Monday, May 26, 2014

The 1 Hour Bandleader Challenge (or Benny Goodman swings FM100 NC)

When the Frankie Manning 100 NC decided to hold a DJ battle between legendary bandleaders Chick Webb, Count Basie and Benny Goodman, I chose to represent the king of swing, Benny Goodman. With over 250 mp3s (16+ hours of Benny's recordings), I figured I could easily select 2 hours of music from which to draw my final selections during the dance. Little did I realize the challenge I was setting myself up for.

Realizing the significance of the celebration, I was determined to play only the best of the best for dancers. On my first pass, I whittled my collection down to eight hours. That included skipping some songs I loved but which the other bandleaders were known for doing. Listening to that eight hours, I narrowed the selections down to four hours that swung hard with a month to go till the event -- and that's where the hard work began.

I asked other Benny fans what their favorite Benny recordings were to dance to, which added a few more selections to the list. On the next pass through I listened for musicianship that stood out. There were obvious selections like Lionel Hampton's vibraphones on Moonglow, Gene Krupa's drums on House Hop, the vocal contrast between Martha Tilton and Jimmy Rushing, and of course Benny's marathon clarinet solo on Stealing Apples. Then there was Ziggy Elman, Harry James, Johnny Hodges, and Buck Clayon on trumpet, Jess Stacy or Teddy Wilson on piano, Slam Stewart on bass in Benny's Sextet. How could I showcase a diversity of musicians that left dancers no doubt that Benny Goodman was the band leader supreme?

The next pass through finally whittled my collection down to 2 hours but I noticed that a couple of the recordings sounded a bit "hollow" and I realized the bit rates were low, indicating a lower quality recording, so I went back and found remastered versions of the same recordings that were even more hard driving because of the better quality. During that process, I discovered another 3 hours worth of recordings that I added to my collection and then worked back to 2 hours once again.

Ironically, after 3 months of prep work, when the evening finally rolled around, I still had no idea what I was going to play. Chick Webb opened the night with a set of five selections and it wasn't until his third song that I started to get an idea of what I would play. I wanted to save my best for later when more dancers were present. I was also aware that the room had a lot of echo that would disappear as we got more soft surfaces (bodies wearing cloth) to absorb sound, so I kept the hot trumpets and clarinet in my back pocket and went with sweeter recordings like Rose Room and worked the equalizer accordingly. My second set through, I got a better feel for the larger crowd of dancers and pushed the tempos a bit against what Chick and Basie were laying down.

Meanwhile, the DJ's helped each other out by taking turns in their down time by walking the floor and signaling whether volume levels needed to go up or down... it also gave us the chance to really watch the floor.

My third and final set was all about lining up to close with Bugle Call Rag. It was obvious I was up to something because three people asked me what my impish smile was about as I was building the energy on the floor. I was also caught beating the air drums along with Gene on House Hop. We swung through Minnie the Moocher's Wedding Day, All the Cats Joined In and then it was on -- the opening bugle notes, Abigail Browning and Adam Speen instinctually bursting into clapping directly in front of me and it was jam circle time with the roof coming off the place! I've got to hand it to Count (Kristy) Basie for following up immediately with Jumpin' at the Woodside to keep things going.

Looking back, its amazing how much preparation went into only 1 hour of music and how I could own so much Benny Goodman music and still drop $75 more buying additional recordings.

That's what led me to the thought of the 1 Hour Bandleader Challenge - What if I went through my music collection and assembled a one hour "Best of" collection for each bandleader? Obviously, it would be an unending task; but just imagine how much I would learn and how much more my collection would mean to me and consequently to dancers!

So that's my challenge to other DJs. Let's start really representing the best of bandleaders and lets start battling. Challenge issued!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Piedmont, the Forgotten Blues Style

“I’m po’ but I’m ‘round here; I wasn’t invited but I’m down here. We’re trying to have a ball in the hall tonight, I want everybody to come, bring your cleaver ‘cause we’re gonna drink rough stuff, tough stuff, stuff without a bone; if you can’t drink stuff, leave the mess alone.”

- a Piedmont blues house party attendee in “Blues House party: Music, Dance and Stories by Masters of the Piedmont Blues”

Piedmont (or east coast) Blues refers to a regional sub-style characteristic of black musicians of the southeastern United States that first gained fame in the 1920’s. Geographically, the Piedmont includes the Appalachian foothills west of the tidewater region and Atlantic coastal plain and stretches from roughly Richmond to Atlanta.

Since Charlotte is in the center of the Piedmont, it became a popular center for early North Carolina blues. As industry and the population more than doubled, musicians began taking notice of the city as a home for recording. But it was actually Durham, a small city wedged between three metropolises, that managed to step into the forefront of blues tradition.

Tobacco's popularity increased Durham's population by thousands between 1865 and 1930. With tobacco came factories and jobs, and with jobs came people with income who liked music. Therefore, musicians would busk outside the tobacco warehouses for workers taking a break, as well as in theaters, barbershops and for house rent parties.

Generally speaking, the Piedmont blues sound captured ragtime piano rhythms and chord changes within acoustic guitar playing. The rhythm typically played with the piano’s left hand is reproduced with the thumb while the melody played by the right hand is plucked on the treble strings by the forefingers. This is often called "finger-picking style. The guitar style is also highly syncopated.

John Cephas and Phil Wiggins give a great introduction to Piedmont Blues in this performance of "The Dog Days of August" from the 2003 Smithsonian Folklife Festival.

Most of all, Piedmont blues was good house party music as captured in Eleanor Ellis’s wonderful 1989 documentary film, “Blues House party: Music, Dance and Stories by Masters of the Piedmont Blues” The film runs an hour and is an absolute joy to watch. I can not recommend it highly enough; particularly when the discussion turns to dancing.

If, for some reason you want to skip wild stories of raucous house rent parties with women wrestling a 500 pound hog onto a picnic table, too much moonshine, dancing, and a couple knife fights you can jump 29 minutes in to focus on Piedmont Blues Dancing Styles like the Appalachian solo Buck Dance, Ballin’ the Jack , the Shimmy Sha-sha-wabble, Black bottom, Big Apple, Mess Around, and Kicking the Mule. Plus you'll get to see some impressive vernacular dance!

Blind Blake, "the King of Ragtime Guitar", recorded 80 “race record” recordings for Paramount Records between 1926 and 1932 including, "That Will Happen No More" (1927). Some of you may find yourself singing, "Your Baby Ain’t Sweet Like Mine."

Peg Leg Howell, a one legged harmonica player from Atlanta recorded the Peg Leg Stomp (1927). Anyone else thinking Bugle Call Rag?

Atlanta’s Buddy Moss recorded the Stinging Nettle Blues in 1934.

Blind Boy Fuller from Durham, NC was one of the best known original Piedmont musicians. Here’s a recording of Step It Up and Go (1940) with guitar and washboard.

Josh White of Greenville, SC was the youngest artist of the “race records” era. While he remained poor and shoeless and slept in the horse stable, Paramount Record and Okeh Records made a good profit on recordings like Evil Man Blues (1934).

The Next Generation
In contrast, musicians like Rev. Gary Davis from Laurens, SC recorded up until almost 1970. Here's his "Death Don't Have No Mercy", which really benefits from the vast improvements in sound recording technologies.

Meanwhile, Harmonica player Sonny Terry (Greensboro) and Brownie McGhee (Knoxville) broke into huge popularity with fans of folk music in the 1950’s and 60’s with Sonny Terry’s joyous whoops between raucous harp blasts and Brownie’s traditional picking style. Just try to stay still during this live recording of their Cornbread and Peas (1966)

Drawing inspiration from them were clearly Virginia's John Cephas and Phil Wiggins who played into the late 1980’s. Richmond Blues (1989)

Lastly, I’ll introduce you to Etta Baker of Morganton, North Carolina who was born in 1913 and began playing guitar at the age of 3. Etta was the premier Piedmont blues guitar instrumentalist until passing away in 2006 at the age of 96 (and leaving behind 108 family members!)

Here's a clip of Etta giving away all her guitar secrets as she teaches viewers to play "On the Other Hand Baby"

And we’ll fade out with her playing one of my favorite songs to DJ, "Comb Blues", recorded with Taj Mahal in 2004.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

So You Want To Be a Lindy Hop Event Organizer?

Borrowing a page from Nick Williams blog entry I thought I’d share some lessons and tips learned over the years doing one of the things I love to do - organizing events. In my own hopefully humorous way I hope to share a glimpse into the realities and challenges of running an event that makes other people happy without making you lose your shirt. I’d also like to especially thank organizers like Michael Gamble (Lindy Focus)and Martin Beally (Emerald City Blues Festival) and my friend Mike the girl Legett for the wisdom they’ve shared over the years to make this post possible.

First off, let’s talk about what running a dance event is and is not.

Running a dance event is about having:
- a clear, focused vision and detailed business plan
- the necessary physical, financial and human resources
- the commitment to will something into being for (probably) little reward more than sharing the love of dance
- a willingness to lose tremendous amounts of sleep and all your free time
- the commitment to take professional responsibility and all financial risk for an event
- a thick enough skin to hear and read what others say you are doing horribly wrong or they could do better.

Running a successful dance event is not:
- a popularity contest
- a golden meal ticket that guarantees other people will pick up the bill for you throwing a party
- a substitute for the adoration you didn’t get as a child because you weren't picked to be the star of your 3rd grade play or because your parents didn't give you enough love and encouragement,
- the magic love charm to win you the attention and affections of your lindy crush on the far coast,
- a therapy session proving that all your Facebook friends around dance world really, really do like you and would do anything for you.

With those thoughts in mind, here are some helpful thoughts to keep in mind before deciding to put on your own dance event.

Before you even consider running an event, know (and be on good terms with) the other organizers in your immediate region - attend and support their dance events, make yourself known to their dancers as a fun person to dance and socialize with, volunteer at other events to get an insider’s view on how things are done and what’s worked for them and what hasn’t. Also learn who are the key players likely to champion your ideas or put up hurdles and roadblocks in your way. Establish as many good regional relationships as you can because these are the dancers and promoters most likely to talk up and attend your event.

Once you’ve been around for a while listening and learning, start giving your idea for an event serious thought. Is it unique and interesting enough to be worth doing (well)? Does it fill a need? Will people spend money registering and travelling to support it? Who are your target dancers you’re marketing to? What size event are you – local, regional or national? (Don’t even think about taking on the risk of larger events until you’ve tried smaller ones).

Come up with a realistic mission statement and business strategy (not a theme, like zombie pirate pimps and ho’s, or a gimmick like chocolate pudding or a pantless pajama late night). Rather, a detailed strategy that creates a distinct, recognizable brand for your event, spelling out a clear purpose, the key steps and time line to make things happen.

Understand that the single biggest decision that will define how your event is viewed is the quality of the music and the instructors you choose. If you hire Gordon Webster and friends with instructors Max Pitruzzella and Annie Trudeau you are creating one set of expectations for dancers. If you’re marketing the local Zoot Suit Accordion Swingers plus instructors who’ve bought DVD’s from people who’ve attended Herrang, you are creating a different product that will appeal (or not) to a different segment of the dance community.

Calculate a detailed spreadsheet budget that includes your expenses – venues, music, instructors, marketing and website, administrative and operational costs, profit to compensate your time and loss of work. Don’t forget the hidden costs that frequently sink new events – taxes and fees, licenses, sound equipment rental, travel expenses. Carefully read every riders and written contracts (you do have EVERYTHING in writing, don’t you?) because these have real world financial implications that are sometimes over looked.

If you add things up and the numbers don’t match, rethink your ideas and retool your event. If you don’t have the financial resources to cover your expenses in a worst case scenario, back burner your event until your finances improve.

Do NOT pre-plan to cut corners and make up shortfalls by asking those you hire to accept less pay or sub-standard accommodations. This will only lead to poor performance and complaints that will ultimately impact your reputation and lead to a less profitable event – if not in the first year, then certainly in the future.

Some professionals may agree to lower their rates to champion a new event based on personal friendships but that must be discussed in advance and put in writing (and is best offered by the other party, not requested or demanded by an organizer). Also, if applicable, any sharing of risk due to a payment contingent on event performance must be specifically stated in the contract.

Do not expect instructors, musicians or DJ's to be your personal banker or kind hearted family member giving you a de facto bridge loan or forgiving money you owe for services rendered if you realize you over-estimated revenues from registrations or overlooked a key expense.

Ultimately, you are the only one responsible for your profit or losses. Attempt to pass your shortfall around to those you’ve hired and you’ll quickly get a reputation for someone not to work with.

One of the easiest ways to ensure the failure of an event is to operate in a vacuum and not check the schedule of other events in your region. Do nearby scenes already have events on the calendar or recurring annual events you should be aware of? Putting in a little time up front avoiding conflicts that make dancers choose who will get their money will go a long way towards keeping you from butting heads with other promoters.

Make sure you also leave yourself enough time to schedule venues, instructors, bands, DJ’s, promotions. If you don’t start planning a year in advance, you’re already behind! Secure your venues first and then your six months in advance, you’ll be getting the leftovers other people have passed overheadlining musicians/instructors. If you’re not booking your desired DJ’s at least

Risk Mitigation
Require all attendees to sign (or at least view electronically before completing registration) a Liability Waiver form acknowledging that dance is a physical activity bearing some risk of injury and stating attendees assume all said risk and that you are released and held harmless in the event of any injury or personal property damage or loss.

Team Building
Throwing a big party with your best friends always sounds like a lot of fun; but that doesn’t automatically translate into success. The secret to a successful event is to run it like a business geared towards turning a profit and creating brand loyalty.

Remember that as an organizer you’ll be the one solving all the problems while your attendees are off dancing and having fun - instructors stranded at the airport, the groping guy on the floor whose upsetting the follows, the DJ who’s gone rogue and is playing Village People to an emptying dance floor, the passive/aggressive volunteer who doesn’t show up for his shift at the entrance desk (or worse, does and then complains the whole time), the lack of toilet paper in the ladies room, the local dancer who forgot to pick the food for the late night, the jealous local who jumps on the microphone to promote his own competing events, the thunderstorm that rains out your afternoon dance and triggers your backup plan, and the guy in the next town who booked the Boilermakers against your Saturday night dance.

In short, you will be overwhelmed by more logistical, people management and seemingly irrelevant details than any one person can handle. Therefore, you will need to assemble a support staff of dependable people who have the skills to responsibly do things you cannot and the ability to take direction and be part of a team effort that will make things happen. If you don’t want to manage and delegate, this job isn’t for you.

Showcasing Your Money Makers
Get the most value from the professionals you pay to bring in - full course loads of classes for teachers, sufficient play time for DJ’s, and appropriate time slots for musicians. It’s bad business sense to pad your event flyer with a dozen extra big name “draws” if they’re all going to spend most of the weekend sitting around waiting for their 1 or 2 hours of class or DJ time. Similarly, don’t invite other organizers to teach or DJ your event just to catch their attention in hopes of getting hired to teach at their events.

In other words, have a clear purpose and plan that maximizes the benefit to expense ratio for each professional you bring to your event and let them have time to shine. If in doubt, “less is more” is a good rule of thumb.

With those concepts under your belt, it’s time to finally share some tips that will help you run a successful event.

The 25/50/20 Rule
One of the first secrets I learned was the golden 25/50/20 Rule, which states – 25% of your registrations will come at the opening of early registration, 50% will come in the final 48 hours leading up to you closing discounted online registration, and 20% will come as walk-ins at the door. The remaining fraction will trickle in throughout the process.

Acceptance of this rule is VITAL for several reasons:
1. You can ballpark estimate your final expected registration size months before your event as a budget check.
2. It makes you realize that 5 days before your event, despite your months of hard work, 70+% of your probable attendees will still think they’re uncommitted… but you’ll know better… probably.
3. But most importantly, it means 70+% of your budget will not become available cash on hand until the final hours leading up to your event. By then you’ve already long ago paid out or committed to many of your non-refundable expenses; so this is the big gut check time. Are you sure your nerves can ride out the gamble?

Early Registration is your Friendly Banker
By opening your early registration as early as possible you generate operating capital, get your event on people’s radar to avoid date conflicts, and to start building a positive buzz. Also, super discounted early bird registration and reduced online registration creates an innate sense of urgency that gives dancers an incentive to commit to your event early.


Be familiar with the usual methods of marketing:

1. Website: create a stand-alone website for your event with the name as the address. Make the website easy to navigate and informative. Remember to include the city that you are based in! Avoid distracting animations, audio clips of music that doesn’t swing and photographs of nearly empty dance floors or people/activities that would make you think twice about attending someone else’s event.

Make sure YOU (not the programmer) retain ownership and intellectual property rights for your website when your event is over.

2. Flyers/Postcards: produce professional quality flyers or postcards with original graphics and/or photographs you have the legal right to use. Proofread and get a few opinions before going to the printer, then get the cards out. Bring, send with friends, and mail flyer packets to event organizers in other cities. Give them to your local instructors and DJ’s to distribute when they travel. Follow up to make sure your flyers got to the places you want them.

3. Facebook: create a Facebook event and invite as many friends as possible. Include a LINK to your website, the registration page, and/or Facebook event page so it's easy for people to find out information about your event.

Remember that Facebook is a one way communication - whether someone replies to your invitation with "yes", "no" or "maybe", the only thing you can be sure of is that their internet connection is working. FB event “attendees” are very different from paying customers and “maybe” is usually a polite way of saying, “I didn’t want to say “No” publicly and look unsupportive.

Send out important updates (eg: Early Bird Registration Pricing Ending Soon!) and occasional entertaining notes to keep your event in people’s mind. Be mindful to not become “that guy” who weekly spams everyone mercilessly about an event half a world away on a Wednesday night or who doesn’t mention what city his event is being held in. Don’t mass friend request people without comment just to invite them to your event. Do NOT mine competing event pages and contact their attendees trying to convince them to come to your event instead because it will be better. Again, people talk.

Do ask your instructors, DJ’s and bands to promote your event on their Facebook page as well. Look into paid advertisements to promote your event.

4. Create and Upload Videos: Talk to your local creative people and shoot an entertaining video that makes people laugh and highlights things you want people to know or see about your event. If you’ve got a venue that has to be seen to be believed or a smiling, genuinely welcoming dance community that is fun to be around, this is the place to show that off. Remember that the music you use in your video will be what viewers think they’ll hear at your event. Save the Evanescence for private listening.

5. Forums & Blogs: Search out forums (eg: Yehoodi) where you can announce your event. Bookmark the sites to monitor responses and write down all your registration user names/password so you can use them again next year. Try to get the attention of influential bloggers who might mention your event. If your teachers have blogs, ask them to mention it as well.

6. Free Passes: Contact other event promoters to offer free passes to your event as prizes they can award for competitions. If they offer passes in return, wonderful! If not, don’t get bent out of shape because they’re getting the same offers/requests from many other people and everyone’s got to make a living. Follow up to get the names of those who’ll be attending your event and make sure they have a good time because they’ll let the other promoter know whether your event should be a prize again or not.

7. Catch phrases and promotion bombs: What dancer doesn’t currently know, “What time is it?” Nobody can predict what’s going to catch people’s attention and go viral, but when something works, run with it. Similarly, if you know fellow organizers who agree in advance to your being a momentary spectacle that roller skates across their dance floor in spandex and pink hair trailing a banner or bringing a block of 25 attendees wearing teaser T-shirts, pocket protectors and nerd glasses to promote your event, go with it – people will remember! Crash someone else’s event in a disrespectful way and they’ll also remember, but not in the same way.

8. Thinking Outside the Box
I’m going to quote from Connie at here because she’s got some great ideas…

“There are more ways than one to make money from your event. Student registrations is one thing. How about competitions? Selling merchandise? Think about the ways in which your students/customers will be spending money during and around your event, and ask yourself if you can provide those services yourself, and be the one making the profit? For example, if you have appropriate facilities and licenses, consider running the bar yourself. Selling drinks and/or food can be a big way to boost your profits. Think outside the box. What about a show? Putting on a show with your teachers and local dancers, in a venue where you can sell tickets to the general public, is another potential money maker. In most cities it is easy to sell out a one-night-only show.”

Word of Mouth
A promoter’s personal reputation and that of his/her events count a tremendous amount in the dance community. Remember that being known for honest marketing and running a well-organized event that meets or exceeds expectations are sure ways to make sure dancers are telling their friends about your event for next year. On the flip side, nothing travels faster and wider than stories of dancers who are mistreated or who didn’t get what they paid for - so ensure your event earns a reputation for excellence. It’s not that much more effort and is cheaper in the long run.

In Closing
Plan For the Following Year’s Event From the Very Beginning
Just because your event’s music is winding down doesn’t mean you’re work is over. Make sure you wrap up the loose ends and start planning for next year.
- Announce your dates for next year and invite everyone back
- Share the spotlight by publicly thanking your support team
- Pick up your venue and organize the lost and found to reunite attendees with possessions
- Pay your bills
- Make sure everyone gets back to the airport
- Ask for feedback and listen to what people are really saying (or not saying)
- Be willing to improve and adapt
- Send thank you cards
- Write everything down and save your electronic data so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel next year and can better delegate to a new support team.

- Finally, take time off to relax and recharge your creative battery.

Bill is currently co-organizer of The Southside Stomp in Norfolk, Va. and offers event planning and DJ consulting services to the lindy and blues community.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Homage to the Savoy Ballroom Battle of the Bands

As one of the organizers of the new Southside Stomp! monthly dance in Hampton Roads I'm thrilled to have the opportunity to discuss the history of Lindy Hop.

As a result, I'm proud to say we'll be kicking off the inaugural Southside Stomp dance with a look back to a historic night in swing that happened almost exactly 72 years prior.

On January 16, 1938, just as Benny Goodman was wrapping up his famous Carnegie Hall concert, swing fans and dancers were racing uptown to catch an epic Swing event in New York’s Savoy Ballroom: the “Battle of the Bands” featuring the bandleaders, Chick Webb (with vocalist Ella Fitzgerald) and Count Basie (with vocalist Billie Holiday), playing head to head with the dancers deciding the winner.

What distinguished the two bands from one another was opposing sounds: Webb’s band was described as a “sensational whirlwind barrage,” that played at “breakneck tempos” and “novelty effects”; additionally Webb himself was a powerhouse behind the drums despite his limitations and short stature. Drumming legend Buddy Rich cites Webb’s powerful technique and virtuoso performances as heavily influential on his own drumming, and even referred to Webb as “the daddy of them all. The Basie Band’s swing, on the other hand, was more moderate and blues-oriented leading one spectator to describe the tone of the concert as “solid swing versus sensational swing.”

While fans of each band were quick to declare their favorites the winner most declared it a draw. You can read more about the famous contest here: Chick Webb Cuts Count Basie

You can also see video talking about Chick Webb's battle with Benny Goodman here.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Do You Want to Swing, Virginia?

What makes music swing?

Swing music is an 8 count rhythm meant for dancing, not listening. It’s characterized by use of a swing rhythm that accentuates the back beats of 2,4,6, and 8.

This differs from the European-based, straight rhythm that divided the beat evenly into equal eighth notes with the down beat (1, 3, 5 and 7) receiving the accent. Straight time sounds like this…

John Philip Sousa - Washington Post March

By comparison, swing music sounds like this (note the eight count phrasing and the emphasis on the back beat - the 2's, 4's, 6's and 8's and how it creates a drive and sense of energy)

Jump Session - Slam Stewart and Slim Gaillard

So, if it's jazz, does it automatically swings? No.
Some cerebral jazz isn't meant to be popular music for dancing and it's rhythms are non-swinging or even abstract. Here are a couple examples that probably won't set your toes to tapping:

Take Five - Dave Brubeck

Mingus Fingers - Charles Mingus

Getting Back To Music That Does Swing

Again, we're talking about an eight count phrasing with the accent on the back beat. For an even more obvious example, listen for the claps in Ella Fitzgerald's Sugarfoot Rag.

Sugarfoot Rag - Ella Fitzgerald

Another key characteristic of swing music is the use of syncopation by holding the first part of the beat longer and shortening the second half. This creates a feeling of 1 and-2 and-3, as can be heard in these two clips.

A Smooth One - Benny Goodman and Charlie Christian

Corner Pocket - Duke Ellington w/ Count Basie

Swing also makes use of riffs, or short melodic ideas used repeatedly in call-and-response patterns between different instruments in a band (often a brass instrument such as trumpet and trombone against a reed instrument such as the saxophone or clarinet. Here the call and response is between brass and piano.

Perdido - Johnny Hodges

Here, the call and response is between vocalists and the band -- note how each part is equally important. In the post swing era, tastes would change and ballad crooners like Frank Sinatra would be backed by muted background bands that were designed not to distract; but in swing music, the musicians are the kings and a vocalist was, at best, merely another melodic line.

Foo a Little Bally Hoo - Cab Calloway

Lastly, swing has always been about controlled improvisation. Musicians play each note with its own degree of emphasis and careful timing (some longer or shorter, quieter or louder, or as accented hits or silent breaks. In this way, every note takes on individual importance, and gives the dancer something to work with - to interpret.

Basin Street Blues - Wycliffe Gordon

Contemporary Swing
Hopefully I haven't left you with the impression that the Big Band Swing era is gone and all we're left with are scratchy old recordings. Clearly these musicians (and Wycliffe you heard above) would beg to differ...

Milenberg Joy - Gordon Webster (NY)

Man From Mars - Jonathon Stout and the Campus All Stars (Ca.)

Even Virginia's own Acme Swing Manufacturing from Charlottesville is serving up their own swinging modern takes of swing era songs for local dancers.

Bei Mir Bis Du Schoen - Acme Swing Manufacturing

Hopefully this gives you enough music theory to start thinking about what makes music swing.

What Have I Been Hearing Around Virginia Why Doesn't It Make Me Want to Swingout?

We've all been to dances w/ people standing around saying they're "just not feeling like dancing". Whether its DJ'ed music or a live band, it doesn't mean the musicians are bad, more correctly just that their music doesn't swing and they're not the right fit for lindy hop dancers.

Here are some examples and answers to your question of "why doesn't this make me want to swingout?"

Go Daddy-O - Big Bad Voodoo Daddy

Sure, it's rentlentlessly high energy, but every beat is accented equally; similarly there's no syncopation or variation, it just hammers on and on.

Crazy Little Thing Called Love - Michael Buble

Once again there's that rock and roll beat that makes you want to do the silly uncoordinated "that girl" dance. Not very swinging.

Nursery Rhyme Shuffle - Bobby Blackhat

Bobby Blackhat frequently plays in straight time rather than swing time and, although this clip does hit the back beats, listen to the metronome precise, non-syncopation of the eight notes. Its just dry, emotionless, and doesn't give you anything to dance to beyond the empty 8 count rhythm.

Come Fly With Me - Skylark Jazz Band

Come Fly With Me was recorded by crooner Frank Sinatra in 1958. Skylark does a good job of capturing that feeling; however, as mentioned earlier, the world had changed. The swing era wound down in 1946 when U.S. soldiers returned home to interests other than dancing and music could easily be heard at home without having to go to dance halls. The musical style had moved on -- the focus was now the singer, not the backing band and instead of a fellow dancer we were holding a fancy cocktail and snapping our fingers in place.

Come Fly with Me - Charles Darden

Nope, still not swinging. However, much of the crooner music is suitable for a Foxtrot, which utilizes a slow-slow-quick quick rhythm that has a gather (pause) between the 4 and 5. You can easily spot lindy hoppers who've been trained on Sinatra tunes because their swingouts will split in half at that 4-5 count and lose all momentum at precisely the moment where lindy hop is building it.

That's why Sinatra doesn't swing.

I Want To Hold Your Hand - The Beatles

This Beatles clip is proof that just because "it's older than me, so it's got to be swing" is a falsehood. The Beatles were never swing, they're mod rock and rollers.

Carolina Girls - General Johnson & The Chairmen of the Board

Carolina or Beach shag is a slotted swing dance using east coast swing footwork (triple step, triple step, rock step) and is meant to emphasize a leader's footwork rather than turns, spins, or moves that highlight the follow. Tempos are usually in the 100 to 125 bpm range and originally designed for dancing in sand rather than on a dance floor.

Tik Tok - Ke$ha

See above. Enough said.


If you're organizing or DJ'ing a lindy hop dance, you obviously need music that swings so hopefully none of this will be new. However, for anyone who's curious, there's plenty of information out there. For starters check out:

or check out a nicely done children series of Youtube videos called Does It Swing?

Friday, November 5, 2010

Quotes by Duke Ellington about his "American Music"

Band leader and pianist, Duke Ellington called his music "American Music" rather than jazz. Here are some of his words and thoughts about music.

“What is music to you? What would you be without music? Music is everything. Nature is music (cicadas in the tropical night). The sea is music, the wind is music. The rain drumming on the roof and the storm raging in the sky are music. Music is the oldest entity. The scope of music is immense and infinite. It is the ‘esperanto’ of the world.”

"Roaming through the jungle of 'oohs' and 'ahs', searching for a more agreeable noise, I live a life of primitivity with the mind of a child and an unquenchable thirst for sharps and flats."

“Art is dangerous. It is one of the attractions: when it ceases to be dangerous you don't want it.”

“I never had much interest in the piano until I realized that every time I played, a girl would appear on the piano bench to my left and another to my right.”

“Music is my mistress and she plays second fiddle to no one.”

“By and large, jazz has always been like the kind of a man you wouldn’t want your daughter to associate with.”

“If it sounds good and feels good, then it IS good!”

“There is no art without intention. Playing music is like an act of murder; you play with intent to commit something."

“There are two kinds of music. Good music, and the other kind.”

“Playing ‘bop’ is like playing Scrabble with all the vowels missing.”

“It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.”

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Have Lindy and Blues Events Reached the Point of Over-saturation?

(or “I smell what you’re offering to exchange and I don’t want to step in it”)

For about the last year I’ve been making the argument that the poor economy has led to a massive influx of novice organizers, who haven't been able to find fledgling careers to commit to, to try their hand at throwing dance events. Similarly, it seems every small scene with 4 or 5 dancers and some nook or cranny to dance in is throwing a full blown exchange. Sadly, what's resulted is an over-saturation of poorly planned and/or executed events that leave me wondering where is the value for the price they’re charging and what they are hyping?

One thing I remain absolutely adamant about,

- Words have specific meanings and create specific expectations –

Phrases like, “nationally known DJ’s”, “live swing bands”, “hosting available”, “free”… even the terms “lindy” or “blues exchange” themselves. Truthfully, I believe, if your home lindy or blues scene can fit in one or two vehicles, you can’t throw an actual exchange, you can merely throw a party. That doesn't mean it can't be an awesome dance party, it's just lacks the resources to be a full exchange.

Also, a list of recommended hotel accommodations is not "offering housing." Lindy bombing a street festival where the local municipality has hired an Elvis impersonator is not “4 hours of continuous lindy dancing”, neglecting to point out someone has to pay a $7 parking or entrance fee to a 3rd party means that event is no longer “Free." Letting someone play music off their laptop doesn't make them a swing DJ.

In the last month I’ve been invited to a couple “exchanges” that have me particularly shaking my head and wondering where things are headed.

The first incident was a trio of new organizers who were completely forthright (although misinformed) in their advertising of their new blues event, which, they said, would bring blues to the southeast, where there's never been any blues scenes or events before. They explained blues has gotten too prissy with its ballroom's and instruction & their event was a dirty, raw, blues bomb to bar bands w/ plenty of drunken grinding & beer. They mentioned the local swing club had told them they weren’t cool enough to hang out with them since they didn’t care about technical partnered dancing, just blues and enough beer to enjoy the dirty thrill of it. To drive their point home, they’ve added a soul, modern tango, and fusion pajama party late night.”

This event offended me on many levels. First, it discounted and ignored the efforts of Mike the Girl Legett and her "Enter the Blues" team and other blues dancers in Atlanta, as well as the organizers of I Dance Blues in Durham. Secondly, I found the marketing to be divisive and disrespectful of the lindy hoppers in that city. Lastly, and most importantly, it further reinforced the stereotype that in the mid-Atlantic states while female organizers want to run events stressing the quality of the dance, for male blues dancers its all about the bump and grind in dark rooms. This was a real step backwards from all the hard work that people like Mike Marcotte in DC and many, many others have put in to bring blues dancing to a level of respectability.

The other event that took a wonderful idea and crushed it was a lindy exchange tacked onto an annual Winter Festival at a national historic site. Unfortunately, it was organized single handedly by an instructor whose scene is mostly 14-16 year old children and a handful of ballroom couples in their 60's. She contacted me to asking, although she had no budget to hire me, other DJs or bands, would I help recruit her a team of DJ's willing to play for free?

Within a one month period the event was publicly billed as costing $60, refunded and reduced to $30, further reduced to $10, raised back up to $30, then slashed to $11 plus the event went from no bands, to 2, then 3, then 5, then a couple got cancelled, replaced, and the schedule reworked from scratch almost daily within the last 2 weeks. The final lineup was a couple Sinatra crooner bands, a bluegrass/hot trio, the local college jazz band, and even a fife and drum procession. Meanwhile "Hosting" for the event was billed as any available hotel space not booked by visiting holiday tourists in town for the event. This is simply just not a lindy exchange... nor even a professionally marketed dance event that truthfully has any chance of attracting outside dancers.

Honestly, I love fun as much as the next person, but seriously, this recent explosion of every single collection of 2 or more blues or lindy dancers feeling they need “to throw their own exchange in order to be taken seriously, feel loved and respected, or make a name for themselves” is a load of crap. If that's your motivation buy a puppy or see a shrink, do not ask people to travel hours and hours and give you money for a poorly thought out, poorly executed product that will underwhelm and actually diminish the opinion of your area in the dance community.

When I first started DJ’ing, one of the top DJ’s on the east coast approached me after a set to say, “I owe you an apology. I’ve heard your name for a while but never took you seriously because I heard you were from Virginia Beach and automatically assumed you sucked.” Trust me, sometimes there are worse things in life than not having made a name for yourself or putting your scene on the map.

Before deciding you need to have your name on the marquee, why not consider helping established organizers run respected events and find out why they don’t embellish their marketing or short change their musicians, teachers or DJ’s? Also, learn why they confirm their logistical arrangements and are aware of what others are doing in scenes around them BEFORE adding theirs to an already crowded weekend. The reason why organizers network and share their experiences as to what has worked or not worked for them and come up with some loose "best practices" about how to plan events is because these lessons have been sometimes hard learned and they work.

I’m sorry to wrap myself in my “blanket of elitism” but we’re at the point where we don’t need any more half-baked, poorly planned, over-hyped events that underwhelm but overcharge. They do everyone a disservice and just provide unnecessary noise and distraction that cloud the water for those looking to spend their money most effectively.

If you don't have a burning passion for dance that goes beyond your own ego and an attention to details that most can find boring as mud or too tedious to care about, please leave event planning to those who do. The dance community deserves that much respect.