Jazzers’ Debate No 4: Swing Dance & LindyHop


Jazzers’ Debate No 4

Swing Dance & LindyHop


Initiated by:

John Petters who posted:

GNSH – Goodnight Sweetheart – Internatioabnal Swing Dance Camp – Weekend, UK www.gnsh.co.uk

Peter Mark Butler
So how about this Clare Gray and Jeff Matthews? Time we started weaving a little of this kind of magic in our campaign for a New Orleans jazz revival? Ties in with Jazz Camps and festivals for younger bands covered in Debates 1,2 & 3.

Clare Gray This is a dance class that we belong to, so I can say that they are enthusiastic about jazz and traditional music – but they sometimes struggle I believe to get the bands to play the right stuff for dances. Not so much the style of music, more the discipline to really watch their audiences and keep them on the floor. There’s a tendency to go off into noodling instrumentals, forgetting that dancers need a bit of a structure to the length and delivery of a number. All that said, there’s loads of scope for bands and dance clubs to get together. Is there money out there though to pay for larger bands?

Jeff Matthews I play traditional jazz and also get hired to play gigs with a 9 piece dance band. I keep suggesting that the dance band become more swing orientated. There is an audience for it already. I see a great chance of a ‘Revival’ with ‘swing/jazz’ similar to that which happened in the 50’s & 60’s with traditional jazz. There are already young bands playing this stuff along with traditional jazz tunes at some very classy venues and social events in the UK and Europe. They are not putting on a sit down concert but are part of a party atmosphere where people dress in the theme and dance – fun! Perhaps traditional bands could start to add this swing style to their existing repertoire. As I understand it, the original New Orleans bands played for dances and street parties, not concerts. Straight forward tunes and solos required. Something with a definite melody and rhythm which dancers can work with. Should we be discussing this further on this forum and adding suggested tune lists?

DixieMix Jazzband Norwich has a very strong swing dance scene. The challenge is getting those dance groups to move from recorded music to live music. With the recorded there are obviously smaller overheads. We are starting to get a good dance following with the band but unfortunately not all venues we perform have the space ! Glad you had a good night, John.

John Petters Here’s a few observations. Clare has it right and she is speaking from a dancer’s standpoint. Bands have to play danceable tempi. The rhythm is paramount. Polite doesn’t work. Think Carnegie hall, 1938. There is another possible problem. Younger audiences are used to having music that has been dumbed down by the media. The tunes (where there are any) tend to be simple. It may mean that a traditional jazz front line with polyphony may sound a jumbled mess to ears that have not been accustomed to hearing three separate melodic lines. This will not apply to everybody, of course, and it risks sounding condescending, which I hope it doesn’t – but riff tunes, like Flyin’ Home, Seven Come Eleven etc – are shorter numbers than you would play at a jazz club – about 3 – 4 minutes. We didn’t achieve this on Friday in every case – but watch the dancers. Presentation is another key area. Much traditional jazz I hear is like watching paint dry. It is not good enough just to play well – you have to go out and entertain. Pete Allen does this very well, as do the Jive Aces. Simon’s point about small venues and recorded music is valid. It will come to bands doing self promotions in conjunction with dance clubs.

Jeff Matthews Thank you. Interesting and important points. I am interested in more suggestions about tunes that work in the swing dance style and the tempos. I have done dance band work and even now do work with a quartet which plays anything from the Gay Gordons to The Conga. I have introduced a few swing era tunes too for ‘social’, less formal dancing. What is paramount is the correct tempo and plainly stated melody lines. Where the improvisation takes place it must be in tempo and understandable by a largely none jazz audience. The drummer is the key and should understand the need for the rhythm to be correct. But it can be done by us jazzers too. Those bands who still have a strong traditional following may not need to worry about it but it is the struggling bands and the bands who will be sustaining and continuing this music into the future for whom it is perhaps worth considering.

DixieMix Jazzband I’m with you John. Entertainment is the key to the younger audience. They have been continually fed music with visual accompaniment (much of the time the music even seems to take second place in that formula!!). They want to see something happening on stage. A connection. I’m not saying we shouldn’t deliver a first class musical performance either but some bands are guilty of not even breaking a smile let alone talking to the audience in a way they can feel part of the night. Sadly I don’t think many younger (commercial) audiences would care who wrote the tune and the history behind it.

A band needs to be versatile. There are times to go all out as a ‘function type’ band and there are occasions when we have a jazz audience who want to listen and enjoy some interesting takes behind each tune.

Jeff Matthews Agree. Entertainment is the key. It has to be fun for the audience. It also has to be danceable.

Peter Mark Butler This Swing Dance Debate is one of several debates recently initiated on Jazzers. It ties in with my aim in launching the Jazzers Group – to revitalise the roots of jazz and in particular traditional (or should that be original New Orleans jazz?). Some may question it, but Swing Dance along with LindyHop can be one of the ways of attracting a new generation back to jazz.

Clare Gray This is all great stuff – very encouraging for the dancers – some of whom are younger and are not used to interacting with live music. Performance is all – otherwise they’d just revert to using recorded material. I have been to events with both and although we get a good dance and have a great time in either case, there is certainly more of a buzz when a live band is doing its thing and responding to the audience – recognising when the dance floor needs filling, or slowing down to give the dancers a breather when it’s needed – then picking it back up again. Its a joy to watch. Keep going all you jazzers we need you! PS – if anyone is going ‘out to play’ and wants a singer to tag along you know where to find one!

Jeff Matthews Clare : What dances do you do at the swing events? Do you recognise the tune names/tempos used? There are many bands in the USA playing this style. Some also include hot traditional jazz very successfully. Others like the Jonathan Stout bands are mostly pure swing style dance bands it seems.

Peter Mark Butler I’ll just add a small point at this stage and that’s to vouch for Clare as a jazz singer – oh, and as a dancer! (By the way, this reminds of the Key Facts Bulletin of old, Clare. Perhaps we should introduce the title “Key Facts for a Jazz Revival”.)

Clare Gray Thank you Mr Butler – always a gent!

All sorts thrown into the mix – we’ve been doing classes to quite traddy stuff lately, 1920s – 30s, Charleston style too – but the public events tend to knock out the standards and most people learn the names because they download the music to practice to or ask around (or it’s obvious from the words if there’s any singing sometimes of course!). Just off to class now so I’ll pay attention to the numbers in the next day or so – and also supply a list of some of the numbers that seem to come up regularly if that’s helpful to any of you? Let me know. As to tempi recognition, I suspect most of us aren’t too on top of that – just as long as we can work our 8-count or 6-count steps into it. The odd foxtrot slips in for those events that are more 40’s-focused – a lot of those around as you’ll know. Dancing slippers on now, more later if wanted?

Peter Mark Butler Yes, more later please, Clare. But enough of this “Mr Butler” although I like the “always a gent” bit!

Jeff Matthews Clare, yes more please. Cheers.

Peter Mark Butler Clare and Jeff have opened the door wide not only for this debate to continue but to aim for constructive progress.

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  1. Bob Thomas says:

    All this stuff about jazz and dancing is wonderful news and the best band I know for getting dancers on the floor is the Barry Palser band who, like all of us, is running out of venues to play in and the connection of jazz and dancing is the best way to go forward

    Barry used to have a swinging session going at the Red Lion in Hatfield with the floor as the main centre of the venue and the listeners all around the sides and once the music started nearly all of the listeners became dancers.

    This is the difference between Mouldy Figs and dirty boppers, as Bruce Turner put it.

    Well done Clare.

  2. Jeff Matthews says:

    Well, anything to keep the music flowing. Tempos are important for dancers and also some variations in style. St. Louis Blues has elements of Latin for instance. I heard ‘Avalon’ recently with a Latin rhythm. Anyone have suggestions for other traditional jazz tunes which could be played in a different style with dancers in mind.

  3. Little Lindy says:

    Hi there, I am a swing dancer/teacher/performer with twenty years experience. In that time, I have listened and danced to a lot of different live music.
    I found your article interesting – at present it is very difficult to find a band that are great for swing dancing. In my experience, as far as dancers are concerned, so called jazz/swing bands seem to fall into several catagories:
    – the ‘show’ band style – too much ‘ratpack’ .
    – playing all the right tunes in all the wrong rhythms or style, eg. a quickstep – which doesn’t swing by the way. (I know one big band that has Congas when they play ‘Sing Sing Sing!)
    – too much ‘trad’ – some of which can be fine for Charleston, Collegiate Shag or Balboa.
    – the formulaeic Glen Miller sound of the paper men.
    I would like to add a list compiled by an American swing dancer Bobby White, which I think would be useful for musicians to read as it sums up the main ideas from a swing dancer’s viewpoint…
    I hope it might be useful for musicians who may want to take up the challenge of playing for dancers. Musicians: please talk to us dancers – we love dancing to live music – but it has to feel right.

    Short songs, around three minutes or under. Even the greatest swing bands in the world would tire a dance floor out with five minute songs where every band member gets a few solo choruses per song. (Concerning local bands beginning to play for dancers, this is usually the biggest problem that is easiest to fix that for some reason hardly ever gets fixed.)

    A range of tempos appropriate for the primary dance being done. This is trickier, because it requires some homework on behalf of the band. They should know that a dance floor of beginner Lindy Hoppers is going to have vastly different appropriate tempos and range of tempos than a dance floor of advanced Lindy Hoppers, which will be different than a Shag/Balboa event. A band will have to learn how to read the floor. (A good rule of thumb is that beginners are usually there at the beginning of the night, the advanced dancers later.)

    Flow of tempos. The tempos should vary but flow from one into the other without too far of a jump. So, no constantly having bipolar tempos changes. It’s rough dancing to a band that plays 120 followed by 230 followed by 115 followed by 270. To a listening audience, the jump is no big deal. To a dancer, it has a subtly powerful effect on the night’s dancing.

    Rhythm section has to know their jazz rhythms and be solid at all their tempos. The rhythm section can’t be the weakest part of the band.
    This is a weird analogy, but I think it’s a fitting one: A boat pulls a water skier over the water so that the water skier can use the momentum to surf and freestyle in the wake. If the dancer is the water skier, then the boat is the rhythm section. Imagine water-skiing behind a boat that surges with drops or increases in speed or bumps along the ripple of the water, rather than one that glides across the water with smooth momentum.

    If the soloists can improvise in a *somewhat* predictable manner, it’s fantastic. By predictable I mean that they use clear phrasing, they reinforce the theme of the main melody, they use repetition and allusions and musical “alliteration,” and they attempt to create a narrative with their solo that a dancer can follow along to. A person who solos in a more modern style, with unpredictable tangents and rhythms, or a stream-of-consciousness style, can be very sophisticated and fulfilling for a listener — but if the dancer can’t in some sense follow it along, the dancer won’t be able to “process it” and dance with it. (Check out Illinois Jacquet’s famous sax solo on 1942′s “Flying Home” to get an idea of the use of narrative, repetition, and theme that a dancer can follow along with. Of course, we’re not expecting every solo to be this incredible. Enjoy this NPR documentary on Illinois and the solo here.)
    That’s the difference between dancers and listeners: a listener follows the music with their ears, a dancer follows it with their feet. It’s much easier to follow along to something with your ear than with your feet. Musicians wanting to really play for dancers need to know this.
    It might be surprising to musicians that expressing your music for dancers to express themselves to is intrinsically different than what most of them have been used to their entire lives; expressing themselves simply for listeners to listen to.
    So, a good swing musician for dancers will look for the response to their music in how the dancers are dancing to it.
    This is not saying a soloist can’t switch it up and throw down a challenge. But they can still keep the dancers in mind when they do so. For instance, if a soloist throws out a wild and tricky rhythm, we dancers love it if they repeat that rhythm a few more times in the course of their solo to give the dancers a chance to look for it and express it in their dancing.

    A small tip for Gypsy-swing manouche style bands: It’s best if they have at least one instrument — like a clarinet or a violin — that can resonate notes longer than a pluck, so that dancers don’t have a long night of interpreting the short plinks of picking guitars. Beautiful, but melodically repetitive (in my opinion) for three sets of dancing. Otherwise, having a good and appropriate range of tempos is a good rule for these groups to follow. Gypsy swing was one of the first forms of swing music that was primarily meant to be listened to; its home is often in break-neck rhythms or slow, minor-note ballads. So, these bands might need to pay special attention to tempos and song length if they are not used to playing for dancers.

    So, there are a few thoughts. Below are the thoughts of band leaders I’ve interviewed here.

    Paul Cosentino
    Boilermaker Jazz Band
    “Mainly just making sure that the tunes were not too long. Each solo generally should just be one chorus instead of as many as you want. You don’t want to kill anyone out there. Other than that, it is not too much different from playing a concert- change up the tempos so that it doesn’t get boring, pass the vocals around. It’s not too complicated if you just give it a little thought.”

    In an interview I did with Jonathan Stout the bulk of the article was centered around this question, mostly focusing on the rhythm. A video interview I did with Josh Collazo, his drummer, explained a few things even more.

    Glenn Crytzer
    “Well, there’s no one single thing, it depends on the crowd and the night, but it definitely makes it easier to know what dancers are feeling when you know how to dance. Overall I think that the most important things are probably to have a good mix of tempos, to play arrangements, and to have the right style.
    A lot of bands really don’t play anything that’s mid tempo because it’s, IMHO, the hardest music to swing on. I try to pick a lot of charts in the 130-180bpm range for our sets. Of course someone’s always going to complain about any band and say that there’s not enough mid tempo music because everyone has a different idea of what they consider to be mid tempo. I think live music generally feels faster to dancers as well because it has 10x the energy of a recording and so it’s more demanding of dancer’s energy at any speed. I usually try to keep a BPM counter and a metronome on the bandstand with me to make sure we’re hitting lots of tunes in the range.
    Arrangements are another important thing when it comes to playing for dancers. Even if they’re simple arrangements it really makes a difference; I find it boring as a dancer to hear a band play head tunes all night. It’s a dance, not a jam session – a good band leader respects that. Honestly, it’s a giant pain in the ass to write arrangements and actually find people who can both play them and who also understand the style, but it’s essential and pays off so it’s worth it in the end.
    The style is a tricky thing. About 90% of jazz musicians think they get it, about 10% actually get it. I try to only play with ones who do. Of course there are other more subtle details to this as well but I suppose those are my trade secrets. :)”

  4. Peter Butler says:

    Much food for thought for bands and musicians, Little Lindy! One big question is, where are the venues? I doubt many jazz clubs could cater for genuine LindyHop or Swing.

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