Sea of Rhythm rambling

I’ve just had a LOVELY weekend at Sea of Rhythm, a new dance event held in Melbourne. Run by Rhythm Tap, a group who do the sort of tap that lindy hoppers like, the program was intended to bring together dancers who were interested in dances of the African diaspora. Not that the event was pitched like that. It was literally pitched as a ‘sea of rhythm’ event, where dancers would come and immerse themselves in rhythm-based dances for a weekend. That meant African (Senegalese) dance and drumming, lindy hop, rhythm tap, historic solo jazz dance – all the good stuff!
I’ve been to a few of these sorts of weekends before, but this one was different for a couple of reasons. The most important of which was that the teachers and performers weren’t just random people from around town. They were top shelf dancers and teachers. The other key reason for the success of the weekend, was that the teachers were all approaching dance from the same ideological position. They see dance as an embodiment of music, or more specifically, they approach all dance as rhythm first.

This approach to dance has become quite popular in the mainstream lindy hop community lately (and isn’t that a strange thing to write – ‘main stream lindy hop’), but it’s something the Swedes have been talking about forever, and they’ve been talking about it because they’ve always worked very closely with the old timers – Frankie Manning, Al Minns, Norma Miller and so on. And the African American dancers always put the music first. Lindy hop hasn’t been well served by that deviation into ‘smooth’ and heavily technique-focussed teaching in the early 2000s. That movement away from hot jazz, and that strange emphasis on ‘connection’ took us a little too far from the roots of lindy hop.

I’ve very interested in talking about ‘rhythm’ as a teaching tool. I think that it’s very useful for teaching beginners the essentials.

Bounce (that’s the beat, or the time of the song) teaches us how to swing and stay in time, but also teaches us how to find a common point of reference for our partnership, so we can stay in time together. It’s also a powerful tool for teaching people to engage their cores (and relax their upper bodies as a consequence), and to improve their fitness (because it’s physically more work). It’s also – I very strongly believe – the most basic way for two people to dance together. You can just hold each other in your arms and bounce on the spot, and you’re dancing. It’s also (to get a bit essentialist here – I apologise), quite primal to bounce up and down to music with another person. Watching Josette Wiggins tap this weekend, heavily pregnant, I kept thinking: that is the point of this. We know how to do this, right from birth.

I also have quite a manically obsessive hatred of dancing that rushes the beat. Especially since taking tap classes. It really, REALLY shits me to have people in class rush the beat and make a basic rhythm speed up. Teaching, we see beginners do that at first (because humans do), but everyone of them can stop doing it within half an hour of their first class. If I’m in an intermediate or advanced lindy hop class and people speed up, I want to SCREAM. Because the people who do this are the people who don’t bounce.

Tap dancers don’t bounce, but they do have a shared sense of time. Bouncing is kind of a cheat, because it makes it easier to feel and find that shared sense of time. Tappers have that sense of time in their brains and bodies.

Teaching ‘steps’ or ‘footwork’ as rhythms instead is very exciting. Straight away, the students learn that rhythms are central to what we do, not just an add-on to the shapes or ‘moves’. And lindy hop is special: the syncopation of the triple step is so important.
After the speeding up of basic rhythms, I really hate it when people flatten out a syncopated rhythm. I think it’s something to do with tighty whitey dancing: lindy bro leads are the absolute worst for rushing the beat and flattening out syncopation. I know that follows tend to be a bit more behind the beat, but PLEASE: TAKE CARE OF THE RHYTHM! It feels so naff – why are you rushing?
I feel as though this issue is related to the tension between hot and cool in African American and African dance. Be cool. I’ll need to think more about that, though, before I can articulate it properly.

Scatting is essential. Again, the Swedes have always done it, because the old timers have always done it. Norma Miller rants about it. And I’ve transitioned almost completely to teaching entirely without counts in class. It’s a joy. I scat all the time now, to the point that I can’t actually turn it off when I dance.
I generally find that ‘1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8’ even with ‘ands’ in there simply aren’t complex enough tools for describing what happens in jazz dance. The beats don’t divide evenly into single beats or half beats. Just syncopation alone is far more complex. There’s a difference just between the timing of a stomp off and a triple step that counts can’t reflect. I find it much more useful to use sounds that sound like the way a movement feels. Which I guess is like reverse-engineering dancing to music. So if we do start with the music first, a musician plays a series of notes in a particular way, and then I find a way to make that sound visible with my body. Counts don’t really come into it.

I suppose what I’m really talking about is a profound ideological shift in approaching dance. From a very anglo-western, ‘scientific’ concert/performance approach, to a more ‘African’ or African American vernacular approach. From thinking about dance and music as things to be performed, watched and consumed, to things that should be created, participated in, enjoyed, eaten up and shared.

I wrote about ‘pavlov’s lindy hopper‘ a little while ago, where I talked about how watching other people dance does things to your brain: it fires you the bits of your brain that perform those movements. Particularly if you’re familiar with those movements. Dancers often talk about not watching dance clips before bed because it fires you up.
I suspect that scatting works this way. When we scat, we physically make the sound that the music makes, and that triggers something in our brains. So we move from just ‘observing’ or ‘consuming’ music, to participating in music. If dancing is a way to participate in music, then scatting is the natural bridge between the two. Or more usefully, it’s the olive oil that marries the flavours.

WHAT does all this have to do with Sea of Rhythm?
Well, I think that this is the HEART of what was happening. We know that tap dancing is a way for dancers to ‘join the band’, to make the sounds that they are dancing, rather than just ‘making sound visible’, they ‘make visible sound’. In the African dance class on the weekend, I think that this process was made very simple and clear.

We began by sitting in a circle, with our feet in, and this was called the ‘circle of life.’ Now, if you’re immediately made uncomfortable by that sort of talk, you might want to get a grip. It’s not so much hippy talk as a different way of talking and thinking about the role of music and dance in everyday life, from another culture. Anyone who’s been to a lindy hop class knows how important circle formations are to group dynamics. When I was tutoring, I’d make all the students sit in a circle, because it made it much easier to manage behaviour problems: people wouldn’t be able to sit in the back and dick around. They had to be right there, facing everyone, and accountable for everything they said and did. They had to be part of the group. And anyone who’s ever done a big apple (called or social) knows how circles make you feel. And of course, ring shouts make the roots of Africa so clear. All the tap classes over the weekend used circles as well – we’d stand in a circle and take turns doing step or a time step. And haven’t we all seen how a jam circle works? What it does to our brains and bodies to be leaning into a circle when the music is hot?

In our African dance class, we all sat in the circle of life, and our teacher was there, with us, part of that circle. Our teacher, but one of us. He explained what we’d be doing, and what his background was, and how things worked.
Then we moved to another part of the room, where the drums were set up in a circle. We all took a drum (or shared one), and began learning some simple drumming techniques. Our teacher would say something like ‘the rain is coming, gently’, and he’d tap a gentle tappity tap, and we’d just join in. And so on. The important points: he’d just begin, and we’d just join in. Then we stood up and started learning a routine. Our teacher would drum and we’d dance. I didn’t have any moments of feeling shy or uncomfortable. It was really fun, and we all felt really excited by this stuff.

I knew that this would be fun and exciting, but I didn’t quite anticipate what it would mean to have my teacher drum. He could vary the tempo, the length of time we spent doing each step, and how we felt. It was very exciting. And because we’d first learnt to drum the rhythms ourselves, it was as though we’d skipped scatting and gotten straight to the heart of it.

This was really the message of the whole weekend: we have to take care of the rhythm. It was also made very clear that we each had a responsibility to make the rhythms clear and sharp. Each of our teachers worked on us with this: our tap teachers, our African teacher, our solo jazz teachers, our lindy hop teachers. You have to properly understand the rhythm, before you can dance it. Or rather, you can only really understand the rhythm if you dance it.

This meant that the entire weekend the focus in all the classes wasn’t so much on ‘learning a move’ and then perfecting it, as learning a rhythm (or creating one!) and then figuring out just how many different ways you could dance it. Of course, the unspoken (and occasionally spoken) emphasis here was on individual personality and creativity, but in a collective environment. It’s quite an exciting approach, because mixed level classes suddenly become a real advantage: here is a room of people who are really diverse and different, which means you have a WHOLE ROOM FULL OF PEOPLE to inspire you, that you can suck inspiration from, who’ll fire up your creativity. How will you make this rhythm work with someone who’s never danced before? Or when I was was dancing with a pre-teen boy tap dancer in a beginner lindy class: how do I make this work with someone half my height and feeling weird about holding a grown woman in his arms?

I think it goes without saying that all weekend there was this absolute TRUTH that there is no distinction between ‘solo dancing’ and ‘partner dancing’. Even when we were dancing alone – or perhaps most when we were ‘dancing alone’ – we were actually part of a group, dancing together. This is where that whole thing about speeding up the tempo comes in: we were a group, so we all had a responsibility to take care of that rhythm and not speed it up or flatten out the swing or syncopation. Tap made this particularly clear, because we could hear the differences, and we had to bring everyone with us. It was a marvellous tension between uniformity and diversity. We had to be together, but we also had to be uniquely ourselves. We had a responsibility to contribute to the group, and to be responsible for our own actions. This approach meant that respecting each other was just taken for granted.

And the best part is that when we come back to our lindy hop, we can still throw down and do solid, hardcore lindy hop. No hippy stuff; just fucking hardcore lindy hop. All this stuff sort of fills in the backgrounds and body of our dancing.

It was quite a magical experience, really. It reminded me so much of the Frankie stream at Herrang. This is what it means to be a jazz dancer.

The influence of Frankie Manning on my lindy hop history

As I mentioned in the Frankie Fest post the other day, we’re teaching Frankie Manning themed classes this month at our weekly class. That means Frankie Manning themed lindy hop in the first class, and then Frankie Manning themed solo dance in the second class. Although making the distinction between the two seems to deliberately misunderstand exactly what Frankie Manning – and jazz dance – are all about.

I’m going to see if I can write a few blog posts about Frankie Manning, or, rather, using Frankie Manning as a jumping off point for some ideas. We’ll see how well things go – I’m not all that together in the longer-form writing way at the moment.

This is a post about how Frankie Manning moved into and out of my understanding of lindy hop. This is a story of personal growth (goddess, how I hope it’s about growth), not really about Frankie himself. If you want that story, you should read his autobiography.

Oh, yeah, Frankie Manning IS the best!: late 2000s and early 2010s

Frankie95, the massive birthday party for Frankie Manning, which he just missed out on seeing, seemed to suddenly change everything. It’s true, you know, you don’t know what you’ve got til you lose it. You don’t miss the water til the well runs dry. And the Silver Shadows, the most popular, and one of the most highly skilled lindy hop performance groups in the world at the time reminded people that Frankie was wonderful:

Frankie95 day3 Performance Silver Shadows tribute to Frakie Manning:

It feels, now, that the generation of international teachers being flown to Australia to teach (people like Thomas and Alice, for example, who taught a ‘Frankie class’ at Jumptown Jam last month), who mightn’t have been into this stuff in a big way before, are suddenly falling in love with Frankie Manning all over again. Or for the first time.

I’m feeling a profound sense of déjà vu. The steps that I first learnt to dance with – pecks, stomp offs, mini-dips – are now chic again. I’m not complaining. But I think that for a lot of dancers, the technique-heavy smooth style phase and then the popularity of blues dancing gave them the technical skills to really appreciate what Frankie Manning was doing, particularly in his later years. And I also think that the influence of Steven and Virgine in Melbourne (particularly during that 2000-2004 period) was very important. While their dance style was definitely juicier and groovier, their experience with Frankie Manning definitely informed their teaching, and Frankie’s understanding of music and rhythm and dance shaped the Melbourne lindy hop scene, even indirectly.

For myself, I think that Frankie himself makes it very clear that to be able to dance well, it’s just as important to able to shake your arse for Shiny Stockings at 120bpm as it is to move your arse at 230bpm with Jumpin’ at the Woodside.

Understanding Frankie’s bum and feet and hands and everything: early 2010s Sydney

Now that I’m teaching (again – the last time I taught was ~2002), I amazed by the content Frankie was teaching beginners:

Frankie Manning teaching in Denver, CO 2007:

That little sequence is quintessential Frankie Manning. He just assumed that if you were learning lindy hop, you were going to learn a complex sequence of rhythms and steps, and that that was going to be the heart of your dancing. Most lindy hop classes I see these days assume that beginners will be learning simple movements and that this sort of rhythmic work is a ‘variation’, an optional extra for more advanced dancers.

When I first started learning, this little film shows the sort of thing we learnt – in fact, I can still remember learning pretty much this exact sequence way back in about 2000. I strongly believe that this stuff – these rhythms, this use of open position, this combining partner work with individual improvisation – is the very core, the absolute essence of lindy hop. Without it, you’re just… well, you’re just doing something else. You’re not lindy hopping.

I know that right now, I’m really only beginning to properly understand just how amazing he was, even in his 90s. There are no modern dancers today who can approach his skill level. Let alone his choreographing ability. I think we are so lucky to have had him, not just in the early days of lindy hop, but most especially in the revival, when we really needed, as a community, to be taught not only how to dance, but how to love dancing and to be good to each other.

I think these interviews with today’s lindy hoppers talking about Frankie Manning at 90, at the 2004 Herrang Dance camp make all this clear:

Women’s History Month: some thoughts at day 6

It’s women’s history month again, and I’m listing a different woman musician from the first half of the century every day (as I explain here). Last year I did a different woman dancer every day, and that was super great fun. I’m enjoying the women musicians, but I haven’t really had a chance to research or push myself, as I’ve been away at a dance event for most of this month. And today, I’m still feeling a little tired and rough, so I’m not really ready to push myself. Tomorrow. Tomorrow.

I did decide in that first post of the month that I’d only dance as a lead this month, as a way of exploring International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month and what it means to be a woman dancing. Well, actually, I just decided that on a whim, without much thinking at all. I don’t follow much these days as I’m really trying to get my leading up to snuff, and the best way to get better at dancing is to dance. And as every lead knows, the real challenge comes on the social dance floor, when you need to come up with a series of moves, connect with your partner and attempt some sort of creativity all at the same time.
We won’t even mention the battle to maintain the fitness and aerobic capacity lindy hop demands.

I have to say, it hasn’t been hard, because I get to dance with amazing dancers, most of whom are my friends. And I’ve learnt so much in the past month or two it’s kind of scary – I suddenly find myself stretching and expanding my skills, pushing myself to try things that I’d never have tried before. But it’s certainly meant a bit of rethinking the way I operate socially at exchanges and dance weekends. My weekend pretty much felt like this:

I mean, the biggest change for me this past weekend in Melbourne was simply spending very little time with men. I have lots of lovely male friends, but I only danced with two of them this weekends, and I discovered that I just didn’t end up spending as much time catching up with blokes as I usually do. :( I think that’s mostly because I’d be chatting to some chicks, and then a song would start and one of them, or I would say “let’s dance!” and then we would, and then afterwards I’d end up mixing with chicks and chatting. Rinse repeat. This of course means that the men in the dancing scene need to man up and start with the following, because I refuse to miss out on their dancing wonderfulness! Good thing Keith and I got to DJ together, or I’d hardly have spent any quality time with a bloke at all this weekend. And that is UNACCEPTABLE.

Workshops on Sunday were fun. I learnt a LOT. And I did a private class with Ramona on Friday, which kind of broke my dancing for a bit, and then suddenly it all came back together and I was a dancing machine on Saturday night. Blues dancing: still a bit too dull for me atm. But then, only boring people are bored, and that’s doubly true of dancers – only a boring lead is bored. I need to woman up.

The DJ Dual with Keith went really well. In fact, I had the most fun DJing I’ve had in ages and ages. We ended up trading three songs until the last moment when we played alternative songs. I think we would have liked to continue for another hour or so, trading single songs, as we got more confident and figured out the skills and tactics we needed. But we’d been DJing for an hour and a half by then, so we might’ve gotten a bit tired. And I had to go in the jack and jill, and I’m not sure it would have been ok for me to DJ the competition I was in. Overall, it was nice to have a bit of a challenge, and it was nice to work with a friend I like and have lots in common with musically. But he is a bit of a sly dog, and wouldn’t tell me what he was playing next, most of the time, so I had to keep on my toes. But that was actually even more fun. DJ Dual: LIKE.

NB There were THREE women leads in the jack and jill competition, and one got through to the finals (in a group of six leads)!!11!1 That photo above is one I lifted from Faceplant – sorry I can’t remember whose it was. It’s of the J&J, I’m in there, and so is at least one of the other female leads.


I ended up catching up with lots of internet friends over the weekend as well. Which is always a bit of a push, but well worth it. The best part was walking into a cafe, saying “Hello, I’m Sam, nice to meet you!” and then barrelling into an hour of solid, hardcore talking as though we’d known each other for years. Which we have, really. Just not in person. This trip I went for smaller catch ups, rather than bigger groups, because I wanted to get a chance to actually connect with everyone and I often don’t get that at bigger meet ups. But that also meant I didn’t get to see everyone I wanted to. Oh well, good thing I go to Melbourne regularly! I’m planning another trip in May for the Frankie Manning birthday celebrations, so I’ll see if I can fit in the people I missed this time. But that sucks, because you’re still missing people! And then there are all the dance people I want to see off the dance floor! This is, of course, why exchanges are so much fun and so challenging – so many friends descend on one city for just one weekend you really need an enormous dance floor to connect with them all!

Righto, I’d better write up today’s jazz woman!

Most overplayed songs of MLX

Bizarrely, they came from this Preservation Hall Jazz Band album: “Preservation: An album benefitting Preservation Hall and the Preservation Hall Music Outreach Program”. It’s a great album, and I had it on my ‘must play’ list for the weekend. I was pretty sure no one else would be DJing from it – and then they did! It’s such a fun album. I love Angelique Kidjo shouting her way through ‘La Vie En Rose’, but ‘Blue Skies’ (featuring Pete Seegar) is my favourite. After Andrew Bird doing ‘Shake It and Break It’, which I overplay here in Sydney.

I actually play quite a bit from this album, but the most-played songs on this album at MLX were ‘I Ain’t Got No Body’ (feat. Buddy Miller) and ‘Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea’ featuring Paolo Nutini. Nutini is, apparently, a famous pop singer (?). I like him because his vibrato reminds me of Putney Dandridge. I’m pretty sure other songs from the album popped up in other places.

It was really quite nice to hear all these songs in all sorts of sets. It’s actually not a bad thing when the most played songs at an exchange are from a fund-raising album by a living band, and a living band of such high calibre.

Here is a video about the album. If you hunt around you can find some great videos of the recording sessions for this album:


NB: I am a really big fan of the ‘American Legacies’ album they did with the Del McCoury Band (see another promotional video here) because it combines my current passion for string bands and bluegrass with hot jazz.

[Edit: Interestingly, Andrew Bird and the Pres Hall Band’s version of Shake It and Break It turned up at Snowball 2011 in Sweden this year in Nicolas and Mikaela’s performance.]

MLX squee

I’m trying and trying to think of a way to talk about MLX. But I can’t. I’m sorry, I’m getting emotional. Mostly because you can’t hug every DJ. No matter how much you love them.

Right here, I need to make clear my association with the Melbourne Lindy Exchange. I was involved with the very first one in 2001 as a basic volunteer, doing the usual volunteer stooge sort of stuff. That year was the first year a major weekend event with a proper social program was held in Australia. It also featured workshops. In 2002 I was on the organising committee and played a big role in managing the event over the weekend. In 2003 I took a break. In 2004 MLX coincided with Swing City and was huge. It was also the most expensive event in the country at that time.
In 2005 a team made up of previous years’ organisers formed a nonprofit organisation (the MJDA) to run the event, and ran MLX as an all-social weekend. That was the cheapest full pass event in Australia at the time. I was on that team. As the weekend proceeded, numbers at each event increased massively, as locals who hadn’t bought passes were told by their friends that shit was hot, and the interstate visitor numbers were bolstered. In 2006 the same team ran the event, and we consciously decided to step things up in a big way. Two rooms at the late nights. Masses of bands. Serious promotion. The full pass was still ridiculously cheap. Crazy cheap. I think we doubled the pass sales. 2007 was a similar story. It was just nuts.

(a jam at MLX9, while I was DJing!)

Each year the attendee numbers increased massively. The event was run with the clear goals of being cheap and accessible for all dancers, yet also financially sustainable. I was involved because it was a nonprofit organisation, and because it is still stupidly cheap. It has a clear and firm policy of treating all volunteers really well, and the events themselves are very high quality. In 2008 I moved to Sydney and reduced my involvement to just finishing off coordinating the DJs. In 2009 I went to MLX as a punter and DJ and it was GREAT FUN. Same in 2010. BEST FUN EVER. I thoroughly recommend taking time off running your event to just attend as a punter. It makes you realise just how awesome it is, and it gives you a chance to actually enjoy the thing. This year I coordinated DJs for MLX11 and was blown away by just how tight and professional an event it is.
If you asked me whether I’d rather be involved with MLX as an organiser or as a punter/DJ, I’d be hard put choosing. I love going to it just as a punter because it’s an intense weekend in a great city, and total fun just to bum around at. But I also enjoyed working on the event this year because it’s such a big, interesting project. I think I’d be happy with either in the future. Maybe even prefer just DJing/puntering a bit, so I could really focus on DJing and dancing? Argh! What a choice to have to make!

So when I write about MLX, I’m a little biased. But my experience with the event over eleven years has varied so much, and I really feel now that I’m a contractor rather than a part of the core team, so I reckon I can write about it with some objectivity. Who am I kidding. But my love for MLX stems largely from its ethical intentions, its sheer quality as an event and its willingness to try new things and really set an example for other events in terms of music, working conditions for all involved and fiscal responsibility. It rocks.

Basically, MLX11 was the best event I’ve been to in Australia, ever. I’ve never been to an event with such a brilliant list of bands. Every single one was top shelf. And THEN, they ranged across all the best lindy hopping styles. Everything from hot early 30s medium sized band to juicy groovy hammond organ small group win. An 18 piece classic big band (from Perth!) doing arrangements so neat and performing them so well that I kept mistaking the band for the DJ. A chunky little swinging combo doing the sort of solid swinging powergroove/40s/50s swing that makes for brilliant lindy hop. A tight little late night band (from Perth!) made of dancers with a fun female vocalist that was actually really good. There were five bands, and they were all really, really good. I just couldn’t believe how good they were. I’ve never seen an Australian event with such consistently good and appropriate live music. Ever.

Then there were the DJs. I got to organise the DJs for MLX this year, so I able to put together a sampling of the strongest DJs I’d seen during the year (this is one of the reasons I travel a bit to dance events – so I can see who’s DJing, what they’re into, how popular they are with dancers) set them up in good time slots fun combinations, then just let them do their thing. That meant I was hearing my favourite sorts of music. But then things got BETTER! I couldn’t really get over just how GOOD all the DJs were. They’re all specialists in particular musical areas (including old scratchies, modern hot jazz bands, supergroove, chunky blues, classic big band swing), and I’d sort of set them up to do their sets expecting them to do X or Y or whatever it was I associated them with, musically. But EACH of them then managed their sets in the cleverest way, moving between styles and across genres to respond to the crowd’s interest, enthusiasm and stamina. It was just fucking magic. On Saturday night the main lindy hop room was still jammed with people lindy hopping at all the tempos at 5am! Even I was still in there dancing like a fool, and I was BUGGERED! I heard good reports from dancers all weekend, and I’m still getting emails and comments from people about the music. I just don’t think dancers could really get their heads around the quality of the music. I know I’m still kind of amazed. And I’m such a picky bastard, it’s very difficult to please me with every set.

The DJs at MLX11 included (in no particular order): Andy Fodor (Melb), Manon van Pagee (Melb), Trev Hutchison (Perth), Jarryd Reynolds (Adelaide), Matt Greenwood (Bris), Kenny Nelson (Colorado), Noni Mae Clarke (Melb), Sharon Callaghan (Melb), Keith Hsuan and me (Sam Carroll, Syd). The hardest part of coordinating DJs is knocking people back, and MLX is the highlight of the Australian DJing calendar, so lots of DJs look for sets at the event. It breaks my heart having to tell people the program is full, or that we’re looking for a specific type of DJ this year. There are still DJs that I’d like to add to a program like that, but we’d really reached maximum capacity this year. The program over all had a lot of live music – 1 band Friday evening, 2 Saturday evening/late night, 2 Sunday evening/late night – and this was GREAT. But it made for less DJing space. I was delighted, though, absolutely delighted by the way the DJs complemented the live music. It’s not often that I squee over a band break DJ’s work, but this MLX each of the band break DJs did really amazing jobs complementing, but not overshadowing the bands. It’s a tricky gig, and you’re really working all night, not just for the short blocks you’re playing music. There are performances, speeches, welcome dances and random interruptions to deal with during band break sets, as well as trying to avoid playing songs from the band’s set list. But these guys were guns.

MLX is generally the best social dancing weekend in the calendar, if you’re into hardcore dancing, but this year far outshone previous years. All through the weekend late night events ran over time. Main lindy hop rooms that usually finish at 4am were still pumping at 5.30am. Blues rooms just kept working and working. The Sunday didn’t end til 6am or something stupid. The venues were just right, the sound set ups were good, the provision of food and drink was important and done well, and the volunteers were cheery and well organised. All this, and MLX is a NONPROFIT event run by a team of volunteer coordinators. A committee. Anyone who’s ever worked on a dance event or on a committee knows just how difficult it is to get things done with a committee. Yet MLX consistently produces the best event in Australia. Every. Single. Year. I thought MSF was giving it a run for its money this year, but MLX pwnd all.

I like MLX because it’s just social dancing, and it tends to encourage random or crazy shenanigans. But not stupid shenanigans that make you cranky because they’re stopping you dancing. Fun shenanigans. I saw quite a few random costumes this weekend (my favourite was perhaps a bloke in a Black Swan costume for the Saturday dance), and I really liked the way the MLX theme (played to introduce the speeches and announcements) was, by the end of the weekend, met with loud singing-along and cheers, particularly as the MC Jarrod began initiating his speeches with some truly inspired interpretive dance. The theme was matched to the MLX theme – Turning it up to 11. I love this theme because it’s totally unrelated to lindy hop, it’s a bit lame (in a big hair way), and it also turned out to be totally fun to dress up for.

I think it’s worth talking a bit about why MLX is such good fun to DJ, and why it manages to get such brilliant sets from the DJs.

  • Firstly, MLX doesn’t stint on sound gear. We did have some problems on Thursday night this year, but that’s because we were using a gorgeous little hall with very high ceilings and lots of hard, bouncy surfaces. It was a lovely space, but it did make for weird acoustics with recorded music. But the team helped us fix stuff up as much as possible (I was DJing that night and did struggle a bit at first). Otherwise, every venue had the right amount of amplification, a good quality mixer and a good, comfortable space for the DJ to set up with the right lighting. I know that when I DJ MLX I can play any song, no matter how old or scratchy, because the sound gear will make it sound sweet. So I DJ to the limits of my collection, rather than playing it safe.
  • MLX treats DJs with lots of respect. DJs are introduced, back-announced, regularly cheered mentioned in speeches and listed all over the website. This year I made up a basic ‘Program of DJed music’ and put it up around the place so people could see who was on where and what they were doing in their sets, and it worked really well. The MLX peeps are also quick to buy DJs drinks and check in on them regularly to see if everything’s ok.
  • MLX pays DJs well, better than any other event in Australia, and gives them free entry to the events they work. There are still Australian events which don’t give DJs free entry to the events they’re DJing, and this makes me FURIOUS. I think it shows how little music is valued, and how little understanding these event coordinators have of the work that goes into DJing. Sure, I think live music is more important, but DJs do actually fill out the bulk of most Australian dancing weekends. And at events where the bands can be quite dodgy, the DJs extra important. Personally, I won’t DJ an event that doesn’t give me free entry, because when I’m DJing, I’m working. I’m also loathe to do gigs where I don’t get paid. My exceptions are for new or nonprofit or charity events, or for my best buddies (ie my really close personal friends) or for house parties. Really, I do so much DJing these days, and I like social dancing so much, I need an incentive to bring my laptop and work for a few hours at a social event. But MLX pays more than other events, and has recently introduced a blanket pay rate for band breaks, which recognises the amount of work band break DJs do, and which no other event does. DJs are also paid for any extra DJing they do beyond their rostered sets. DJs are also paid for the full length of their rostered sets, even if that set has to be cut short. Well done MLX!
  • MLX plans the DJing slots carefully and effectively. Set start and finish times are staggered, so that DJs can be properly introduced. Sets are at least an hour and a half long (unless there’s something difficult to work around), if not longer. The only challenge with MLX DJs is that they all love social dancing so much I had to stop myself pushing them to do more sets when I was planning the roster!
  • Probably the best part of DJing at MLX is that they have a creative and innovative approach to programming DJs and events. They’re willing to try new things. Sometimes these new things don’t work out, but most of the time they do. The B-Sides room a few years ago was super popular, and allowed for an alternative to the main lindy hopping room. The B-Sides room was just that – a BSide, where DJs could play whatever they liked and not be constrained by rules bout ‘what’s good for lindy hop’. It was a massively popular room, and has only been replaced in the last few years because hardcore blues dancing has been so incredibly popular. While DJs in the main room are encouraged to experiment with themes, most of them end up doing straight ahead, unthemed sets simply because MLX is such prime lindy hop DJing. DJs don’t need a theme to spice things up for themselves, and just want to PLAY ALL THE THINGS.

To sum up, then, I really enjoyed coordinating DJs for MLX because it allowed me to pick a team of awesome DJs, treat them really well, and set them up to do just do their thing. And they DID that thing. I love DJing at MLX because I know it will be the BEST DJing experience of the year. I’ll be able to play all the stuff I love but might not play at home. MLX brings the fittest, most adventurous, open-minded dancers to the floor, and they’re all willing to just give things a go, even if a song is faster or unfamiliar. And I don’t think it’s just the experienced dancers who are like this at MLX. I see newer dancers getting out there and giving it a go. The event really feels like a good place to try new stuff. And, hopefully, people go home to their scenes as inspired and enthusiastic about dancing as I am right now.

The season of snot and ridiculously beautiful parrots

IMGP6151_rainbow-lorikeet, originally uploaded by RaeAllen.

It’s spring here in Sydney (well, summer, technically), and that means flowers and pollen and snot. We’re in a temperate/subtropical zone, near the coast, and we get masses and masses of rain in the spring and autumn months. The European seasons are particularly useless as guides to weather in Sydney… well, for pretty much all of Australia, but I really feel the discrepency most here. The Dharawal calendar makes a lot more sense. Which isn’t surprising, seeing as how it’s the sum of 40 000 years worth of observation and knowledge, rather than 200 years of trying to force a round peg into a square hole. Despite the best efforts of British colonists, we are not England, and they have not made Australia so. But most European-Australians insist on using the European seasons to describe our climate and get all emotional about falling leaves and ‘real’ seasons from a country on the other side of the planet which really only exists in their parents’ imagination. It gives me the shits a bit.

The Dharawal calendar:

Gaalung Marool
(hot and dry)

(wet becoming cooler)

Tugarah Tuli
(cold, frosty, short days)

Tugarah Gunya’marri
(cold and windy)

(cool, getting warmer)

(warm and wet)

Right now we’re in Parra’dowee, which means warm and wet. Which is what it is. Big, masive pouring rain for a week, straight-down rain, like a warm, heavy shower. And then things dry out and the plants go INSANE with their flowers, the birds go NUTS with the nectar and pollen in the flowers (especially the rainbow lorikeets, adrenaline-charged sex addicts at this time of year) and the bats get crazy for the fruit coming into season. All this is very picturesque, but by geez it makes for bad hayfever. Snot. Snot. Snot.
But Parra’dowee describes this season – warm and wet – far more effectively than ‘spring’. It’s not as though the little plants are crawling out of the frozen ground. The plants have been steadily growing for the last few months, and really only slowed down during the coldest part of the year. And ‘cold’ in Sydney means, oh, below 20*C at least! I never wear my Melbourne winter clothes, and never need scarves or woolly hats. But I’ve invested in lots more light cotton dresses since I’ve moved here (you can check the average temperatures and rainfall in these graphs).
Melbourne is (sort of) covered by the Brambuk calendar, which is pretty harsh. Very hot and dry in summer, very cold and often wet in winter. Total rubbish. It reminds me of living in Wagga, which was also rubbish, weather-wise.

Living in Sydney is like living in Brisbane or Fiji, but with less humidity and more moderate temperatures. Which is probably because they’re tropical places. I adore Sydney weather. Even in this wet season, the blocks of rain are bracketed by weeks of perfect, gloriously blue-skied days and gentle temperatures. All this makes Canberra all the stranger. Just over a mountain range to the east (sort of), the winters are freezing cold with snow, and the summers are bakingly hot and dry. Sydney is best. Canberra is our closest lindy hop scene, and we are the two closest scenes in Australia, so we visit each other for special events. It’s a three hour drive, or three hours on the bus for a $30 ticket (or $15 if you get organised early enough). One year coming home from Canberrang, the bus drove through snow flurries, then we arrived in Sydney where people were at the beach swimming.

Sydney is the best, chuck out all the rest.

NEEDS MOAR DJS ? (part 2)

(photo of Trev and I ‘DJing’ at MLX8 by scott_aus)

This post is the second of two. In the first part (NEEDS MOAR DJS ? (part 1)) I rambled on about Sydney’s DJing culture at the moment, particularly in reference to its social dancing culture and basic demographics. This second part spends a bit of time talking about why DJing sucks and why I like DJing. At some point in the future I’ll try to write about how we might (despite all our better instincts) go about encouraging new DJs in the swing dance scene.

I’m going to carry on with the (increasingly ridiculous) point that we need more DJs here in Sydney. Because as things are going, we’re in pretty dire straits: NEED MOAR DJS!!1!!

How do we get these moar DJs?
One of the most frustrating suggestions I’ve heard lately is that we should “just put out an ad for more DJs”. Gee, why hadn’t I thought of that. As though there are squads of skilled DJs sitting about at home who hadn’t thought about DJing. Or rather, the implication is that any old fool with some music can DJ.

*headdesk* repeatedly

Here is where things get tricky. Yes, any old fool with an ipod or a laptop can just plug into a sound system and play some music. But this is what will happen 99% of the time:

  • They won’t play ‘swing music’. They’ll play songs that they luuurve and can’t believe no one ever plays. Because no one has every played that fucking Wham Jitterbug song, or Richard Cheese. They’ll play one fucked up song after another, and everyone will get shitty/bored and get drunk/go home.
  • They will play ‘swing music’, but they’ll be using shitty, shitty pirated mp3s that sound HORRIBLE and are unlistenable. So an experienced DJ/person will have to step in to help them fix the sound.
  • They will play ‘swing music’, but it will all be under 100bpm or above 200bpm, all from one small musical style, and all very samey. This’ll be fine for that person and their three friends, but everyone else will get shitty/bored and get drunk/go home.

The best case scenario in these moments is that the dancers will be ok with one of these DJs pulling this rubbish, so long as there’s a second DJ who’ll play ‘real’ swing music. Either way, you’re going to need a second DJ or some sort of technology-savvy person working with the new ‘DJs’ to help them actually make sound come out of the metal box.
And of course, we haven’t even begun to approach a DJ who has a) decent music, and b) knows how to combine it, and c) work the room so that people have a chance to breathe/get their groove on.

Who’d have thought. DJing actually requires some skills and knowledge.

So, yeah, just putting out an ad won’t turn up any surprise DJ gems. It might get you one or two people who have an interest. But what you’ll probably get is a bunch of guys with inflated egos who think DJing is ‘easy’. You might get one or two women, but they won’t have as much confidence as the guys. What will probably happen is that the few people who are actually interested in DJing swing music for swing dancers will pay attention to how things turn out, and then they’ll be disappointed and put off by the reality and the fallout of that reality.
As with building a swing dance scene generally, new DJs are more the result of long term plans and strategies than surprise discoveries.

This ‘just put in an ad for DJs’ approach is a clear indication of the value of social dancing and of music – low. This makes sense if your financial bread and butter is classes, and social dancing an optional extra. It’s also the antithesis of how I approach dancing. I see classes as a place for me to develop skills which make my social dancing better/easier/more fun/more creative. If your business relies on class attendance (rather than social dance attendance), it’s important to develop an institutional discourse which values pedagogy – learning and teaching – above all else, and which also articulates clear hierarchies of knowledge. Most importantly, learning is positioned as something which happens in classes, knowledge is bought and paid for, then passed from teachers to students like a little package.

What this really makes clear, I guess, is the way Sydney (and Melbourne, at least until about 2008) relies on dance schools to put on social dancing events. I don’t know if this happens in other scenes. But dance classes are the centre of the community, rather than the ground crew or entry point for a vibrant social dancing scene. I’m not sure why. Maybe we just seem to assume that running classes makes better business sense than running regular social dances? I mean, we only have three annual events, nationally (of a total of twelve or thirteen), which are all social dancing, with no workshops: Canberrang (Canberra), Devil City Swing (Tasmania) and MLX. MLX is the best-attended, largest of those events, and began as a workshop weekend. I often wonder if our national obsession with workshops has something to do with Australia’s small and geographically dispersed population. Or if it’s a result of our distance from the rest of the lindy hopping world. Historically, traveling to dance in Australia has been centred on workshops and learning rather than social dancing.

…but look, I’ve wandered off-topic again. It is relevant, because it explains why I think music and social dancing are so important to a contemporary lindy hop culture. It’s not just because I love social dancing above all else, or because I am a DJ, with much to gain from a community valuing my skills. I do think that a modern lindy hop scene cannot be truly socially and creatively sustainable if it does not include social dancing. Because social dancing is really challenging. And it’s also the place where dancing stops being a series of monologues and becomes an exciting, challenging discourse. It’s called social dancing for a reason. But let’s get back to talking about DJing.

There are other ways of encouraging new DJs.
I’ve written quite a few posts about getting into DJing:

Looking at that list, all I can think is:

NONE OF THIS IS ENCOURAGING. These are not helpful posts. tl;dr Too depressing. Too much thinking!

I need to write a post talking about how to encourage people to take up DJing. I really do. But this is not that post.

(photo of Tomo by Swifty, an American photographer, DJ and dancer in NY).

Basically, becoming a good DJ requires a lot of time. Yeah, some money. But the time is the biggest investment. Time to learn music. To learn how to use technology. To spend actually DJing and moving from sucking to being half decent and then, finally, good. You can be competent within a year, but it takes at least a couple of years to get good. Just like lindy hop, DJing for lindy hop is a long term project. Time spent sitting on your arse DJing instead of dancing. That always surprises new DJs: you don’t get to dance to the music you love that you’re playing? No, buddy, you don’t. Because there are very few people who have the ninja skills to pull off a good set while dancing to it. And 90% of the guys (and they are blokes) who dance while DJing aren’t anywhere near as good as they think they are. No, buddy, you’re not.

And if you’re just in the scene to have fun and dance, why on earth would you waste your time learning to DJing, and then actually DJing? Particularly when there’s an awesome band on every free night you have during the week?

So you get these people to start DJing. Why would they bother to stick with it? The hours are shitty. You aren’t treated with a whole heap of respect – there’s no line of groupies waiting for you after a set. There’s next to no money in it. Unless that money is the money you sink into your gear and music. You’re far more likely to get abused by some blockhead venue owner or manager than thanked. You’ll constantly deal with idiots suggesting amazing songs no one ever plays. By Wham. Most of the sets you do will be small time local sets for mixed range of dancers who’d really rather talk and flirt than dance. Unless you’re in a big scene with a core set of hardcore dancers. That means Melbourne, in Australia – we just don’t have that significant core group anywhere else, not in decent numbers. Even in Melbourne, though, most of your sets would be for smaller crowds. Because the smaller sets are the bread and butter of a swing dance scene.

Golly, with all that bad news, why does anyone DJ at all? Why do I DJ?

  • I love the music. The music brought me to dancing in the first place. And that’s why I stay. And that’s also why I get up and leave when some fucker plays Richard Cheese or that fucking Wham song. AGAIN. I love the music. It inspires my dancing. I go to dance classes so I can dance better(er) and do a better(er) job of making what I hear visible. I learn about dance history so I can understand what people danced to the music I love.
  • I’m a stooge. Yep. Some stooge has to make the music. So I’ll do it. I started DJing because I was sick and tired of the bullshit music I used to hear out social dancing in Melbourne circa 2004. If someone else was DJing every week, DJing the good stuff, I’d never have gotten into it. Perhaps. So, yes, I was that annoying new DJ playing ‘songs no one ever plays’. It’s just that everyone else was playing Wham, and I wanted to play some Lionel Hampton.
  • I like learning new things. I have a curious brain. And DJing is interesting. That’s one of the reasons I stick with it. The fundamentals of DJing are pretty simple: play music. But the practicalities are endlessly challenging: keep them dancing. Make them have fun. Make them crazy with pleasure. How do you do that, consistently? Their tastes and dance skills keep changing, so the DJing has to change too. There are no constants! Curious brain, inquires.
  • Collegiality keeps me with it. I do like to talk. And write. And DJing gives me something interesting to talk and think and write about. Not just on my own – with other people! I think my DJing makes me better at organising other DJs, so I also do it so I have some sort of empathy with their requirements.
  • The history of the music is interesting. Not the boring ‘jazz started in New Orleans’ rubbish. But the interesting stuff – such and such was in Person X’s band, but also in Y’s band, and both bands recorded the same song in the same year. And both bands were on different record labels. And the labels decided who got to decide what songs. And those labels affected which bands played which venues. And those venues were segregated/weren’t segregated. And that affected who danced to those bands live.
  • DJing feeds in nicely to my media studies/cultural studies background. I did a chapter of my PhD on DJing cultures, and I’m still interested in DJing as a case study/testing ground for various critical theories. I especially like the way DJing and dancing require participation, and I like the way that gives my research and writing mo cred.
  • It makes me feel proud and happy when people enjoy the music I play. I feel a sense of pride when I can make a crowd crazy. But I feel especially happy when someone tells me they like what I’ve done. Because I’m a hooman being, and I like the approval of my peers. I like feeling good about myself. And I like to facilitate other people’s fun. The hardest thing in the world is watching my friends dance like fools having crazy fun while I’m DJing. Without me. But then, one of the nicest things in the world is to see people I know – people I love! – having masses of fun to my music. I mean, what could be better than watching my partner dancing like an uninhibited adrenaline junky idiot to a song I chose because I knew he’d love it? Best exchange of presents ever.
  • Not many women were DJing when I began. It shat me to hear and see men being all holier than thou about DJing. Fuck, if they can do it, there’s no reason I can’t.
  • The hunting instinct. There’s something very satisfying about hunting down the perfect song, then dumping it into a set at just the right time and having people come running up to say “What was that SONG?” Yep, that’s a good feeling. But there’s something even more satisfying about going complete on an artist. On hunting down everything they recorded, and just having it. Because I’m a bit obcon, but also because… well, that’s the reason. Completists aren’t really 100% normal, are they? It’s also quite exciting to find a new artist or song or band and then testing it out on dancers. Is it as good as you expected it to be? Why not? I like that.
  • DJing is a good thing to do when you’re injured. I didn’t find my DJing improved while I was off dancing with an injury, but it gave me something to do at dances.
  • It’s creative. There really is something creatively challenging and satisfying about putting together songs in just the right way. Sure, you’re not mixing or making the music yourself. But no one else has played just this combination of songs at just this moment for just this crowd before, nor will they ever again. That’s a moment of creativity. And it’s exciting. When I’m really in the DJing groove, I feel as though I’m out there dancing every single song. I feel far more connected to the dancers than I ever do when I’m out there with them on the dance floor. I can see them all responding to each other and to the music. I can feel my own body responding – my heart rate elevating or dropping, my skin flushing, my pores sweating. I can feel the beat in my body, and the emotions of the music in my own… heart? And I use those feelings to make decisions about the next song I play. That feeling is really, really addictive. I think that’s what makes dancing so addictive. You get totally lost in the music, and nothing else exists. Plus: adrenaline, endorphins, physical contact. It’s all majorly addictive. And then revisiting those sets afterwards, figuring out why things worked or didn’t helps revisit those feelings. Contact high, yo.

So, really, there are lots of reasons to take up DJing. But how do you articulate all those things in the two minutes you have to talk to a dancer who may be interested in taking up DJing? Should you? It’s all very hippy and amorphous. And a little sweary.

I will try to write another post about how to get people interested in taking up DJing.

NB: There’s a nice, simple post about working conditions for DJs over at Words Pursued called Gotta Be Satisfied. This link came to me via a few people – Ryan Swift and (caution – FB link) Wandering and Pondering (also found at Wandering and Pondering.)
There’s the beginning of a discussion about related issues over at Swing DJs in the DJ Administration thread I started, but I don’t see that going anywhere.

As with most politically sensitive issues, most of the interesting talk will no doubt happen under the radar – on twitter, in emails, in private messages and face to face chats. I know I’m involved in about half a dozen conversations with people about these same issues. I tell you what, I’ve never been as aware of the role of unions as I am while talking about DJs. I’d never say it out loud (oops), but you can see how unionising – getting together as an organised group – is really in the interests of workers and bosses. The workers get more equitable working conditions and pay, the bosses get more consistent and reliable work from their employees. But shoosh. We won’t have any of that goddamn commie bastard talk here.

[EDIT: This is one of a number of loosely-associated posts about music in Sydney lindy hop today. This list includes:


NEEDS MOAR DJS ? (part 1)

In this post I ramble on about Sydney’s DJing culture at the moment, particularly in reference to its social dancing culture and basic demographics. It began as a huge post, but has split into two. The second one (NEEDS MOAR DJS ? (part 2)) spends a bit of time talking about why DJing sucks and why I like DJing. At some point in the future I’ll try to write about how we might (despite all our better instincts) go about encouraging new DJs in the swing dance scene. I’ll begin this discussion with a blanket statement: Sydney’s swing dancers like live music. I’ve written quite a bit about it in this post ‘Swing Dancing’ and Lindy Hop in Sydney: an Exercise in Speculative Fiction. But we also quite like DJed social dancing nights as well.

I think there’s a link between a scene’s age and its use of DJs. New scenes rely on bands for social dancing, and only use DJs to fill in after class or in informal contexts. Yes? Hm. That seems a long bow to draw. But let’s leave it for now, and move on to another spurious declaration. Older scenes develop fairly complicated and professionalised DJing cultures and DJs. They also produce better DJs, usually people who’ve been dancing for a while, but not always. In recent moments, though, some of the older scenes in America have returned to live music in a big way (Seattle), and scenes in cities like New York and New Orleans are seeing increasing attention to their live music cultures from local and visiting dancers. In these scenes DJing has taken a more supportive (though still essential) role. Sydney dancers traveling overseas to scenes like these are bringing this idea back to our city: live music is good. Their online discussion and interaction with dancers from those overseas scenes reinforces the radical ideas traveling dancers bring home to Sydney. The idea that ‘live music is good’ (and ‘cool’) is also circulating in other Australian scenes, and reinforced when Australian dancers meet up at events or talk online.
For an awful lot of dancers, the idea of what they should like (as propagated by teachers, influential individuals (teachers, etc), the programs of high profile events, etc) is more important than what they might actually like. For example, most people find themselves, mid-dance liking dancing to LCJO’s ‘C Jam Blues’. But most dancers who’ve been around for a while don’t like the idea of dancing to it. Because it’s too overplayed/slow/bigband/whatevs. This fascinates the part of my brain that likes to think about taste and cultures of taste and the influence of various digital media. It can really frustrate the other part of my brain that likes to DJ stuff I like, which doesn’t always coincide with popular trends (enough goddamn tuba-shouting-banjo for Ceiling Cat’s sake! For pity’s sake, give me a little classic big band swing for my lindy hop!) But, for the most part, it’s difficult to argue with this fad. Live music: it is good. It really is.

So there’s something of a tension between DJed and live music social dancing in Sydney. They often attract different crowds and are managed by different ideological, financial and political forces.

Let’s talk numbers.

Sydney lindy hop demographics. There are about 4.5 million people living in Sydney (and about 4 million in Melbourne). Sydney is the largest city in Australia, though not the fastest growing. DJing isn’t one of the largest pools of labour in the Sydney lindy hop community – there are only about thirteen of us. There are about fourteen teachers working regularly and occasionally with the two larger inner city schools, and many teachers are also DJs. There are a bunch of other teachers with the other schools in the outer suburbs, but I don’t know them at all really (I’d put them, conservatively, at about ten teachers). Unpaid volunteers number anywhere between fifty and one hundred across the two larger schools (this is a difficult one to quantify). I have no idea how many people take swing dance classes in Sydney. Sydney has hosted two or three larger annual events in the past (dropping to one this year) and a number of smaller workshop weekends. There is a great deal of cross-pollination with the Canberra scene, which is only a three hour drive away. No other Australian scenes are so close together – most are at least eight hours drive apart (I am blurring Geelong into the outer suburbs of Melbourne).

Sydney has lots of social dancing. Because we have lots of DJed social nights. We have three regular dancer-run DJed events: Swingpit, Roxbury, Jump Jive n Wail. JJW is mostly rock n roll, jump blues and neo swing, and it’s a gig managed by one professional DJing couple. It’s a majorly popular cross-over point between the rock n roll, rockabilly,’swing’ and lindy hop scenes. Roxbury and Swingpit are run by two different dance schoosl and are on fortnightly, on alternating weekends. Swingpit uses four DJs per month, Roxbury between four and six per month. They tend to draw on different DJing pools. Then there’s the new and irregular North Sydney after-class social dancing, which has one or two sets per month, give or take. DJs are also used for other occasional social dances – the (irregular) late night Speakeasy, band breaks for live music gigs run by dancers, and larger social dances run every now and then.

(Me, Ben and Kat, DJs for the SP performance ball this year. Not the most thrilling DJing gig; we may have been distracted by our own fun.)

Sydney’s complicated cultural architecture leaves us in a fairly tricky position when it comes to running DJed social dancing nights. Basically, we don’t have enough DJs to fill all our DJed social dancing spots. Our current venues use between ten and twelve DJ sets per month. That’s at least two sets per week. Of the ~thirteen DJs in our town, five DJ regularly and have solid skills. Only three of those DJ interstate, and only two or three would I hire for a big interstate event. We also have five DJs who DJ irregularly, but who would really rather dance. Two of the thirteen very rarely DJ any more (and haven’t in literally years). We have one or two or perhaps three or four who are really green. And then there are assorted blues DJs who don’t get to DJ anywhere any more at the moment, as our blues scene has pretty much collapsed.
When you look at the number of sets to be filled, those thirteen DJs don’t go too far. Some (like me) will do quite a few sets, but cap at about three per month. Most would rather DJ no more than once a month. Some are on complete hiatus.
At this point I simply can’t get enough DJs to fill the slots at Swingpit alone. This is partly because it’s November, and November is a busy month. Sure, people go nuts in December with parties and stuff, but in November people are really working their guts out at work. And Sydney can be an expensive town, requiring jobs that can be quite demanding. We’re also at the tail end of exchange season in Australia – there are about six large events in October and November, plus a round of christmas dances and festivals. So most of the DJs (and teachers and dancers) are kind of tired and burnt out. They just can’t manage DJing on top of everything else.

So we have lots of healthy social dancing nights, quite a lot of keen social dancers, but not enough DJs to do the DJed gigs. The obvious solution would be to put on bands instead of DJs. Bands pull numbers, and Sydney is busy proving there’s a clear market for live music events catering to dancers. So why don’t we just swap bands for DJs?

There are some financial issues at work. Neither Swingpit nor Roxbury could afford to put on a live band every fortnight. Both events are run on quite a tight budget, in part because they only charge $6 and $5 respectively for social dancing entry. That’s nothing. It’s hard to find a decent lunch for $5 these days, let alone a good night of fun dancing. An obvious solution would be to charge more for the social dancing nights, and to put on a band with the extra money. Two years ago I think you’d have had an outraged chorus of tightarsedness from dancers. But these days we pay anywhere from $10 to $40 for live music at venues with good dance floors.
Despite these brilliant(ly unthought out) arguments, there are a range of factors affecting the finances of these events which need to be taken into account. And even I know not to discuss these sorts of things in detail in public. :D
A shift to live music at our regular, dancer-run core social dancing events would mean a larger shift in the way social dancing events are run. Coordinating a band involves different skills and contacts than coordinating DJs. Bands need proper pay, and DJs are largely regarded as ‘hobbyists’ or volunteer labour. DJs are usually dancers and (preferably) know how dancers use music. Bands know music, but aren’t (in Sydney anyway) serious dancers, so they don’t know how dancers use music. More importantly, one gig for dancers a fortnight is not the most important thing in a band’s working life. They have other, more lucrative (corporate) gigs in their schedule. I think, however, the biggest and most difficult challenge in shifting from DJs to bands would involve prioritising music and social dancing, which organisations who make their money from teaching are not willing to do.

What if we did drop DJs completely and use bands instead? I’m not sure how things would go. I don’t think class-centred institutions like dance ‘schools’ could accommodate such hardcore ideological shifts. That’s a whole different way of thinking about dance and about profitable dance projects. An entire reshuffling of the social hierarchies and (commodified) knowledge values of a community. I think the modern Sydney lindy hop scene needs DJs, if only because it means that it doesn’t then need to reassess the value it gives music, and the knowledge and financial economy of the scene as a whole. Such a major change would involve a lot of ground-level effort, which Sydney isn’t really built for. Not at the moment. But even with an increased emphasis on live music for dancer-run events, there’d still be a place for DJed social dancing, if only on a smaller scale.

Let’s pause for a moment, and think about me.

What would I like? In a perfect world there’d be social dancing every week. Twice a week. At least. By social dancing, I mean spaces and events that are perfect for dancing. A decent floor that’s not covered in drunks and broken glass. They could be with live bands. That’d be cool. But I’d be ok with a really good DJed event as as well. So long as they were really good DJs. To be honest, in my perfect world, we’d have a DJed dance once a month that featured only really top notch DJing, was held in a dance-centred space (like a not-too-big dance studio) with an excellent, appropriate sound system, with a bar next door or attached or something so we could get drinks or noms. But the dancing would be the most important activity. And by good DJing, I mean mad crowd working skills and excellent solid swinging jazz. No neo. No rock n roll. No fucking novelty songs. Just 1920s-1950s classic swing and modern recreationist bands. Combined cleverely by a DJ who’s watching the floor. Four hours of that once a month, and I’d be happy. I’d complement that with lots of dancing to live bands each week. Unity Hall on Sundays. A Friday night band in a fun venue like the Camelot Lounge. Saturdays at different one-off events with different bands. A different band (or two) each week.

I’d be quite happy retiring some of our DJed social dancing sets. My DJ skills would slide a bit, but I do DJ interstate quite a bit, so I’m not really all that sad about it. And, by gum, I’d much prefer dancing to DJing myself! Right, now I’ve almost convinced myself that crying “DJ drought” is really my missing the point. Perhaps it might be more useful to rethink a (short sighted, isolationist) DJ-centred approach to social swing dancing culture. It seems a better idea to integrate live music more thoroughly into our everyday dance activities, to reduce our DJed dancer-run events and present entirely new types of dancer-run DJed events.

So, really, is it so sad to lose DJed social dancing? Hmmmm…..

I’m going to continue this discussion in another post, as this one is way too big already. The second part (NEEDS MOAR DJS ? (part 2)) will talk about the frustrating parts of DJing and this ‘DJ drought’.

[EDIT: This is one of a number of loosely-associated posts about music in Sydney lindy hop today. This list includes:


Live Music and Dance Economies + beer

I’m afraid this isn’t a terribly well written or thought out post. Spring has struck, my sinuses are buzzing with histamines and my brain is running slow and foggy. But I wanted to join up all these issues before I forgot them.

So this is a story about liquor licensing, live music economies (financial and cultural) and dance cultures. It’s not terribly well researched or referenced, so please do go on and explore the issue rather than relying on my dodgy interpretation of events. I mean, buggered if I really know anything about liquor licensing in Australia and within Australian states.

The ABC story Live music injects $1b into economy (Lucy Carter and staff, Posted September 19, 2011 10:56:27) discusses a report on the economic value of the Australian live music scene commissioned by “industry stakeholders including the Australian Council for the Arts and the Australasian Performing Right Association (APRA)”.

  • The study was limited to live music performances in pubs/bars, clubs, restaurants/cafes and nightclubs in Australia.
  • the venues included in the study were limited to those in live music venues licensed by APRA that staged live music during the 2009/10 financial year.
  • The study included only revenue generated from venue-based live music performances.

(pg 4)

The basic point here is that live music makes a significant contribution to the state and national economies, and is therefore important. This gains particular relevance in the context of ongoing battles over noise restrictions, the gentrification of urban spaces and the rezoning of areas where live music lives.
I need to note, here, that live jazz in Australia does not have broad appeal. It tends to cater to a much older demograph than most of the live music discussed in that report. But I think this is important. If live music is equated to ‘youth culture’ in popular discourse it marginalises an increasing (and increasingly influential) demograph and market: older audiences. I also think it’s important for jazz to reposition itself as a product for a more diverse audience. Bands like Virus in Melbourne did this well in the early 2000s, and New Orleans of course can pull this off because live music – of all types – is so thoroughly embedded in the mythos of the place. But live jazz is positioned as ‘art’ music rather than popular music in Sydney. Frankly, I think there should be more live jazz in everyday community spaces (like pubs), and this live jazz should be representative of the whole spectrum of ‘jazz’.

…though, personally, I want more of the hot jazz and less of the twiddlyfiddly arty stuff. Because it was designed and built as popular music and lots of fun to dance to.

My attention was caught by the fact that this was a study of venues serving alcohol and licensed by APRA because there’s been a recent discussion on Bug’s Question Of The Day FB page about paying cover charges, buying drinks and tipping at live music venues. The full question (15th September) reads:

I’ve noticed that, not only in New Orleans but every scene I’ve been to, dancers don’t want to pay a cover charge or tip the band. I’ve also heard from venue owners that dancers are notorious for not buying drinks. Why are we as a community resistant to supporting the musicians and venues? Do we not know any better? If so, how do we educate the community?

Drinking and tipping and cover charges at live music gigs are an issue for lindy hoppers because most dancers don’t drink much while dancing. Simply because it’s a demanding game, and drinking impairs your dance skills. So a venue that depends on drinking to cover the cost of live music is not going to make it, financially, if their clientele is made up entirely of lindy hoppers. The amount dancers drink really depends on the gig – the time of day, the vibe and so on. So they will drink, just not at every gig, every time. If we were to depend on live music for our entire scene, I think a reasonable standard of dancing would require spaces that focussed on dancing, rather than drinking. Ballrooms, dance halls and cabaret clubs with more physical room and a greater emphasis on dancing as well as bars and pubs where the social focus is more diverse.

I don’t think it’s a terribly good idea to promote drinking generally in a culture like Australia’s where binge drinking is a serious social issue, but I don’t want to suggest that I think drinking is wrong or bad. Basically, lindy hop events aren’t like other social events at licensed venues in Australia, and I think it’s a really good thing (and the thing I enjoy most about dance events) that young men and women (and older men and women!) can enjoy social events and dancing without getting shitfaced. I think that social and cultural practices and spaces should be centred on more than just drinking, not that social and cultural spaces should exclude drinking. Diverse cultural spaces make for diverse and vibrant communities, cross-generationally.

I don’t drink, so I don’t buy alcohol at live music gigs. I’m not a huge soft drink fan, so I don’t buy softies. I’ll buy a mineral water with lime, or some chips. But I like pubs. I like their casual drop-in culture where you can meet friends for a quick drink or a long meal. I like the way live music is an important part of pub culture. But I’ve been been struck by the differences between Melbourne pub culture (which I really like) and Sydney pub culture, which is a lot less pleasant.

There are different laws and licenses in each Australian state, and local licensing laws are often regulated by local councils – eg in Melbourne local city councils regulate licenses. A venue can lose its liquor license if it breaches noise level laws or serves under age customers. I have some problems with the way licensing works in Sydney, mostly because licenses are very expensive, and geared towards larger venues subsidised by on-site gambling (whether a TAB, Kino or pokies). Licensing in Sydney seems (at first and cursory glance) to promote pubs and licensed venues as places to get totally shitfaced, rather than places to meet friends, share a meal, listen to a band, play trivia, read, laugh, talk or get shitfaced. They’re simply more diverse community spaces in Melbourne than in Sydney. While even I’d drop into a pub in Melbourne on my own to drink or eat at the main bar, I’d feel a lot less comfortable at most Sydney pubs, because I’m not there to drop a million dollars in the pokies or the TAB or to drink a jug of beer on my own at lunch time.

This is where my knowledge really breaks down, but the way licensing works is affected by the influence of Clubs Australia, an influential interests group representing social clubs (like RSLs, Sporting clubs, etc). Pubs and clubs are different, legally and culturally, but in Sydney large corporations own a string of pubs and interests in clubs. Their main source of income from these businesses is gambling, or more specifically, pokies. Pokies are a scourge on the earth, encouraging people to sit and drop coins into a machine for hours and hours at a time. This type of gambling targets lower income earners and I think it’s promoters are ethically fail. Pokies also degrade the conviviality of a local pub – people sit in front of a machine rather than a bar, conversation is impeded by the loud noises and attention required to pull a lever. Live music and pokies are fundamentally incompatible: you can’t make good music in a room full of pokie machines. And pubs depending on pokies for revenue will devote valuable floor space (whole rooms!) to pokies rather than less profitable bands.

There’s been speculation about the effect of pokies on pub culture, and news articles like this Daily Telegraph one from earlier this year suggest that a focus on pokies has led to a neglect of drinkers. Of real, live people. I’d argue that chain pubs, run by an absent owner, are not community-oriented spaces at all. And pubs that are most culturally and socially relevant spaces are local spaces. Which is why one suburb in Melbourne can host so many small pubs – each serves a particular local clientele and offers a specific ‘experience’. Grand Final afternoon is perhaps the best example of this sort of localised specialisation, but the live music culture is just as useful an illustration of the cultural value of smaller, independently owned and operated pubs.

The federal government is currently considering revisions to the legislation affecting pokies, and Clubs Australia is spending an awful lot of money on advertising to drum up opposition to the changes. I’m curious to see how it all pans out. There are very few convincing arguments for promoting pokies, and many convincing arguments against it.

And here is where I’ll have to leave my discussion of pokies and licensing specifics, as I’m a bit histamine-crazy and generally ignorant of the facts. But I wanted to link up this news article, reference that Bugs Question, and the also something about the recent sale of the Unity Hall Hotel in Balmain to a corporate entity who owns a chain of pubs.

Unity Hall hosts one of Australia’s best jazz bands every Sunday afternoon. Musicians passing through town regularly drop in to play a few songs, so you’ll see all sorts of brilliant Australian (and visiting) musicians. For my money, this is the best dancing music in town. Dancers go there to dance, and there’s no cover charge. The bar staff charge the locals less for drinks than dancers (which is totally ok by me), but dancers who do turn up (and who pretty much count as regulars, though not necessarily locals) always buy drinks and chips and maintain a good relationship with bar staff and musicians.
While this is the best opportunity for hardcore dancing, it’s a small venue, and dancers need to share it with ‘nondancers’. Or, in other words, ‘normal folk’ who like to dance but don’t spend a million hours on dance classes. Because it is in a non dancer-run space, dancers need to engage their real social skills. Talking. Hanging out. Dealing with dickheads off the street. I think it’s a good place to learn floor craft (safety first!), to engage your social skills (conversate!) and to enjoy and support quality live music. Unity Hall isn’t as ‘good’ a pub as the best independent pubs in Melbourne – it does have a TAB taking up lots of space, and pokies, and it isn’t properly cross-generational (though it’s getting there), or multicultural (though even Melbourne pubs don’t really rock the multiculturalism). But it’s one of the better Sydney pubs, and I really hope the it doesn’t change for the worse with its new owners.

The sale of the Unity Hall hotel is indicative of how many pubs in Sydney are run: by big businesses who own a chain of pubs and treat them as warehouses for the real money makers – pokie machines. This is a bit shit when you compare it to Melbourne where there’s a strong independent pub culture, which results in brilliant food, child/family friendly pubs (which are also popular with the young and hip), live music venues and bar staff and owners who know their clientele and give a shit. Basically, venues which are owned and operated by members of the local community for the local community are more likely to give a shit about the local community and be important community spaces. Whether you’re looking for awesome food, locally sourced beers, live music, somewhere to dance, somewhere to talk, or just a quiet spot for a quick pint at lunch time.

I know my perception of Sydney pubs as community spaces is biased by my experiences in urban Melbourne (and I don’t mean to feed into the Syd/Melb rivalry), but I think state-based licensing laws are significant when we’re talking about dancers’ obligations at live music venues. Honestly, if licenses were less expensive, venues wouldn’t be so dependent on drinks’ sales and gambling to cover their costs. They could operate on a smaller profit margin, offering more specific and niche services – good food, niche music, smaller premises – and not need to rely on shit like pokies and promoting binge drinking. They could be more responsible and responsive community spaces.

[Edit: I need to read
A history of machine gambling in the NSW club
industry: from community benefit to
commercialisation” by Nerilee Hing

MSF set 2.5 + fan-gush for falty’s djing

Ok, so when I heard Falty was teaching at MSF, my first thought was not ‘oh, wonderful – nice classes’ or even ‘hellz yes; yr gender norms, we will fuck them up‘ but ‘oo! can haz DJ?!’ I’m organising the DJs this year for the event, so I just dropped an email off to the man, and – ta da! – we had DJ.
Mike very kindly did a set at the late night last night, and it was (and here, you must understand, I am understating the case) frickin neat. He did a really fucking great set. The sort of stuff that I’m really loving at the moment; lots of energy, grunt, dirty rhythms, etc etc etc.
I was doing the set before him, to warm the room, and I did an ok set – nothing too exciting, mostly things people’d heard before, etc. I was really trying to just get things cooking a little, and not to kill people after their night with the tempo-ly challenging Red Hot Rhythmakers and before Falty introduced them to the Kicking Of Arse.
After he was done with that (and after he exposed his person to a room full of appreciative dancers of all genders), I kind of chilled things off a little with a lo-fi, medium-slow tempo set of stuff I adore, but which I rarely play for dancers. By this point people were a) pissed as newts, b) absolutely knackered, c) drained like sinks, d) mixed like dodgy metaphors. So I kind of mellowed it. This weekend I’d been asked to go easy on blues with DJs, and really to offer a program packed with lindy hop. So I didn’t want to go solid blues, but I did want to ease off the tempos.
side note:
It’s been really fun, actually, to work with the DJs this year. They’re all really capable and together, AND they’re all really good DJs. I’ve been super happy with their work so far. I hope I don’t jinx things, but they’ve done just the right stuff all weekend. The band breaks have been DJed masterfully (Loz warmed the room perfectly on Thursday, Keiran did a lovely ‘sophisticated swing’ introduction to the 20s society band style of the Rhythmakers in the fancy Fitzroy Town Hall (which he then shifted over into more raggedy lindy hopping action). Lexi did a fucking scorching set at the late night on Friday, which made me dance and dance and dance til I thought I might pass out (I’m spinning around!). I didn’t hear all Sharon’s set, but she was moving nicely from Lexi badassery to more mixed lindy hopping goodness when I left. Last night Falty was superfine, and I was actually pretty happy with the set I did after him. I started at 3 (with workshops the next day), so the room did empty out a bit, but the numbers stayed, and I was glad I didn’t go down into blues or keep trying to push the tempos. I really wanted to play seriously scratchy, lo-fi stuff with silly lyrics, dirty lyrics and familiar lyrics done a little wackier.
Tonight the band is the Sweet Lowdowns, who I do love. They’re a smaller subset of Rhythmaker folk, but they do hot combo style rather than a bigger, more society type 20s sound. The brief for the late night (which is at the same venue as the band) is for ‘blues/lindy combo’, which is going to be a bit challenging. I have Keith doing the first set, so I’m hoping he’ll do a straight lindy transition from the band. Then Manon is booked to do a lindy-blues mix. Her style is a little different – she’s really the only hi-fi/heading-towards-groove DJ on the program, and to be honest, even I’m ready for something a little slicker and saucier. I’m closing the night after her, and I’ll probably do the same sort of stuff… or whatever the crowd are digging. It’s going to be lots of fun.
That’s my last set for the weekend. I’ve been doing all the little fill in jobs over the weekend, the ones that I don’t like giving other DJs because they’re little and a bit shitty. So I’ve done the social breaks during the comp (that was boring. Watching comps is boring, I’m afraid), I did 4 songs for the charleston comp on Friday, I did a real set last night to warm for Falty, and I did a small closer set after him. And I suspect tonight’s set will be a littlie as well. I did have some reservations about putting myself on all those sets, but the only one that actually really felt like a good, solid DJing gig was the one before Falty. I have also tried hard to put the other DJs on good, solid gigs as well as any band breaks. But there’s not a lot of solid DJing this weekend, because of the bands, so it’s been hard. There’ve been hour long blocks before the bands, then 30 or 15 minute breaks during the bands, so those band break DJs are getting some solid action, I hope. The bands are, though, really really GREAT.
These are issues I struggle with when I coordinate DJs. I pick DJs I think are great. And then I want to show them off. But it’s hard to flaunt a badass DJ when they’re supporting a band – the band is the main attraction after all. I’m beginning to feel that it’d be easier to just put a CD on in band breaks. I mean, it’s not like the olden days in lindy hop, when the bands were so bad you really _needed_ a good band break DJ. But then there are lots of annoying jobs during band gigs that require a real DJ – playing music for performances, welcome dances, etc – so you actually need a DJ who’s really responsible and together…
It’s a hard set of decisions, really. I think it’s a better idea to keep the number of DJs at a gig low, and then to use them in a few settings. So long as they’re cool with that. But then you get other problems: DJs who aren’t involved feel left out; the DJs who’re working a lot get a bit tired; if you’ve blundered and misjudged the type of DJs you’v chosen, the crowd are stuck with them all weekend. The last one isn’t really a big problem, I don’t think. I put a lot of effort into finding out exactly what the organisers want from the music – old school? A mixed platter? What’s their creative ‘goal’ for the event? Do they want ‘all really experienced DJs’? A mix of old and new so as to do some community development with encouraging new DJs? All local? A mix of interstate/overseas and local?
These can sound like wanky questions, but it really helps to talk to the organiser and find out what they want the final event to be like. Then I make suggestions and try to put together a list of people I think will work for the event. And then I get the organiser to check that list and give me the nod. It can get tricky if the organiser isn’t a DJ or doesn’t really get into music in a big way. In those cases I try to be a bit more active in my thinking, and to ask questions about their ideas for the event in a more general way. Then I try to come up with DJs who’ll help make the event work that way.
The next step is, of course, to invite the DJs you want. It can be hard to persuade DJs from out of town to come to an event where they’ll only get free entry, and then be paid $20 or $30 per hour, and without any meal or flight payments. I’m also thinking that it might be a worthwhile investment paying DJs more and giving them better packages, just so we can guarantee their presence and work. They certainly do that in America at the bigger events.
This issue is really indicative of a transitional moment in Australian swing dance culture – we just don’t seem to value DJs that highly. Which of course suggests that social dancing isn’t that important. I think this is changing, though. But we are beginning (as a scene – there are individual exceptions of course) to see broader cultural shifts in how we value DJs and music. But the sheer fact of geography has meant that dancers are unlikely to travel _just_ for a social dancing event, unless it’s guaranteed badass, has a good reputation or offers something else along the way (eg the Hellzapoppin’ comp).
These are all issues I have to think my way through. I’m still not entirely sure how I’d plan my ‘ideal’ event. Would I get in just a handful (as in 4 or 5 maximum) DJs, pay them really well, and give them great deals, then use them quite thoroughly on the program, promoting them heavily as a key feature of the event? What would this do to the status of the bands, though? Bands are, really, the best fun and the best part of a weekend. If they’re good bands. Do I really think it’s a good idea to create a sort of hierarchy of knowledge and status with DJs somewhere higher up? I mean, isn’t this a bit self-serving, speaking as a DJ? Why should DJs be more important than the people who clean up after the dance?
Part of me argues that DJing requires a significant investment of time and money, and the development of skills and professional contacts and networks, so really it is more value-laden than cleaning up after the dance. But then there are clear gender divides happening here. DJs are usually men, and the cleaner-uppers and volunteers generally, are usually women. It’s actually been nice to see in the last few years, that this gendering is shifting. Women are over represented in volunteer labour (as they are in the broader community), but they are steadily creeping into the DJing ranks. MSF features five women DJs and three men. This has to be a first in Australian DJ terms. I’ve never been at an event with more women than men DJs. And I have to say, they’ve been absolute GEMS.
I’ve _never_ had such a professional, capable team of DJs. No one’s been late to a set, no one’s lost anything essential, no one’s missed a set (!!), no one’s failed to bring the right gear. Everyone’s been really keen to pull out their best work, everyone’s been really conscientious, everyone’s done really top quality sets, everyone’s been an absolute pleasure to work with. It’s been a really wonderful experience working with this group. This isn’t to say that I haven’t also had good experiences with other DJs at other events, but this one just seems to be working really well. AND I’ve had some really good dances.
My one concern, though, is that the heavy emphasis on music from the 20s, 30s and 40s has alienated some of the punters, especially the ones who’re new to the dance, or aren’t actually into old school music. This type of music is quite chic with the Melbourne teachers at the moment, but it hasn’t always been. Some of this stuff can be a bit challenging if you’re not used to the low audio quality, the musical structures, or if your dancing is really limited to just a few basic steps. The more dancing skills you have, the more experience with historic dance forms you have, the more accessible you find this stuff. It’s helped that the teachers for the weekend are into this action, so they’re teaching with this type of music. But part of me is thinking ‘isn’t it time we went hi-fi here?’ All of the DJs (pretty much) have dropped contemporary recordings into their sets, but the music these modern bands are playing is still pretty old school.
On the other hand, I think that Australia is approaching the point (finally) where we can actually specialise musically at each event. I think it’s a shame not to produce events with particular musical or stylistic focuses. I like to see events that have a consistency in the branding (logos, PR material, individual event PR), bands, DJs, competition structures, performances and classes. So Soul Glo is successful in part because it presents a soul-focussed event for swing dancers, with a strong blues sub-focus. Hullabaloo in Perth has always had an old-school focus, but that event is more of a complete package, and they offer such a quality event the music is really only one component of a very solid program. I think MLX could actually do with stronger branding on this front. It’s been ‘solid swinging jazz’ since 2005 when it went all-social, but I think this branding needs updating and strengthening. I can see why some events wouldn’t want to take the risk of alienating potential punters with such specific branding, but then, I wonder if it’s not worth taking a risk? As a dancer, I’m certainly looking for a particular experience when I go to an event. And a ‘good weekend of dancing’ isn’t really enough any more – I want something a little different. But still within the vernacular jazz discourse, though… unless I am at Soul Glo, and I know what I’m getting.
Ok, so that’s enough of that.
Here’s the set I did after Falty last night.
title band album bpm year length
It’s Your Last Chance To Dance Preservation Hall The Hurricane Sessions 179 2007 4:31
Georgia Grind Louis Armstrong and the All Stars (Trummy Young, Edmund Hall, Billy Kyle, George Barnes, Squire Gersh, Barrett Deems, Bob Haggart, Velma Middleton, Yank Lawson) The Complete Decca Studio Recordings of Louis Armstrong and the All Stars (disc 05) 124 1957 3:23
Deep Trouble Les Red Hot Reedwarmers King Joe 179 2006 2:55
Blue Leaf Clover Firecracker Jazz Band The Firecracker Jazz Band 111 2005 4:59
Do Your Duty Bessie Smith acc by Buck and his Band (Frank Newton, Jack Teagarden, Benny Goodman, Chu Berry, Buck Washington, Bobby Johnson, Billy Taylor) Classic Chu Berry Columbia And Victor Sessions (Disc 1) 121 1933 3:31
Wipe It Off Lonnie Johnson and Clarence Williams acc. by James P. Johnson, Lonnie Johnson, Spencer Williams Raunchy Business: Hot Nuts and Lollypops 122 1930 3:20
I Like Pie I Like Cake (but I like you best of all) The Goofus Five (Bill Moore, Adrian Rollini, Irving Brodsky, Tommy Felline, Stan King) Goofus Five 1924-1925 188 1924 3:15
Don’t You Leave Me Here Jelly Roll Morton’s New Orleans Jazzmen (Zutty Singleton) Jelly Roll Morton 1930-1939 143 1939 2:23
It’s Tight Like That Jimmie Noone’s Apex Club Orchestra The Jimmie Noone Collection 144 1928 2:49
Downright Disgusted Blues Wingy Manone and his Orchestra (Chu Berry) Classic Chu Berry Columbia And Victor Sessions (Disc 5) 129 1939 2:31
How Do They Do It That Way? Henry ‘Red’ Allen and his Orchestra (JC Higgenbotham, Albert Nicholas, Charlie Holmes, Luis Russell, Will Johnson, Pops Foster, Paul Barabarin), Victoria Spivey and the Four Wanderers Henry Red Allen And His New York Orchestra (disc 2) 139 1929 3:20
On Revival Day (A Rhythmic Spiritual) (06-09-30) Bessie Smith acc by James P. Johnson, Bessemer Singers Jazz Cats – Jazz to Wake Up to 163 1930 2:58
That Too, Do Bennie Moten’s Kansas City Orchestra (Count Basie, Jimmy Rushing) Moten Swing 123 1930 3:20
That’s What I Like About You Jack Teagarden and his Orchestra (Charlie Teagarden, Stirling Bose, Pee Wee Russell, Joe Catalyne, Max Farley, Adrian Rollini, Fats Waller, Nappy Lamare, Artie Bernstein, Stan King) The Complete Okeh and Brunswick Bix Beiderbecke, Frank Trumbauer and Jack Teagarden Sessions (1924-1936) (disc 6) 166 1931 3:27
The Blues A Artie Shaw and his New Music Self Portrait (Disc 1) 123 1937 2:52
The Right Key But the Wrong Keyhole Clarence Williams and his Orchestra Clarence Williams and His Orchestra Vol. 1, 1933-1934 103 1933 2:36
Falty had played a set with quite a few contemporary New Orleans bands (Jazz Vipers, Preservation Hall, etc), and a lot of bands quite like the ones I usually play. In fact, we had a few of the same songs on our short lists when we compared our sets just before we swapped over. This was really exciting – I got a chance to dance to stuff I adore, but don’t DJ very often. Then Mike’s status allowed him to take risks I couldn’t, and his actual DJing _skillz_ made it work for him. From here, I could take more risks with the music I played. That’s why I went old school. I didn’t try to make people crazy and upenergy the way I usually do, as people were shagged, and Mike had really done that action quite thoroughly already.
I played the first Pres Hall song as a way of moving from Falty to something else. I was feeling a little emotionally battered myself, so I thought I might ease it off afterwards. I think that song was a bit in your face for a first song, though. I had kind of tossed up between that and their version of ‘Sugar Blues’, so as to completely change things up, but I chickened out on such a bold move. I also didn’t want to signal ‘this is where the blues begins!’ so clearly and risk losing half my (dwindling) crowd.
I played ‘Georgia Grind’ because I love it. Falty had played a way up-tempo, scratchy version earlier, and I thought it’d be cute to signal my change in vibe by playing a hi-fi version by Armstrong. It’s a little twee in parts, but the band is so good it really overcomes that later on in some of the choruses.
I <3 Les Red Hot Reedwarmers. Make sure you search for them on youtube – they’re a great little French band who do wonderful, wonderful Jimmie Noone stuff. This song is kind of cute and mellow, but also musically amazing, and recorded live. Props to them.
‘Blue Leaf Clover’ always goes down well, if I prepare the set for it properly first. It’s by the Firecracker Jazz Band, which was kind of a reference to my charleston songs the night before. This is such a great band.
Really, I was headed towards Bessie Smith all the time. I find that whenever I play her, people love her. They really respond to her versions of songs they know, but also to her more obscure stuff. This song is super neat, and you can’t really go past the line up in the band. This was a transition (with its brass solos) from the Firecrackers to the next song with its piano/guitar combo. It’s a little lighter hearted than Bessie, but it’s much dirtier. And it’s really fun. These are two of my most favourite songs of all time. I especially like the man-singing-like-a-woman vibe, which I revisit later with the Teagarden/Waller duet.
I had to play this superior Pie/Cake version which Trev put me onto ages ago. Go Goofus Five! I think this song is a good example of how exchanges are super inspiring for DJs – they give us a chance to hear other DJs bring their wickedforce and then rip it off for our own gain. Ha ha! I like this version because I find the Four Clefs version a bit twee and overplayed, but I love the melody. I hoped it would twig the ‘favourite’ nerve in the dancers, but then twist it with a more uptempo vibe.
Jelly Roll, because, well. Jelly Roll. This is a nice, chunking, _pushing_ song, that doesn’t drag – you feel like you’re going somewhere with it. It’s an easy tempo, but it has a bit more energy. We needed that energy if I was going to sit down here on these lower tempos. I actually think the vocals are just right – a nice, rollicking, swinging rhythm that contrasts really nicely with the slightly more straight-ahead rhythm section.
Jimmie Noone! I do love this man. And I love this song. More suggestive lyrics. But the expression ‘tight like that’ is kind of cool because it sounds like a really cool way of describing how something is just plain good stuff – “man, it’s tight like that.”
Wingy Manone, for a little more swing, and back in that 1939 later swing rhythm. Mike had played a few Manone songs, and I wanted to reference them a bit here.
I had wanted to play some Spivey/Henry Red Allen win, but all I could find was the slower stuff, and I wanted to avoid the bluesy vibe. But then I was reminded of this, which is one of my super favourites. I’d just been crapping on to Mike about how I liked the Spivey/Allen combination, and how it reminded me of the Rosetta Howard/Allen combination, and how Howard was the one who led me to the Hamfats in the first place (we’d just been talking Hamfats).
Bessie Smith. Because. People liked this, but it was a little uptempo, and a little too jesusy for serious dancing. But it’s fun, and people like it.
Bennie Moten, while I’m there. Because Basie always wins. And the Jimmy Rushing addition (with the ‘Good Morning Blues’ lyrics) is full of awesome. Gotta love a bit of a accordian solo in there.
The Teagarden/Waller duet ‘That’s What I Like About You’ was perhaps a bit mistimed – too fast, too straight for this time of night. Having said that, it’s also wonderfully queer-as-fuck to hear Teagarden (sigh) singing a love song with Fats Waller (double sigh). They would have known exactly what they were doing. This is queer in so many wonderful ways. These guys were pretty transgressive (a black guy and a white recording together in 1931, who also played together live in Chicago*; all the drug references; the gender-play in this song itself), and this love song with the humourous twist _almost_ undoes the queer… and then it doesn’t. It’s still Jack Teagarden, who has the sexiest, swingingest voice EVER, singing a love song to Fats Waller, kind of comedic timing and also king of poignant understatement. They’re singing a song about mismatched, chalk-and-cheese love. It’s perfect.
I closed with Artie Shaw because that song is nice and swinging, it’s easy to dance to and it’s really nice. It’s also pretty slow and mellow, but also kind of chunks along and doesn’t drag.
I really enjoyed this set. Though the room slowly emptied out til I called it at 4am, people were still dancing.
Hoo-rah for lindy hop.
* The Fats Waller/Teagarden connection is quite cool. They also did a song called ‘Lookin’ Good But Feelin’ Bad’ (Fats Waller and his Buddies (Henry ‘Red’ Allen, Jack Teagarden, Albert Nicholas, Otto Hardwicke, Larry Binyon, Eddie Condon, Al Morgan, Gene Krupa), 1929) which Les Red Hot Reedwarmers do superhot. That band is pretty much 100% rockhard awesome. The ‘That’s what I like about you’ band isn’t quite as good, but it is sporting Adrian Rollini, who I have a bit of a thing for. At any rate, it’s all Chicago, and it’s all quite subversive stuff.
Teagarden is also interesting for his work with Louis Armstrong – more race stuff that kind of fucked the mainstream American conservativism about. In the early days at least.
I wrote about Armstrong, race etc in these posts:
What again?
magazines, jazz, masculinity, mess
pop culture, jazz and ethnicity