I skim Holly's Facebook wall occasionally and I happened to notice someone asking why there aren't more swing music festivals as opposed to traditional jazz festivals or modern jazz festivals. Jonathan Stout responded, but I thought I would add my own viewpoint here.
Almost all jazz, historically speaking, has been improvised on the spot other than the basic chords and melody. This is true for the very earliest jazz. Of course, some common riffs and patterns emerged, and some songs have characteristic phrases and arrangements used by virtually everyone.
But in swing music the arrangement is crucial to the sound. What makes swing music swing music? We've already established long ago that a big four on the floor beat and a smooth even flow are critical, but equally important is riffing. The best swing arrangements have identifiable riffs which dancers key into. Think One O'Clock Jump, or Bugle Call Rag, or any other anthemic jam-inducing song. They all have riffs you will immediately hum, even though those riffs aren't technically part of the melody.
So now we know why there are so few swing music festivals per se. To have a swing band, you either need a book of arrangements or a group of musicians who play head arrangements built over years of playing together. And writing arrangements is hard work that isn't well compensated. With so few authentic swing bands around, you can't really have a festival.
This also explains why there are so many trad jazz and modern jazz festivals. In both cases sometimes you find a band on the bill, but more often it's a group of different musicians who are put together in interesting combinations. It's just easier to have a festival like that. The musicians just have to show up and play. Don't get me wrong, it's not as easy as I make it sound, but it's a lot easier than spending a week writing an arrangement that might be used once.
My pulse is skyrocketing after watching this.
Edit: This appears to be an excerpt from a 1957 TV show.
We recently subbed for another band at a venue. The venue is just a restaurant; it is not kitted out (as the Brits say) for dancing. There is really no advertising for the weekly event, but the band we subbed for is popular enough that gradually more and more people were going. I heard estimates of 20-30 dancers in what I'd guess is a 1500 square foot space which is 80% occupied with tables and the bar.
Our biggest fan posted that we were playing there and immediately drew criticism for doing so. Although I didn't read the comments directly (the post has since been deleted) my wife reports that at least one person said the venue should not be advertised because it was already getting too crowded, and that people should not go (or words to that effect). I also seem to recall overtones of "keeping it to ourselves".
We played the gig, and only a few dancers showed up. I won't blame Internet posts directly for this, as I also heard someone else said "(regular band) will not be playing this week" which may have been misinterpreted as "nobody will be playing this week".
But it made me think. If you discover something cool and fun, do you keep it to yourself, or do you share it with the world? As a born cynic, I'm positive that the natural reaction is to keep special things to yourself. But there are a few wonderful people out there who share special things with others, and that is how most of us hear about something cool.
Clearly there is a balance to be struck. Natural wonders can be discovered and shared, and the resulting tourism can destroy them. You might think the same thing of a dance venue, but the crucial difference is that dancers make it work. I've danced in New York venues. LA dancers don't know what crowded means. And at a crowded venue, people are more likely to sit out a song and buy something. At what point is something "too successful"? That seems oxymoronic to me -- unless you have your own interests at heart, instead of the people who work at the venue.
(Mind you, keeping the venue's interests at heart also means "Don't get in the way of the servers".)
Obviously I'm biased; I want bands (particularly the one I'm in!) to be better appreciated, regardless of whether dancing can happen or not. So I would rather people tell others about a fun band/venue than hoard it to themselves, even if it diminishes their own fun. As Michael Steinman of Jazz Lives says (amazing blog, check it out), "May your happiness increase."
What do you think?
We've been gigging for almost a year and we've played more since February than we did in the entire previous time. I feel like we've improved significantly even since the above gig at Caltech in February. (Obviously playing with unbelievably stellar musicians like Mike Earls, Corey Gemme, and Larry Wright helps!)
At a gig a few days ago we played to a nearly empty bar for the first set. Our first song was a new entry in the songbook and we hadn't played with the bass and horns before. The song wound up feeling tentative, but as the set went on we got comfortable with each other. Even though the bar was still mostly empty, we forged on and tried to inject as much into the songs as we could. It was, to be honest, still fun but a little dispiriting.
But during the second set more people came in and there were actual cheers and applause during and after songs. Even though it was only five or six people they were very vocal with their appreciation. That amped our energy on stage considerably and we finished very strongly.
I try not to toot my own horn but at one event (I think it was a San Diego New Year's dance with the Jonathan Stout Orchestra) a jam formed. But the jam circle did not open up to include the band. Eventually nobody wanted to jump into the circle and I faced the band and started hooting and stamping for them. They played several more choruses as the entire audience rushed the stage and began hollering. The amazement and pleasure on their faces was awesome to behold.
How many times have you been at a dance and the band seems "meh" to you, or you aren't paying attention to them? Next time that happens, try giving them something. They might give back, and together you'll make something special happen.
Always appreciate the musicians, no matter what. (Unless they're a crappy dancer turned crappy drummer.) Those of you who know me know that I've had that opinion long before I was in a band, too.
By the way, we're playing at Sassfras April 3rd for a dedicated-to-dancing night! Corey, Mike, Chloe Feoranzo, and Jonah Levine will be joining me, Conrad, and Holly to swing your socks off. Free, but we'd love it if you supported the bar with a food or drink order. If you were around for the Gap commercial, you probably remember how dancing in restaurants and bars died out shortly thereafter, and you know why.
Not even going to bother writing my own intro for this one, and instead will just quote Jen Hollywood's post on my Facebook wall:
"With all this talk of Old School and Swing Pit... I think someone needs to make a 'You know you're Old School if...' list a la Jive Junction."
That said I'll get things started with a bunch of my own. Admittedly this is a bit Southern California focused, so feel free to add yours in the comments below.
You know you're Old School if...
Click ‘continue reading’ below to read on.
Jonathan Stout recently saw our band play and afterwards I asked him for any advice he wanted to give. He said something thought-provoking in response.
While so much of playing is the physical command of one's instrument, even more is learning what to do with that command.
Since my left brain is devoted full time to drawing parallels between things my right brain is doing, this question seems equally applicable to dancing. Once you've gotten good at dancing, what are you doing with your dancing? What are you saying?
Our band hasn't really defined itself yet; so far we have been struggling just to be competent enough at playing our instruments live that it meets our own acceptable standards. I can feel us getting more relaxed and natural with every gig, though by no means have we ironed out all the wrinkles. But it is time to start thinking about what we are doing, as opposed to how we are doing it.
As a dancer, I am not expressing very much, if at all. I'm not trying to say anything concrete. I'm not performing, I'm not competing (except in the most subtle sense which is fundamental to lindy hop -- "I'm better than the guy next to me"), I'm not doing anything other than trying to have fun with the person I'm dancing with.
But dancers at the very highest skill levels, in all forms of dance, have thought consciously about what they are expressing. The very act of defining their technique in such detail expresses their attitude to the dance. By becoming that good at dancing, they are simultaneously paying respect to the dance and those dancers who have come before, and adding their own "genes" to the dance. Over time, that is how dancing evolves; the very best dancers define the standards of the dance, simply by blazing new paths.
Technique is something you can acquire. If I can dance, or drum, or write, any schmuck can do it. But soulfulness, emotion, self-expression; these things elevate you. If you want to be known as a truly great dancer (or musician, or artist, or writer...) you have to have something to say, something that is uniquely yours.
When I was younger (and how I hate the fact that I can start a story this way) I possessed an extraordinary ability to focus on one thing and do it for hours at a time. Dirty jokes aside, I recall once lying on a couch in my apartment and reading for eight hours straight. I also spent three years doing nothing but going to work, sleeping, and playing Quakeworld Capture The Flag online (which seems like a waste of time but it turns out the money I didn't spend while videogaming for eight hours a day was roughly equivalent to half a down payment on a house). I also saw roughly one hundred movies in the theater every year. And sometimes I noodled around on my guitar or electric piano for hours at a time, or went on long bike rides.
My point is not to talk about my vaguely wasted twenties.
I have two points which will indirectly bring us to lindy hop, so bear with me. One is that as a single man I had free time to spare. The other is that I made time for what seemed important to me at the time; videogaming, reading, seeing movies, et cetera. I could have been improving my programming skills, or traveling the world, or making a billion dollars thinking up an Internet business. I had occasional thoughts about getting better at guitar, forming a band, but it never seemed important enough to actually get off my ass and do it.
Eventually I got married to the most amazing woman in the world (she didn't even make me type that) and we had kids, and these days I find that I have about one twentieth the free time that I used to have. As a result many things are now off the table -- traveling the world, reading a book cover to cover in one go, impulsively taking off for a movie or dinner out. I need to choose what I do with my free time. What do I do these days?
I practice drumming. As much as I can, whenever I can squeeze it in, however much my wrists will let me, even sometimes when I feel my wife's slight disapproval at having to manage two rambunctious kids yet again. Half an hour here, an hour or so on weekend days, a gig here and there. I still play computer games, I still read, I still watch movies on Netflix, but I think about drumming All The Time.
In 1998 I discovered dancing. For four years I thought about lindy hop All The Time. I still played computer games (a lot more than I do now) but I went out dancing regularly. I spent thousands of dollars flying to events and dancing. It was an experience that I will never forget.
There is a strong sense of deja vu in 2012.
I hope to get as good at drumming as I am at Lindy Hop. In other words, comfortable enough that I don't care what other people think, good enough that some people want to dance with me, creative enough that I can stop thinking about technique and just feel it. Good enough that maybe conceivably I can fly places and play music with other people. I'm making time for drumming because it is that important to me.
Is there something you wished you could have always done? I feel sad when people talk excitedly about Dancing With The Stars. Why are you watching dancing when you could be doing it? What do you do with your free time? Do you have ambitions? Goals? Do you have friends or family you never see?
I look at drummers like Josh Collazo or Paul Lines or Hal Smith (and, outside of the jazz realm, Jojo Mayer and Johnny Rabb and an army of other astonishing drummers on youtube) and think about the unbelievable amount of time they spent practicing and gigging and getting to the level where they are today, and I mildly regret starting so late, because I will never have the amount of time to practice that they probably did.
You are never wasting your life if you are doing things you need or want to be doing. You make time for what is important to you. If you aren't doing something that you claim to want to be doing, it's not important to you, by definition. Or you have literally zero free time, in which case I'm sorry, and I hope you catch a break soon. Maybe you should marry an amazing person who gives you that free time.
PS the band I'm in, the Fox Hills Five (we have youtube videos! search for them!) is playing at the as-close-to-New-Orleans-as-you-can-get Hollywood bar Sassafras monthly. Our next gig is November 16th. Come by and have a drink and say hi.
Thanks to Josh and Marisa in Venice, I had the opportunity to do something which I've not done before -- teach a dance class. Jan and I taught a beginner class and a swingout class, and I was able to incorporate some ideas I've had about teaching.
Not having ever taught before, I made some classic errors such as not giving the students opportunity to ask questions (although they asked anyway, thankfully) and not being able to count the steps quite right. But in my opinion we kept the class fast-paced, we were relatively funny, we kept lecturing mostly to a minimum, and were very encouraging, which addressed issues I've had with bad classes in the past.
How often do you see classes where the teacher just talks forever, or demonstrates a move over and over? I think the best thing to do is just get students moving immediately, as much as possible, regardless of their skill level.
In addition the classes were small enough that we were able to devote a few minutes of mini-private to each student -- Jan and I danced with each student which I think is invaluable for showing them what good connection and technique can do. Although we spent 90% of the time teaching steps, we were able to briefly mention style and technique tips (keep your connection low, body position low, maintain Barbie arms) and demonstrate the evolution of partner Charleston into lindy hop.
All this blather is meant to say that teaching is kind of fun -- it was nice to see complete beginners pick up things pretty quickly and, as far as I can tell, enjoy themselves. I surprised myself by not being completely inept at teaching (mostly). I have more respect for good teachers now. And it was surprisingly easy to summon enthusiasm for teaching, even though I've been focusing on drumming and parenthood instead of dancing for the past six months.
I kind of miss dancing I guess.
More or less one year ago today Jive Junction solicited contributors, which is why you have the privilege of ignoring everything I write.
Happy birthday, undead website!
Most anyone who knows me knows that I do not "spread the lindy love" or proselytize about swing dancing to the uninitiated without prompting.
Recently I went to Sacramento Traditional Jazz Camp (phenomenal for anybody who wants to learn more quickly, by the way; I cannot recommend it highly enough) and met a clarinetist named John who plays Thursdays with a band called "Doozy" at the Culver Hotel. He and I got along musically speaking and since the Culver Hotel is a nice place only a few minutes drive from my house, I and a few friends went to check it out.
The band plays what I can only call "cafe jazz" which is not to diminish their musicianship in the least. Their lineup of guitar, reeds, accordion, string bass, and trumpet plus a singer with a cocktail drum kit and their original songs bring to mind sunset in Paris, lovers strolling by, smokers depositing cancer in your lungs, and a very fun, retro vibe.
I danced a few songs with Chelsea and the band seemed happy to have dancers there. A random woman from Cincinnati asked me to dance; turns out she'd attended Camp Hollywood a few years ago. After the band played their last song some people nearby asked about dancing and where to learn. So, whoops, I guess I unintentionally "lindy bombed" a venue.
It makes me wonder, though, whether I've been pissing on the wrong tree all this time. Maybe we should break out into spontaneous dancing when we feel like it, when the moment is right, when your pals are happy to be there and everything is friendly, loose, casual. When you aren't performing for anybody, when you make dancing seem accessible.
I remember returning from a dance trip on the east coast years ago and my traveling partners were doing swingouts in JFK, and a San Diego dancer walked up to us and said with amusement "I just landed from Sweden and the first thing I see are lindy hoppers." And I also remember backpacking through Europe and hearing hot jazz and swing music literally everywhere I went. The first few times I thought it was coincidence, but then I realized it was just much more integrated into their society than ours. How beautiful it would be to have music playing and just be able to dance to it on the spot, without worrying that you seem like a dork, or uncool.