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!

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