contemporary 20s jazz recreationists – rough ideas

Listening to a new CD by the Charleston Chasers, I was struck by the short musical step between British brass bands and the earliest jazz and ragtime. The story goes: Afro-American slaves took up the instruments abandoned by fleeing southern American soldiers at the end of the 19th century and invented ragtime. Ragtime moved to New Orleans and was made over in that multicultural city to become hot jazz. You can hear the sames sorts of instruments in early jazz and ragtime as in marching bands – tubas, trumpets, clarinets, big drums. The difference being the African influence. Or, more specifically, the difference being the blues.
The specific similarities in the history of jazz and the history of British brass bands are worth noting. The more obvious online sources refer to the relationship between brass bands and miners in the UK. Brass bands, as with jazz, were the creative work of marginalised or working class people in both countries. The clearest difference, however, lies in British brass band’s role as competitive performance bands, and jazz’s more comprehensive position in Afro-American vernacular culture. The parallels could continue, if we referred to American – specifically New Orleans – marching bands, but that’s not my concern here.
The Charleston Chasers are a British band, and I was struck by the similarity between their music and the brass bands of British tradition. The Charleston Chasers, despite my high hopes, aren’t such a great band for swing dancing – for charleston or other 20s dances. I suspect that it is because they lack the blues. To me, that translates to their music feeling like it lacks soul. It doesn’t make me want to shake my arse.
I have some reservations about some of the larger ‘society jazz’ type bands recreating 20s jazz, mostly because I find they reproduce the more mannered jazz you might associate with a ‘high society’ band of the 20s, rather than the grittier jazz from the 20s which I prefer.
That hasn’t stopped me liking Vince Giordano‘s work (including my new CD, and I tend to sort of audio-ly skim over the shinier aspect of this music.
I’m also struck by the vast superiority of the original music and bands from the 20s – is it a race thing? An ethnicity thing? Part of me – somewhat suspiciously – simply feels that these new, predominantly white recreationist bands are simply too ‘white’ to make for good charleston. I like a little grunt, a little grit in my charleston music.

entymology or etymology?

I’m listening to a Black Eyed Peas album on itunes (Behind the Front, actually) for the first time, and it strikes me that I listen to jazz in a very different way to other music. No, let’s get specific. When I’m listening to jazz on itunes via my laptop when I’m using my laptop (as opposed to when I’m hanging around the house doing other things and incidentally listening to music from my laptop via the stereo), my brain and listening bits work in a particular way.
I ask myself: “could you dance to this?” Well, it’s not actually a conscious thing, it’s more of a response. Does this song fulfill the following criteria:
– swinging timing (as opposed to latin or bebop or unswing or whatever)
– does this song make me want to move my arse?
– is the musicianship of a decent standard?
– is the song ‘interesting’ – ie does it offer me musical inspiration for said moving of arse, or do I immediately wander off to find a nectarine to eat?
and then:
– how is the quality of this song – would it cut it on a shitty sound system, and are the basic elements (rhythm section, vocals, etc) distinguishable as individual elements? In other words, can you hear the beat, can you hear the words, does the music have ‘levels’ or is it a flat ‘monotone’ mess?
I also have a few other criteria which are entirely idiosyncratic:
– is it ‘new testament’ – ie 50s or later swinging jazz? If so, does it make me want to gag or is it bearable?
– is it a ‘new band’ (ie someone from the contemporary music scene), and if it is, are they worth worrying about?*
– is this a ‘better’ version of a song I already have?
– is it ‘swinging lindyhop’, ‘groovy swinging lindyhop’, ‘groovy lindyhop’, ‘swinging blues’, ‘groovy swinging blues’, ‘groovy blues’, ‘charleston’, ‘swinging charleston’, ‘slow drag’, ‘kissing song’ or some other animal?
– what’s the bpm? Is it too slow to lindy hop to on an average dance night? Or would you put it in the ‘blues’ folder?
and, most importantly
– how many stars?
This is a crazy way to think about music. Listening to the Black Eyed Peas, I had a momentary instinct to assess the ‘danceability’. Sheesh. Bpm? Who gives a fuck!
And of course, all this is in part of my ongoing issue with DJing.
I have half thought about DJing, but frankly, the main reasons I’ve abstained so far (in order of importance):
1. we only have one decent DJed dance night a week, and only one a fortnight which are at least 2 hours long (2.5 for the former, 2.5-3 for the second). And we call ourselves the biggest swing scene in the country? Fuck – even Hobart has more social dancing action. At any rate, this paucity of DJed social dancing action means that I’m reluctant to waste it standing in front of my laptop playing my favourite dancing songs to a bunch of people who aren’t me.
2. if I’m not there to dance, I’m not particularly interested in being there. I’m not terribly interested in the company of most swing dancers, and I’m certainly not interested in trying to hold a conversation with them in a noisy room where I can only guarantee their attention for 3 minutes. If that. Added to that, our two regular DJed spaces are shitty. The weekely venue is a shitbox – the sort of rank nightclub you’d go to when you were 15 because you could get in. And score some low grade speed while posing for amateur porn. If you were so inclined. The other joint is better, but it’s a dance studio, superhot and overcrowded. Not so cool.
3. the few times I have DJed, I’ve nearly died of boredom. Sure, there are interesting aspects – keeping people on the floor, choosing songs to suit the ‘mood’ or tempo you’ve got going, etc etc. But really, at the end of the day, you’re just playing a bunch of songs for other people to dance to. See point 1.
4. Most people on the floor aren’t particularly interested in excellent swinging jazz. They’d be just as happy dancing to Royal Crown Revue as Basie. This sticks in my craw. It’s even more infuriating when I think of the fact that most of the teachers teaching these people feel the same way – and teach with that crap. Frankly, I couldn’t handle that shit.
I feel – obviously erroneously – that you should dance because the music tells you to. And it should tell you how to dance. For me, if I’m looking to dance lindy hop or charleston or whatever, I need jazz. With lindy hop, I need swinging jazz because the structure of the music is reflected in the dance form. An 8-count basic, where a 4-count rhythm is played out first favouring one foot, then favouring the second. That same 8-count basic is a balance between ‘closed’ and ‘open’ position. ‘Closed’ roughly correlates with scored music, and ‘open’ with improvised, unscored music. The execution of this basic – the steps – involves bounce. And bounce is swinging tempo embodied: it’s about accent and emphasis and delay on particular terms. And all that with a partner on a crowded dance floor – which is, of course, the equivalent to the band.
So not giving a shit about what music you dance to is – to me – a fundamental declaration of a misunderstanding of the way this dance works. Which is fine… but it’s also INFURIATING!
Reasons I would consider DJing:
1. the music I hear when I go out is so ordinary, I consider a civic duty to pull out the good shit. There are problems with this: I don’t know what I’m doing and am just as likely to fuck it up as work it properly for the crowd. But I am attracted to the idea of reminding people of the good stuff, and generally contributing to a musical discourse which expands beyond goddamn Royal Crown Revue. Gotta be in it to win it, I guess. Or, if it’s broke, get off your arse and fix it rather than bitching til someone else does.
2. I really like the music. So hearing it on a big sound system rocks. Though most of our systems suck (esp in the night club joint), and I don’t know how to fix it to make it sound better.
3. You get paid. Not much, but seeing how poor I am at the moment, anything is better than nothing. And it’d get me essential items such as the Slim Gaillard Proper Box set.
4. It’d be a good way to get skilled up. And I love learning how to do new things.
At any rate, this ongoing dilemma/conflict/internal discussion has led to my insane approach to ‘listening’ to music. I go about this complicated system of classification in part with an eye to DJing at some point in the future, but also because it’s certainly been an advantage when it comes to getting music together to work on dance, whether I’m working alone or with other people. I’m also a little ob-con, and this sort of crazy classification is pretty much an extension of my crazy laundry obessiveness, or my deep passion for tidying and arranging glass jars full of ingredients in the kitchen.
It has also been somewhat self perpetuating – the more interest I take in the music, the more interested in the music I become. I’ve learnt more about swinging jazz and jazz generally in the last year than ever before. I have about 400 albums in various forms that I’d consider ‘danceable’, I’ve discovered new artists that I really love, and come to understand and be interested in artists I hadn’t really liked before. The technical knowledge I had from endless singing/performing/classes at school has been expanded and I’ve really developed a greater interest in the relationship between musical form and dance – particularly in terms of the relationship between improvisation and scored music within a song, how this is a reflection of relationships between musicians in a band, the bandleader’s approach, and then – of course – the ways a dancer may respond to all this.
I wouldn’t say that all this has made me a better dancer – you can’t be a better dancer if you don’t dance, and sitting on your clack fussing over your itunes doesn’t quite equate to dancing. Listening to music with this critical ear is definitely not the same as the way I listen to music when I’m dancing. When I’m dancing I’m not ‘conscious’ of musical structure. In fact, I rely on my ability to unconsciously follow the structure of the music. If I had to actually count out the bars or sets of ‘8’ in a phrase while I was dancing I’d be stuffed. I have noticed, though, that my responses to the music have changed and gotten more complex since I’ve been more into the music.
At the end of the day, however, your ability to actually make the music visible – to embody the music – is limited by basic stuff like dance fitness, body awareness (ie do you actually know how to move your arm to make that shape or relax/tense that muscle?), response time, connection with your partner (and ability to influence that connection) and so on. All that shit is really the product of:
1. dancing
2. aerobic fitness
3. experience in your body – dancing, sports, whatever
4. physical experimentation – trying shit out
Sitting there in front of you your itunes you’re not really going to become a better dancer. Nor will you by watching other people dance. You need to move your arse.
Does this lead me to a kind of anxiety about DJing? Perhaps – if I’m sitting there DJing half the night, will my dancing go down in quality? Will I lose fitness? I think it’s very likely. But, having said that, if I’m sitting there disgusted by the music, won’t my dancing suffer the same fate?
So I guess I’ll just continue with my ob-con musical classification. And collection. All those songs are really just specimens in my collection, I guess.
*there seems an instinct to grasp at any contemporary artist who plays anything even remotely ‘swinging’ and then foist it on vulnerable dancers in the swing scene. Just because Harry Connick Jnr is singing a ‘swing song’, don’t mean it necessarily swings, or is even half worth dancing to. Further, the standard of most contemporary swinging jazz artists simply doesn’t match the old skool doods – we have no Basie or Ellington or Armstrong or Holiday or Fitzgerald. They’re all over there in indy rock, thanks.

mixed emotions

I have a love-hate relationship with Jimmy Witherspoon. There are some songs of his that I really love (such as ‘Good Rockin’ Tonight’ from Jazz Me Blues), but the man is sooo sexist. If I listen to the lyrics I just can’t bear him. At all. The only cure is a sudden, harsh dose of Dinah Washington.
I’m currently infatuated with Lionel Hampton. I especially like ‘Loose Wig’, ‘Lavender Coffin’, ‘Hamp’s Salty Blues’, ‘Drinkin’ Wine, Spo-dee-o-dee’ and ‘Hey Ba-ba-re-bop’. The first and last are fairly obvious choices, but still. How could you not?
I also adore Fats Waller, big time. He’s such a disgustingly crude man – I love it. And he’s infinitely preferable to Witherspoon because he obviously adores women – can’t get enough of us. Or drink for that matter, but that’s another issue. When he sings ‘Tain’t what you do (it’s the way that you do it)’, you know exactly what he’s singing about. And how could you not like a man who’s favourite dish … is fish! ?
I’m also nursing a serious Thing for the McKinney’s Cotton Pickers. I thought it’d wane, but it hasn’t. I really really love the song ‘Four or Five Times’ (and Hamp does a good version too – as does Jimmy Lunceford). I also love early Ellington with a fierce and burning passion. ‘Hittin’ the Bottle’ is my favourite atm. Though I do love ‘Flaming Youth’.
I will always love Billy Holiday the most. Any era. Any song. Two favourites: ‘Comes Love’ (from the 50s) and ‘Your Mother’s son-in-law’ (earlier stuff).
Louis Armstrong is lighting my fire atm, with his later All Star stuff. Though I’m partial to the Hot 5s and 7s as well. Especially ‘Hotter than that’.
You can always make me smile with Cab Calloway (‘Who’s Yehoodi’ by preference), or Slim and Slam (‘Laughing in Rhythm’, ‘Jump Session’ – all the usuals).
I used to adore Ella Fitzgerald, but she’s not really gripping me these days… though I do still adore her early stuff with Chick Webb.
Django is my man, as is Sidney Bechet. Hoorah for Rex Stewart, and I think I’m going to love Bix Beiderbeck in an unnatural way fairly soon.
… and I could go on and on and on and on…..

a Thing

i’m currently nursing a Thing for gillian welch, who i’d heard before, but finally chased up this weekend, after hearing her name on twang.
and it’s not helped that i’ve just seen that she’ll be in europe when i am. luckily (?) i’ll be in herrang, then, so there’ll be no conflict.
sheesh. swing over good goddamn music? am i on crack?

i’m listening to all her 4 albums back to back. i can’t really decide which one i like most, but i think it’s time (the revelator), or perhaps hell among the yearlings.
it’s the only thing to have kicked natalie merchant out of the cd player.

now i’ll chase two soundtracks – the o brother where art thou one (which i’ve lusted after for a while) and the songcatcher one (loved the music, kind of got bored in the film).