no cheating. Think mid 30s – mid 40s. You can stray into the 50s, but think Basie’s big band, and Ellington.
If your band is a ‘dixie’ or NOLA recreationist band, then that’s a different kettle of fish.

So far as instrumentation goes, the best options are:
– bass. Upright, not electric. You need this.
– drums, but lay off the high hat. Think like Jo Jones: fill in around the bass, don’t push the band forward
– guitar. You are Freddy Green. Think rhythm section.
-> you can do without guitar, but for my money, the best dance bands has this rhythm section.

– trumpet
– trombone
– reeds
-> it’s all good. If you want to impress dancers, they’re easily pleased by a muted trumpet or a big clarinet high note.

Some other things:
– At the end of the song dancers will pause, then thank their partner, then they’ll turn and clap you. So give them a breath.
They’re unlikely to clap a solo, because they’re dancing. Unless you are incredible. Then they will.
– If you engage with the dancers, they’ll engage with you. So don’t stare at sheet music all the gig. Look up, make eye contact, smile, and if you see something you like, make like a jazzer and let people know! Yell out, or applaud, or echo what they did rhythmically on your instrument.
It’s also ok to stop and talk to people during breaks. Dancers are so curious about musicians and their instruments – they’ll be shy and awkward, but so so interested.

So if you’re playing for two hours, you’d work the tempos like this (if you wanted to play a very safe set):

first set:
– begin at 120bpm
– 120bpm
– 140bpm
– 160bpm
– 120bpm
– 140bpm
– 180bpm
– 150bpm
– 170bpm
– 140bpm
– 190bpm

second set:
– 140bpm
– 160bpm
– 180bpm
– 130bpm
– 150bpm
– 190bpm
– 150bpm
– 120bpm
– 150bpm
– 180bpm
– 140bpm

It’s best to end a gig on a moderate tempo (about 140bpm) with lots of energy, so everyone can join in.

We call this ‘working a wave’, where you move up and down tempos in a gradual way. Bands can get away with more dramatic drops and increases than DJs can. But it’s a good idea to avoid going from really fast (eg 220bpm) to scary slow (eg 110bpm), because 110 reminds people that they’re tired. If you went from 220bpm to 140bpm, people’s energy stays up, but they still get a rest.
110bpm is often a real dead zone for lindy hoppers, as it’s harder to dance lindy hop that slow, but it’s not slow enough for blues dancing.
Experienced dancers make all tempos work, but newer dancers really struggle in the 90-120 and 170-250 zones.
You want to come in with a nice, friendly song. Right in the comfort zone. 140bpm is your friend. Nice and swinging, not particularly sexy.

As a general guide, 150bpm is average jogging tempo, and most new dancers aren’t very fit. Most experienced dancers are like runners. They can dance at 150 for 6 hours. But they like adrenaline, so they really enjoy the spike up into the faster tempos. And slower tempos give new dancers a chance to get on the floor and experienced dancers a chance to really work the rhythms.

As the night goes on, the average tempo can creep up. But it’s best to vary the tempos, so people feel inspired.
You can do one or two very slow songs (eg a blues at 80bpm), but one is really enough.
No latin rhythms, please.
We like to avoid crooners too (the only Sinatra I like is Sinatra with the Dorsey band.)

Sam’s black list:
Songs I’d prefer you didn’t play:
Fly Me to the Moon
In the Mood
Moon Dance
String of Pearls

We don’t really dig on boogie woogie, and jump blues can have mixed results.

We love Ellington. We love him bad. We also love Basie, Hamp, Webb, Lunceford, Slim and Slam, Django, Bechet, Kid Ory.

What if a jam happens?
A jam is where dancers feel really excited by the band, and see a couple feeling the feels bring their shit. They form a loose circle around that couple, clapping, and then other couples take turns coming into the circle to show off.
Faster songs usually stimulate a jam.
They rarely look at the band when they’re jamming, but at those moments, they are _really_ listening.
When the song ends, if they really feel the feels and want more, they’ll turn and look at the band and cheer and stay in the circle.
If they’re done, they drift away.
The best jams only last one or perhaps two songs, or a total of about 5 minutes max. After that people who aren’t showing off get bored and tired.
It’s best to follow a jam with a nice moderate tempo (but high energy) song (about 140bpm) so everyone can get back on the floor, and you can take advantage of the energy and excitement generated by the jam.

For us, the best dancing happens when the band feels the feels and is really responding to what’s happening on the dance floor. We hear the musicians get excited, and we feel it, and it makes for great dancing. So it’s important you guys like the music you’re playing.

Should Gordon Webster’s band play the pie/cake song? No.

This is a post drawing together some thoughts that I had in a discussion with some friends. These were good friends, in a private discussion, so I won’t present their words here, just my own. But I want to give them credit for their thoughtful comments.

Here is the nub of the discussion: should Gordon Webster play the song ‘I Like Pie, I like cake’?
Background: he recorded this song with Steven Mitchell on vocals, in the early stages of the band’s push to popularity. The album included some very, very good musicians, was recorded live, and is super super popular with dancers.

Now that who and what Steven Mitchell has done is being spoken about publicly, most dancers and DJs have decided not to play that recording. But what about Webster? Should he still play the song, even without Mitchell on the lyrics?

My response is: no. No. No.
Why?

Apparently Webster plays it almost every gig he does. When a friend commented in real time, that Webster was playing it at that moment at Snowball in Sweden, one of the biggest events in the lindy hop calendar, I was shocked. I couldn’t really believe it was happening. Surely that’s a no-brainer? Don’t play a song made famous by a rapist?

So I just assumed that there’d been a confusion with the organisers, a problem with the person who briefed him. As I said in that online discussion:

If they [the organisers] didn’t tell him ‘no pie/cake song’, then it’s their issue. But if they did brief him, and he played it anyway, the band organiser should have had a list of ‘consequences’ for breaches of the code of conduct, and know how to handle the situation.

If he did it at my gig, I’d be fucking ropeable.
Though, to be honest, Webster doesn’t impress me with his understanding of these issues. Especially after hearing that ep of The Track where he talked about it.

After a few other general comments, a man asked:

why can’t he play that song?….. Is it because of the connection with SM, that he shouldn’t play it?

I was, frankly, flabbergasted. What do you think? But then I reminded myself: not everyone is elbow deep in safe space policies. And it also made it clear: men who aren’t doing this work, aren’t thinking about it a lot, are able to think about other issues, and do other work. It’s clearly a limitation on their own work, to not understand these issues, and, at heart, a failure of empathy. But it also limits them creatively.

But let’s look at my response. The following is cut and pasted from the discussion, removing names to protect anonymity, and hopefully edited for coherency :D

Yes [it is because of the SM thing], because Steven Mitchell is recorded with the band, on Webster’s biggest selling album, and because Mitchell was always at the front of the band showboating with that song. It’s impossible to separate the two in people’s minds.

Most events have that recording of the song on their banned list, as it’s
a) grossly insensitive to play a song by a man who sexually assaulted girls and women for years, and
b) when we play that song, we are saying ‘I think this is a good song, and I don’t care about other people’s feelings’.

We should draw the line somewhere.
I choose not to play it because Mitchell groomed and sexually assaulted girls and women, using his power to force them into horrid relationships and situations with him. It makes me feel ill to hear him sing. It makes me angry to hear people applaud it or celebrate it by dancing.

So should Webster play that song, even if Mitchell isn’t singing?
I say no.
Mostly because it shows very poor taste (as though he’d rather get the props for playing a popular song than respect the women Mitchell assaulted) and very poor judgement (it implies he doesn’t care or is too cavalier to realise how playing this song might imperil future gigs or his reputation). But also because it shows us that he simply puts his own ego and feelings ahead of the girls and women who were assaulted, and of all the other women, girls, boys, and men who have been sexually assaulted or deal with harassment and the threat of sexual violence every day.

Basically, Webster playing this song tells me that he doesn’t think. And his continuing to play this song, even after being made aware of the issues, tells me that he puts his own ego before ethics, and that he’s tone deaf (in a social sense, not musical sense).

As an organiser, that tells me he’s trouble.
As an organiser, I’d get right up in Webster’s face (after the gig) for playing that song. I’d be so fucking angry, as I would definitely have told him not to play it. Webster playing it at my gig would be tarring my reputation, but it would also be his disrespecting me, publicly, as a woman and as his employer.

In fact, his continuing to play that song absolutely guarantees I’d never book him.

I’m also wondering if the band booker/manager for Snowball gave Webster clear guidelines on this. Playing the song in Australia would technically constitute sexual harassment and bullying, which is illegal (and could get an event manager into serious trouble). There are a range of issues at work here, including the scope of the band booker’s brief (ie what exactly are their powers and responsibilities), and whether there is a clear policy in place for dealing with sexual harassment and/or difficult behaviour from musicians. These aren’t questions I can answer for this event. But with events I run, I have clear guidelines for the bands (leaders and musicians), and scripts that I use for addressing issues with bands. Because I’ve had to in the past.

After this comment, some other friends made interesting observations. I want to maintain anonymity here, as this is a thoughtful group of people exploring difficult issues in a safe and private conversation. So I’ll paraphrase.
This from a very interesting comment:
– Webster still plays this song, every gig, even after the Mitchell issue became public
– People have spoken to him about the issue
– He has spoken to other people (including women who have spoken publicly about being assaulted by Mitchell)
– He knows it’s not ok to use the recording where Mitchell sings
– I’ll quote this bit: “he feels that he and the lindy hop scene can and should reclaim the song for themselves. It’s a theme for the band, not the person, despite the previous recordings. ”
– Sarah Sullivan’s (Stevens first public accuser) band also plays that arrangement specifically for the point of reclaiming the song.

I’ve heard these points from a few people now, phrased in roughly the same way. I think these are key issues, and worth addressing. So here are some things I said.

There’s a huge difference between Sarah (a woman, a survivor) playing this song, and Webster (whose band recorded it with Mitchell) playing it. The power dynamics are completely different. If Webster had a reputation as a clear ally, and if he wasn’t such a showboat, I’d consider it.

I feel that as a powerful, white, straight man, Webster’s speaking to other people about it isn’t really convincing. Who’s going to tell him to stop? In what settings does he have these conversations? At gigs where he’s the headline act, the ‘star’? Who’s he speaking to? Women? Men? Who? Women who’ve been assaulted by Mitchell?

[Let me digress here, to explain why ‘talking to people’ isn’t an adequate reason for continuing to play this song]
It’s difficult for many women to confront men like Webster, on a topic like this, in confronting circumstances. The very emotions of this issue make it difficult for many of us (whether we have been assaulted or not) to articulate why we don’t think it’s ok. Our culture discourages and punishes women who rock the boat and critique powerful men in public spaces. And Mitchell took great pains to make sure his targets were disempowered and unable to speak up against a powerful man.

Dance events aren’t really conducive to serious talk, and where else would ‘ordinary’ dancers have access to Webster? Not too many people would dare to confront or disagree with a ‘star’ at a big gig. Not too many people, other than other powerful people.

And here we have the point: who are these ‘other powerful people’? Who are the MCs, the organisers, the DJs, the high profile teachers? We still see men over-represented in these roles.
And it’s clear that other men covered up for Mitchell, and enabled his actions. Other teachers, organisers, MCs, influential people. ‘Other powerful people.’ While they may be quick to condemn Mitchell now, these men are not as quick to dismantle the social structures that enable injustice. And dismantle their own power.
Playing a song made famous by a sexual offender is an articulation of power, and it is an injustice. It is part of the discursive and industrial structures that enable sexual offenders. It tells us that the stories and songs of powerful men are more important than the stories and safety of women and less powerful people.
Who says what and where is a matter of power.
Who sings what song, and where, is a matter of power.[/]

Listening to that ep of The Track, Gordon’s clearly not aware of the way his own power and status work in his interpersonal and professional relationships within the scene. Though he may have changed his thinking since then, I’m just not convinced his judgement is sound on this one. And continuing to play this song tells me that he’s not aware of the nuances at work.

The thing is, Webster worked with Mitchell for so long, taking him to cities where he assaulted and harassed women. This makes Webster complicit in Mitchell’s actions, even if only through neglect or awful coincidence. As a band leader, he was in a position to call Mitchell on his other inappropriate behaviour (and Mitchell was always a difficult, demanding, pain in the arse). He could have disrupted the continuum of exploitative behaviour Mitchell was operating within. He could have removed Mitchell’s literal platform for self-promotion and self-aggrandising. But he chose to put him on the stage, at the gigs, again and again.

And I’m not really ok with a white, powerful, influential man ‘reclaiming’ something. That’s a concept that works as a way to ‘speak truth to power’. Sarah can do it, a woman can do it, even a band that’s not associated with Webster can do it. But the song was ‘his’ to begin with… He had and has the power, so what’s he ‘reclaiming’ it from? His own poor decisions? His own association with a man who has always had a reputation for inappropriate behaviour, let alone assault? Better to make reparation and let the song stay unplayed.

At the end of the day, as a powerful person, he should be making choices that are beyond doubt. By choosing to hang onto a song because it gives him props as a pop anthem, he’s treading on dangerous ground. With his history of association with Mitchell, he needs to be beyond doubt in his actions. And this choice is very dubious.

At this point in our discussion, I thought, ‘What am I doing? Why am I defending this position? Surely it’s clear, that choosing not to play this song is the right choice?’ I really felt as though I was going to a lot of effort to prove something that should be self-evident. To articulate that lurch in the guts that was a combination of rage and frustration and fear and sadness. Now I realise that that ‘self-evident’ emotional, empathetic response isn’t shared by people who do not experience sexual harassment and assault. Men aren’t trained to see and respond to these things the way men are. So they need it pointed out; it isn’t self-evident to them.
And this is the kernel of my discomfort: I feel as though we keep having these discussions. And it’s always women who are doing the explaining. Where are those male allies to step in and do this work? Why aren’t men willing to just accept that we actually know what we’re talking about? It’s so, so tiring. And as long as women continue to do all this work, the social structures that enable injustice remain in place. Women spend time and labour on this, instead of other creative work.

[edit: same goes for issues of race. How come it’s poc doing all the hard emotional labour, and white people (especially white men) so unwilling to just trust their word, believe black people?]

So then I felt like I had to excuse or explain my ‘shouting’ and long comments. I always feel like this. As though I need to excuse or explain why I’m so worked up. That there’s something wrong with getting worked up. But because this was a group of friends, I just posted my feels. And then I realised: this is the core of it. The feels. This is what I wrote:

I am so adamant about this because I’ve seen the havoc these men wreak. After the last year working with women reporting assault, I’m just… I cannot articulate just how evil these men are. It’s not ‘just’ a matter of ‘attacking’ a woman once. It’s systematic, ongoing control of every aspect of their lives. These women are terrified, seriously fucked up, and it’s just so so bad.
These women contact me saying ‘I just want to know if X is going to be there. If he is, I won’t go.’ They’re just so afraid, that if they see these guys they dissolve into panic – it’s real trauma. And the things these men do to them. It’s horrific.

And it’s now very clear that these men all cover up for each other, support and defend them. That’s the part that’s really upsetting me. I keep running into organisers and DJs and teachers and musicians who actively protect men who are known rapists and cruel bastards, because they’re also doing these things! They hire each other for gigs, they bully women into disappearing quietly, they provide environments that encourage exploitation in all sorts of ways.

It’s all so awful that I can’t read any more reports. I haven’t been assaulted, but I am regularly harassed, because I’m a woman. And now that I’ve heard these stories, that are just so common, I’m just heart sick.

So I just can’t believe that someone like Gordon Webster wouldn’t do something as simple as stop playing a song. It’s such a little thing for such an influential person, but it’s such a big gesture.

Reading these comments again now, I’m reminded of the arguments people make for watching and posting videos of Max Pitruzella, another reported rapist. People go to great lengths to defend this choice. And I’m not convinced.

In sum, then, I don’t think Gordon Webster should play the ‘pie/cake’ song with his band. He should stop playing it. For as long as he continues to do so, and for as long as men defend his playing it, I will be suspicious of him and his motivations. They are not my allies.

Who wants to pay me to research gender in the Australian jazz music industry? Have relevant experience, skills, degrees, etc.

a long post from fb.

I am interested in:

  • sexual harassment and assault and its role in discouraging women musicians;
  • the recent round of cuts in arts council funding and its role in pushing musicians o/s;
  • do women follow the jobs o/s as younger men do, or do they have domestic commitments keeping them here?;
  • whether or not a lack of attention to female historical figures in jazz education disuades young women musicians;
  • intra-band culture and masculinism, and their role in discouraging women from playing instruments (v singing), and consequent effects on the music itself;
  • are broader industrial factors inaccessible for women, because of impossible child care and donestic labour making the late hours, excessive drinking and drug use cultural factors central to jazz music culture and networking)

And so on.
I also want to look at the intersection of race, class, and sexuality, because the australian jazz world is very white, very straight, and very male.

What’s the point of asking these questions?

  • most dance event organisers are women; does jazzbro culture impede collaboration? Would it be different if there were more women musos?
  • jazz is slowly fading away as musos and audiences pass away. Why is the jazz world ignoring (even fighting) the great resource of 51% (more!) of the population?
  • how would the music itself be different if it became the vernacular not just of some white bros? How many more people would it resonate with, if the stories were more varied and interesting?

I just need money for research (incl library access, transcription resources, secure places for data, travel $$ for interviews, etc). But i could plan and do this research no worries.

Here is a thing I read today RE arts funding which made me think about this: https://twitter.com/beneltham/status/942570857250959360

And I’ve also been reading first-person accounts by very brave young women recording their experience with sexual assault and harassment in the jazz scene, both in the US and here in Australia.

Basically: getting raped and harassed every day by staff, teachers, students, and punters discourages young women musicians. How can it even be true. Unfathomable*.

Upshot: sexual assault is a very good way of getting rid of threats to male egos and careers. ie talented young women.

Similarly, racism (both explicit and implicit) is another good way to get rid of threats (to white masculinity): talented young musicians of colour.

None of this is news. We have decades of first hand and academic research supporting this idea that sexual assault and harassment are tools of the patriarchy: discouraging women and others from breaching the citadel.

*insert sarcasm gif

I feel like the ban on black/american musicians touring Australia until the 50s is also relevant. And the role of the musicians union(s).
…and I want to look at the role of women in the Australian jazz industry to date. Especially the role of the women in the 50s, 60s, and so on up til now – the people who managed gigs, sold tickets, etc etc. All that unpaid, low status work that actually makes a gig possible.

I think that ‘uses of history’ is going to be important too. Something about the way historical figures, historical recordings and texts, ideas about history, authenticity, etc etc are used in ‘jazz’.

I feel like there’s some connection with the way Herrang really discourages modern black music like hip hop, house, rap, etc etc, yet sponsors the Frankie Manning ambassadors and young black people to the camp. These kids are allowed to come as ‘ambassadors’, but they aren’t allowed to bring their own, modern day music and dance – stuff they are authorities on. They have to be positioned as ‘special cases’ accessing black history via white ‘specialists’ in Europe, v accessing black history via their own families and communities and bodies and contemporary culture.

…I guess it’s all about culture, gatekeeping, power, and access to knowledge. And the discursive role of words and concepts like ‘authentic’, ‘history’, even ‘swing’. And which historical figures are used (Louis Armstrong vs Lil Hardin Armstrong etc).

So I guess we’re looking at the intersection of ideas about ‘work/labour’, ‘art’, ‘creativity’, ‘gender/race/ID’ in a particular creative field. Same old same old, really, but in a new context. And the new part is the role of funding and support (eg universities) by governments today, and jazz’s shift from vernacular music and culture funding by everyday spaces (eg bars, cafes, dancehalls) to ‘art’ funded by the state and high-end sponsorship. Which, it turns out, is much more precarious. There’s also something in there about education, learning, and teaching in vernacular vs institutional spaces. I think that’s the bit that’ll interest me most.

I’m already pretty interested in community arts practice via ‘art’ in galleries, opera houses, conservatoria, etc etc. I’d like to have a look at some cultural policy studies literature on engagement with the arts in Australia. ie do more people ‘engage with the arts’ as amateur makers via craft courses, community choirs, school holiday programs, etc etc, than they do via more formal routes like ‘going to see a show at the opera house’ or ‘attending the Sydney Festival’? I’d also like to look at the pathways to professional musicianship – via places like the Con, or via music programs in universities, or via informal apprenticeships with family members, or via ongoing lessons with teachers? And do these pathways offer particular obstacles or opportunities for women/POC/queer folk?
And of course, what are the more complex (and interesting) networks and convergences of all these pathways and factors? eg attending the Con, taking classes as a kid at school, practicing with friends in high school, making a band, recording and broadcasting at home for youtube, etc etc etc.

Why is there so little space for women in jazz music?

This article asks Why is there so little space for women in jazz music?

All the reasons there are so few women in jazz are as you’d expect:

  • sexual harassment and assault discourage women (duh)
  • male band leaders find new players for their band via informal social networks, which are fostered in post-gig hangs, peer networks, etc
  • there are few role models for younger women
  • male players openly encourage young men rather than young women
  • the culture of jazz gigs themselves discourage women
  • incidental gendered language (eg the ‘guys’ in the band; ‘doesn’t she look lovely’ to women on stage instead of ‘isn’t she a fucking gun’) makes women feel invisible.

If we’ve managed to get completely change the culture of DJing in Australian lindy hop over the past ten years, surely we can change the culture of jazz bands.

How? Same way. Cultural change, structural change, discursive change.
a) Change the everyday culture of jazz gigs (avoid gendered language, use female historic figures in art work),
b) Change work practices and labour conditions (eg penalties for sexual harassment and assault; discourage aggressive, blokey environments; fair pay for fair work; clear agreements and contracts),
c) change uses of language and ideas in discourse (eg watch the way MCs introduce women musos, and the language used in PR).
I think one of the most important elements in changing the culture of live jazz would be to openly address issues of alcoholism and drug abuse in the scene. Because blokey jazzbros who behave in blokey dodgy ways when sober are more likely to be dangerously dodgy when drunk. And those social networking spaces which are essential to professional networking which rely on excessive alcohol abuse will be opened up to people who have to get home to kids and day jobs.

More specifically:
– Band leaders should actively seek out female musicians.
ie not just take the first hand they see waving. They should hunt down good women musicians and put them on their ‘call list’, so they have good names when they’re putting together a band for a gig.

– Women are far more likely to be responsible for domestic labour in their homes and relationships – child care, cleaning, cooking, bill paying, holding down day jobs, etc. So band leaders should allow more flexibility in gig specifics. eg call with more notice so women can book baby sitters; not require long post-gig debriefs and hangs; encourage gigs and social hangs in parent-friendly hours. And they should do things like give women more time to rearrange domestic labour (doing the grocery shopping or laundry, attending children’s school events, etc) and untangle themselves from paid work, etc.

– Male musicians should take responsibility for each other.
They should police each other’s language and behaviour for sexual harassment and assault. eg call their mates out for sexist jokes, for harassment; have a code of conduct for their band and for their gigs (and enforce it); actively _encourage_ respectful treatment of women (both in person and in talk and ideas).

– Male teachers in jazz education should actively encourage girls. They should be mindful of the language they use in class (gendered pronouns?), the examples they use from history, the way they talk about and to girls and boys in class. They should reward collaborative behaviour between students, and discourage aggressive competition.

– Quotas.
Gets women into groups. And once women are there, the simple fact of their presence encourages more women. No, it won’t lower the standard of music. You think all those bros in bands are as good as they think the are, and not just some ordinary musician who’s benefitted from unequal hiring practices? You can guarantee the women you hire are twice as good, and work twice as hard as any bro. And if they’re not, they’ll change their shit up until they are.

– Gig promoters and managers should request bands hire women musicians (not just vocalists), and offer financial bonuses to band leaders who have women in their bands. Straight up.

– Male musicians should ask each other, very loudly “What have you done to change shit today?” They should brag about the fantastic women in their bands. They should GO TO WOMEN’S GIGS and be openly supportive. They should ask women for advice about music and playing.

Where I fall in love with jazz all over again.

I’m going to go on and on about the music at Little Big Weekend 2017 for quite a long time, so best to give you some facts.


Andrew Dickeson and I are big jazz nerds, who love swinging jazz and live in the same neighbourhood. So we’ve been collaborating on putting together live music programs for dancers that make musicians happy. Which means we go to each other’s houses and argue about which songs we should play (ever tried to narrow your favourites down to a dozen?), argue about whether cats or dogs are better, and sigh over Duke Ellington.

We began working on these projects in 2014 at Jazz BANG, a solo jazz weekend here in Sydney. And we’ve done a zillion gigs since. Each gig we seem to pick up another musician who almost cryfeels about the experience of working on this type of music with this band leader, and this crowd. And each gig we see more musos flying or driving to Sydney to be part of it.
You must understand that all these musicians are trained professionals who’ve been playing for years and years, and have recorded heaps of music. Ones like Bob Henderson have been playing since the 50s. Andrew is a lecturer at the most prestigious tertiary institute for music in Australia – the Sydney Conservatorium of Music – where he teaches jazz history. Georgia is a hardcore dancer, teacher, and performer, as well as a trained musician, vocal teacher and performer.

To my mind, the success of the Blue Rhythm Band lies in the relationship between the band leader Andrew Dickeson, and his bff Brad Child. Andrew is a drummer who knows when not to play. He doesn’t bang pots in the kitchen; he places cups and plates on the table, moves them around, rearranges the flowers so everyone can see. When the band sets up on stage, he’s right in the middle, where he can see everyone. And where everyone can see and hear him. So Andrew brings structure, clarity, and direction to the band.

Brad is more about the feels. Standing near the band (or sometimes right in the middle of it when I’m working), you can hear Brad yelling out things like “There, now, I’m going in!” and then pumping the energy. Or, “Back off, back it off, nice and gentle!” He has the sort of unerring ear and eye for energy and vibe which I’ve only seen in one or two exceptional DJs. It’s truly a rare talent. He’s not just watching the crowd, he’s feeling the crowd, and the band, and he’s bringing them all together, on a very nice trip through jazz.

When you add responsive, clever, talented musicians to that pair, you get a lovely, vibrant, powerful band. A solid group who take improvisational risks, but are still very solid. Sound. Or, if you’re thinking about lindy hop, this band has very tight rhythms, excellent timing, but knows that it’s ok to relax and just improvise around simple shapes rather than trying to jam complex figures into one dance. And they know how to look at their partners. :D

But this weekend was the most ambitious. I was collaborating with Sharon Hanley on the dancing parts. Sharon is a long-time balboa nut, and she was bringing some very good balboa dancers to town, dancers strongly rooted in the history of the dance, and who understand swinging jazz. I was bringing two teachers who are all about lindy hop and solo jazz dances. Also very much informed by jazz dance history. Sharon and I run separate dance businesses in Sydney – Swing Time Australia (Sharon), and Swing Dance Sydney (me). These businesses focus on our dance and musical interests. We’ve worked together lots of times in the past, mostly on DJing, and on running parties. This was our first large project together.

It never occurred to us that balboa and lindy hop couldn’t have fun together on the same dance floor. It’s the same music, right? Solid, swinging jazz. After all, when we DJ together, we’re into the same music. And it never occurred to us that east coast influenced swing dances (lindy hop, balboa, shag) couldn’t sit well with Harlem-centred swing dances (lindy hop, solo, tap, etc). After all, that’s how Sydney works: all these dances play well together at our parties and live music gigs.

For me, it’s the music that makes the point of all this. Working with musicians, musicians working together, dancers working together. It’s all about improvisation, playing games, having fun, and just being filled up by that good sound. Andrew and I have just had so much fun doing these parties, and we just LOVE the music so much, and the relaxed fun of social dancing with live music, we just figure: let’s do MORE!
I want to do more and more and more of this. I can see how it could become addictive. I can see how musicians have problems with drugs – uppers to keep you going. Downers to help you finally sleep. Putting together a few little shows for the weekend, I just thought ‘Ha! There are some serious talents coming, I’ll just set it up and let them go!’ and then we set it up, and let them go, and it was amazing. Musicians and dancers. I really do love this approach to events and dancing: get some solid framework in place, then let people improvise on top. And make sure everyone has a lot of fun and feels good and safe. Amongst friends.

So what did we actually do?

Friday: the usual Blue Rhythm Band line up (Brad Child (sax), Peter Locke (piano), Mark Elton (bass), Andrew (drums), Georgia Brooks (vocals).
AND we did a little introduction performance where we introduced our artists (musicians and dancers (Marie N’diaye, Anders Sihlberg, Kate Hedin, Bobby White)) one at a time. It was SPLENDID.

I had a few goals with this performance.
1. I wanted to place the musicians right in there on the same level as our guest teachers. I wanted dancers to see them, know their names, and hear how they added to the band. So we did a ‘Now you has jazz‘ style intro, where we began with Andrew, then literally had the musicians walk in one at at time and start playing. When that bass hit. WOW. The room just LEAPT. I couldn’t believe how effective it was.
2. I wanted to really begin the weekend, not just have it stagger up to speed. So we had a bit of mellow music, lots of snacks and drinks and conversation as people arrived, and THEN we introduced the band and the teachers.
3. I wanted the vocalist (Georgia) to introduce everyone, and to sing. Which was just magical. When she sang that chorus of Honeysuckle Rose, we just sighed.
4. I wanted a well known song that feels nice. Honeysuckle Rose is a lovely song, about loving someone. It’s my favourite. And it can be funny. So it’s perfect for an intro.

This just went off so well. I loved it. I was so happy. Such talented artists!

Saturday: we got super ambitious. Because this Little Big Weekend is a balboa/lindy hop event, we had two bands. We had a swinging combo (Brad, Peter, Mark, Andrew, Bob Henderson (trumpet), Chuck Morgan (guitar)). Adding a guitar: the band was pretty much perfect.
THEN we decided to get all Benny Goodman on our crowd (because balboa dancers – and everyone sensible) loves Goodman’s small group. VIBRAMAPHONE! (Glenn Henrick) and Brad played clarinet.
THIS was pretty freaking amazing. Vibraphones! It’s a magical instrument. I had no idea just how wonderful it sounds in a big room. It just feels all velvety and vibratey, and you can almost feel it on your skin. In the band, it just sort of filled in all the gaps in the music, softening the edges and really feeling like that gorgeous mushy-strong feeling of a good connection between partners.

But then it got better.

ALL the musicians were on stage together, not playing from charts, but paying close attention to Andrew’s leadership, and listening very carefully to each other.

The huge, ugly 70s ballroom (with amazing acoustics and raised seating for non-dancing punters, and a full bar) was just crammed with happy people and great music. Musicians brought their friends and family, and we had a very good time.

With this night, I wanted to really marry the two dances (balboa and lindy hop), by making it clear that we really did love the same music. While Goodman’s small groups are popular with balboa dancers, it’s also wonderful for lindy hop.
And when the band played a beautiful ballad (Moonglow!) people didn’t think ‘oh no, I don’t blues dance!’ they said (SHOUTED in some cases), “I LOVE THIS SONG!” and then just found a person and just enjoyed the song.

…thinking about it now is making me tear up. It was quite magical.

SUNDAY the band was pared back to the Blue Rhythm Band format again, and we just danced and danced.
But first we did a little ‘story of jazz’ performance, where the band showed us how jazz changed from the 20s to the 50s, and our guest teachers showed us how the dancing changed. Tap. Balboa. Pure bal. Bal swing. Lindy hop. Charleston. Breakaway. All of it. And at the end, we all got up and swung out to Shiny Stockings, and some people cried.

Here, my plan was:
1. Make it clear that the music literally comes first,
2. Show that the dance styles may be different, but they’re still the same in that they listen to the music.
3. Invite everyone onto the dance floor together. Literally. We ended with Shiny Stockings, and when I said, “And in the 50s, band leaders like Basie reminded us to dance together… so if you feel the urge, join in and dance with us,” everyone leapt to their feet and danced. It was a very special moment.

One of the best bits happened next. We were doing this as a snowball, to make sure we had everyone feeling welcome. But I added ‘slow motion!’ and ‘Freeze!’ and ‘snowball’ as calls. At first I could hear the musicians saying to each other, “What’re we doing?” and replying “Snowball means change partners!” and then they all got INTO it. When I called ‘freeze!’ the second time, the band literally froze. And then we picked up in perfect time. And everyone in the room laughed and cheered. It was totally improvised, but it felt really, really good. Because we were improvising and playing a game.

Things I loved about the weekend:
– The band was so good, everyone danced to any old song. They don’t worry about speed or who they’re dancing with; they just get up and have some fun.
– The floor was full of all the dances. Balboa, lindy hop, solo, shag, people just holding hands and swaying.
– the noise level from the crowd. Shouting out to the musicians, talking, laughing, cheering, clapping, whooping, hollering.
– the musicians’ massive smiley faces, and the way they’d talk to the dancers or yell out to each other.

This song Benny’s Bugle is important, because the original Goodman small group included Benny Goodman, Cootie Williams, George Auld, Count Basie, Charlie Christian, Artie Bernstein, Harry Jaeger. So Basie’s powerhouse rhythm section got together with Goodman’s perfectionist control, and then they made an amazing song. There are some very interesting outtakes from this recording session, available on box sets like Charlie Christian:Genius of the Electric Guitar. And you can listen to it on youtube here.

Andrew Dickeson’s Blue Rhythm Band is strongly influenced by Basie’s rhythm section. And we all know how lindy hoppers feel about Basie. Goodman is just perfect for balboa, because he has that precise, clever instrumentation matched with a glorious swinging timing. That’s balboa, right?

So this song is important: balboa and lindy hop = <3

New Music: Doyle and Gamble

doyle-too-hot michaelgamble4

 

 

 

Jonathan Doyle Swingtet – Too Hot For Socks
and
Michael Gamble and the Rhythm Serenaders – Michael Gamble and the Rhythm Serenaders

Disclaimer: Books Primo approached me to review the Doyle album, offering me a free download. I chose to pay for it (to support the band), but i took him up on the invitation to review. I saw it as an invitation to engage with his music, to share my opinions. The Gamble review, however, is unsolicited.

Both of these albums landed in my collection on the same day, both prompted by updates and dancers’ chatter on facebook. That in itself is an indication of how closely these two bands are connected to the lindy hop scene. And the importance of digital technology in securing the success of a modern jazz band. You have to have a) a good online vendor for download sales, and b) good social networks in the international lindy hop scene to promote your album by word of mouth.
Both of these bands are American, and both play for dancers, and that’s the other side of the securing-success equation. If dancers see and hear you playing live, and if they feel your feels, and if you’re looking up, at them, engaging with them, and doing that creative, collaborative improvisation that makes jazz jazz, then you’re going to develop a reputation that will help you sell albums and book gigs.

Right now I’m a zillion kilometres above the ground (still over my own continent, though), so I don’t have access to any other information either band. So stick with me, k?

These are dance bands, peopled by, and designed for dancers. Michael Gamble is a dancer and DJ, and his band includes dancers. He also manages the DJed and live music for Lindy Focus, an event fast becoming known for its live music – both in the ballrooms and in the informal jams. Jonathan Doyle is also closely connected with dancers, his band including Brooks Primo and others. Doyle, in fact, has recorded with Tuba Skinny, the Fat Babies, and most recently with Naomi Uyama’s Handsome Devils. All big names in the jazz dance world.

Both bands play regularly for dancers, and are prominent on the american dance event calendar. I’ve never seen either live, though I’m familiar with their recordings, know band members, and have DJed their work before. While they exist as real live people and musicians in American dancers’ lives, they are online people for me. Online friends. I won’t hear them play live unless I travel to America, something I’m not likely to do in the immediate future (guns, Trump, scary arse customs processes, etc). So I consume them as recordings.

For many American dancers, though, they are living, breathing people, friends they see on the stage from the dance floor. Friends they dance with on the dance floor. I think that this relationship is very important, and we all know that live music is now, more than ever, at the core of what we do as dancers today. There was that moment where bigger scenes focussed on DJs, while smaller scenes always maintained relationships with bands, when they had them. But now we are all about live music. And customising bands for our consumption.

Peter Loggins recently noted in a talk at Swing Castle Camp that DJs have both shaped and been shaped by dancers’ preferences, playing 3 minute songs in the 120-180bpm, swing-only, comfort zone. And this has shaped dancers’ expectations of live music. I’m not entirely on board with this argument, as there are plenty of scenes where DJs are playing more varied sets, and plenty of scenes where dancers gather at live music gigs because that is all they have for social dancing.
I’m also more interested in how a contemporary ‘dance band’ might have been shaped by these experiences with DJs. Do modern lindy hop and balboa bands consciously play in ways which reflect this ‘perfect’ dancing storm? If Loggins is right, and DJs have shaped modern lindy hopping practices, have these practices in turn then shaped the way ‘dance bands’ created by and for modern dancers, put together live and recorded sets?

Hm. If this is the case in the States (and I’m not entirely convinced it is), are the European, Japanese, and other regional jazz bands working with dancers reflecting this pattern? Is it the case in Japan, where jazz flourishes, but contemporary lindy hop culture lags a little? And what of bands like the Hot Sugar Band in France, who play for dancers, know dancers, but have a kind of take-no-prisoners approach to live music (and hotel rooms)? Even within America, it’s not an entirely accurate observation about New Orleans, where bands are engaged so actively with a diverse local live music culture.
I know that here in Sydney we have a rich and vibrant live jazz scene, and because bands are playing their gigs, for mixed crowds, they play a range of styles and tempos, and different songs lengths. Even when booked for dancers, and working with dancers to develop ‘dancer-friendly’ sets, they are still holding onto these jazz traditions: playing latin rhythms, playing a range of tempos, and songs of all lengths.
For the most part, dancers are happy with these arrangements. We’ve learnt to enjoy figuring out what to do with something latin rhythmed, or how to handle a super long song. And the strategies we use are similar to the ones Peter outlines in his talk, the sort of strategies that OGs used in the swing and jazz eras.
Interestingly, Sydney is home to the oldest lindy hop scene in Australia, local dancers travel extensively overseas, and we have flourishing balboa, lindy hop, blues, and solo jazz cultures. We aren’t a small, isolated scene with inexperienced dancers. We’re a large, diverse scene with fairly particular musical tastes.

Though we are an older scene, and we do have some exceptional dancers, our overall standard of dancing is a bit patchy, and we don’t have a huge DJing culture. We have some very good DJs, but we don’t have the pervasive ‘hard core DJing culture’ of the States. The organisers and DJs our bands do work with are often firmly rooted in live jazz history, and have a solid understanding of how to work with bands to encourage good dancing and satisfy musicians’ creative drives. Having said that, there are some truly terrible events in Sydney, with awful DJs, and poorly developed visions and guidance for live music. No one wins when the organiser doesn’t have a clue about music, or doesn’t have a passion for 20s, 30s, or 40s jazz.

Many of the better, more experienced Sydney musicians publicly question dancers’ insistence on shorter songs and ‘moderate tempos’. They’re a little more obstreperous, risking gigs because they aren’t as prepared to compromise. Though of course, that’s changing, as recent funding cuts to the arts in Australia (50%!) have sent a significant proportion of our musicians overseas seeking work. If you’re in Paris or the UK, you can catch some of Melbourne’s finest, and if you’re in the Asia-Pacific region, you can often catch a Sydney band touring.
I’m actually very interested in the way local Sydney bands have begun working with dancers for mutual pleasure and creative satisfaction. The Squeezebox Trio have a long standing relationship with balboa dancers at a Wednesday night bar gig, Andrew Dickeson’s Blue Rhythm Band is pursuing Basie’s dance band legacy, working with people like me in Sydney, but also playing at all the major Australian events in 2016. Swing Rocket has played for dancers here in Sydney, but has also played a number of shows in Guadalupe with French musician Tricia Evy and Stockholm based lindy hoppers Marie N’diaye and Anders Sihlberg.

All these bands are staffed by musicians who then go on to work with other local bands, spreading their experience and inspiration from working with dancers. Musicians have been enthusiastically involved with projects like my Little Big Weekend event, where we built tap dancers, singing dancers, and musician-dancers into the program. In my events, I am determined for the music to be more than a ‘background beat’ for dancers. I want musicians engaged with dancers (and vice versa), and I want to use live music in a lot of different ways. For example, earlier this year we had Georgia Brooks arrange a sung ‘word from our sponsor’ to perform with the band during our competition. I’ve also had the band do a ‘practice competition’ with our students at a local gig, so they could all learn how to do a competition with live music. The last was especially fun as we were all trying new things,from seasoned musicians to beginner dancers and organisers. And we went into the enterprise with a spirit of curiosity and determination. And a love of jazz.

I’m not sure how to get to my original point (I did get up at 5.30 this morning), but I wonder if all this means that Gamble’s band and Doyle’s band are perhaps too perfect for dancing? Has the close association with dancers moved them away from a jazz tradition and towards a contemporary lindy hop tradition? But a lindy hop tradition that is a little too carefully curated for the ‘perfect dancing experience’? It’s a tricky issue.
Michael Gamble has been heavily involved with promoting historical swing arrangements and recordings, as well as recreating those with the musical program of events like Lindy Focus, so we know his work is rooted in the past. Which I suppose is my point: is a hardcore recreationist project at odds with the spirit of jazz? If vernacular jazz is about change and growth, innovation and improvisation, does it lose its impetus when we focus on recreating a specific moment in time?

It’s all quite interesting and challenging. And the issue puts us at odds with the function of a dance band (make people dance; make it easy for people to have fun). Can a modern jazz band support that goal while also pursuing musical creativity and innovation which might make for awkward dancing? Can a band honour the past, while also moving forward?

I think it can. But as I’ve ranted in other posts about rhythm-first approaches to dancing, we can’t approach a ‘good dance’ as a series of moves perfectly executed. A ‘good dance’ should have two rules: look after the music, look after your partner. A good dance to a live band should involve an interruption of the sequence of ‘perfect moves’ to pause and just jockey in place, digging the band. Or simpler shapes which allow partners to turn and smile and cheer at musician for an especially excellent solo. Or joke. Just as a good DJ needs to look up from their computer, a good musician look up from their score, a good dancer should look up from their partner and engage with the band, and everyone else in the room.

This is an extension of my question: is it possible for a band to be too perfect for dancing? I’ve lately become a little tired of Gordon Webster’s band for just this sort of reason. The songs he plays are predictable in structure and emotional progression, and just a bit too ‘easy’ or ‘perfect’ for dancing. You can hit every break. You can hear all your favourite songs.

Really, though, this is a silly question. These musicians are working on projects they find satisfying and challenging, interesting and fun. And it gets them work, which is the point of jazz, really, isn’t it? Being socially and creatively sustainable. Earning a living wage and playing music. And the nicest part of swinging jazz is that this playing of music is social. It asks artists to play for and with audiences, rather than locking themselves away in a garret creating ‘art’ that no one ever listens to or engages with. Swing jazz, as dance music, asks musicians to work with dancers, and it asks dancers to engage with music actively, as dancers. Whether they are up on the floor dancing, or turning their ears to the music, breathing it in as people who dance, or feel rhythm in their feet and heart.

That whole issue aside, what’s to be said about these two albums?

Bluntly, Gamble’s album is accessible, and makes for good foot-stomping dancing.
Doyle’s album is more cerebral, more of a toe-tapper than a foot stomper.
Other than that, they’re very similar. Small, swinging bands playing fun swing music.
If I was writing from my gut, I’d say that the Doyle band is a bit squarer than Gamble’s. Which is a feeling I had about their previous recordings. I enjoyed the Doyle, but it doesn’t quite let loose. There’s something in the brass, and wind instruments which says square to me. I’m not a musician, and sadly too slack to educate myself on this point, but it sounds like there’s a lot of very controlled synchronised work there. I feel like things are a bit too safe, a bit too carefully planned out. To me, this sounds like they’re used to playing for each other, more than for dancers. Or if I picture them in my mind, they’re sitting in a circle, facing each other, making it a bit harder for the audience to get in. or they’re reading sheet music, eyes down. This could of course be a matter of the mix or recording technology, with something in Gamble’s recordings lending a warmth or accessablity to the album.
They actually remind me a bit of a band I saw at Herrang, Kinda Dukish. Fantastic musicians, but as a Swedish sound engineer described them, ‘very German’. In other words, very precise. Very good.

My favourite song from this album is ‘Good News, Bad News’. Probably for the muted trombone. ‘You can’t Take These Kisses With Ya’ feels a bit sprightlier, and funner. There are parts of ‘Comfort Zone’ which are especially good. The album does open with a bit of a bang with ‘Sugar Glider’, but even this song is a bit too polite. Though I begin to feel like all the musicians are politely ‘taking turns’, rather than clumping in to give us those layers of sound and aural colour that makes for good dancing.

One of the nice parts of this album is that the cover art features dancers I know (via the internet), drawn by dancers: what a lovely combination. And an example of how ‘swing’ isn’t just about dancing, but a cultural nexus, with dancing just one point on a continuum of cultural practice. A little as Lee Ellen Friedland describes hip hop. I really enjoy this little example of how the band is bedded down into its local dance community.

Gamble’s album, in contrast, comes in like they’re playing for dancers. I know it’s a cliche, but dancers do like vocals, and it provides a point of connection. It’s a bit of an overplayed favourite, but ‘I Left My Baby’ is a good opening song. It provides a point of familiar contact for newer dancers, and it makes experienced ears ask, “Ok, what’re you going to do with this old chestnut to keep my interest?”
‘Disorder at the Border’ comes in the way I like it, with a definitely Basie feel in the rhythm section. I think it has something to do with the sense of relative timing in that rhythm section. Where Doyle’s band feels very neat and in unison almost, here, the Gamble band has the guitar, piano, bass, and drums sitting in slightly different places.

You know what, I don’t know what I’m talking about. I can’t find the words to explain what I’m hearing.

One of the clever parts of this album, is the way it moves from that Basie-esque feel to a smaller, more uptight Goodman small group feel with ‘Airmail Special’, and then on to say hello to Andy Kirk with A Mellow Bit Of Rhythm. I love the version of ‘Seven Come Eleven’, one of my most favourite songs. I really dig that ‘Slidin’ and Glidin’’; I’ve DJed it a few times, and it goes down a treat.

I have to make special mention of Laura Windley’s vocals. I’ve enjoyed her work with her own band, the Mint Julep Jazz Band, and I’ve heard she’s grand live. But I really liked her version of ‘Fine and Mellow’ on this album. It’s hard to sing a song like this, which is so indelibly stamped by Mz Holiday’s voice. When you read the title, you think of that incredible live recording, and Lester Young and Holiday passing the feels back and forth. So to come to this song and give it new feels is a real challenge.
But I think this is my favourite song on the album. The one I’ve listened to quite a few times. Laura changes the vibe, gives it something interesting, and a little more energy, but keeps the clarity and brightness Laura’s band and style are known for.

Yes, it’s all really good dance music. It makes for great dancing. I saw John Tigert drop songs from it at Herrang, and people loved it. But that’s part of my issue with this album. I feel like I’m listening to a good DJ set. The songs are picked from different bands, with different feels, and it’s all great. But I don’t quite feel like the band is taking any risks. I know I’d almost certainly have a good time dancing to this band live. I’d enjoy the performances. I’d hear favourites, plus a few of the ‘currently cool’ ‘newer finds’. But I’d be left wondering exactly what the _point_ of it is. Yes, I do like eating potato chips (a lot). But occasionally I like something a little more challenging to the palate.

In sum, then, this is a very good album. Buy it if you want some easy ‘DJing wins’. Buy it if you want something simple and easy to eat/dance to. As I did, buy it if you want to support bands who play fun music for dancers. But it doesn’t take any risks.

Too Hot For Socks – 2016 – Jonathan Doyle Swingtet
and
Michael Gamble and the Rhythm Serenaders – Michael Gamble and the Rhythm Serenaders – 2016