Basie & RhythmI’ve been talking a lot for a while now about the role of swing music in Lindy hop and the other swing dances. For that matter, for the last three years, I’ve been giving an ever-evolving talk about swing music, what it is, what it so irresistible for dancers – what makes it swing, in other words. What I haven’t really done is to distill that talk down and start putting my thoughts on it online – I’ve touched on it in a couple of posts, but no more than that.

So I want to talk about what makes the music what it is – and I want to do this with a dancers’ focus. Not all swing is great for Lindy, so my focus inevitably turns to the music that I like to play for dancers.

What better place to start than with the rhythm section? For most swing bands the rhythm section is the cornerstone of the band – a driving force, as it were, to provide basic timing and energy for the rest of the musicians, which the band can use to build on.

Who’s in the Rhythm Section

A classic swing band rhythm section consists of a drummer, a bass player, a guitarist and perhaps a pianist. It’s pretty rare to find examples of just the rhythm section simply doing its thing, but for one of the finest examples, here’s Basie’s rhythm section – considered by many to be the greatest rhythm section of  all time – Jo Jones on drums, Walter Page on bass, Freddie Green on guitar, and, of course, Basie himself on piano. They sounded like this (taken from a jam of Honeysuckle Rose at the 1938 Carnegie Hall concert with Benny Goodman)

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A few things to note here: one is that you can barely hear the drums. To me, the sound that comes across most clearly is the Freddie Green’s guitar chords, followed closely by Walter Page’s walking bass, and a minimalist contribution from Basie. I love the subtlety here, which is typical of Basie’s orchestra, and a far cry from Benny Goodman’s rhythm section, which dominates the majority of this piece – where the main thing you hear is Gene Krupa banging away on the drums. The difference in style between the two is pretty striking.

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Another thing to note is that Basie’s guys are not in any way spelling out a swung rhythm. To my ears, they imply one, but the orchestra is free to swing above the rhythm section however they choose. Here’s a far more modern example, from the neo-swing camp – the band is Blue Harlem. Above-average neo, and a great band, but nonetheless….

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There’s a distinct lack of the more traditional rhythm section, and in its place, the drummer lays down a ‘swung’ rhythm with the utmost precision. This, in my opinion, doesn’t swing particularly, and feels pretty tame – apart from anything else, it lacks that solid driving feel that characterises so many great swing dance tracks.

There’s Lots of Ways to Swing a Track

The early swing era was a hugely experimental time for musicians, and musicians were forever experimenting and pushing boundaries. One consequence was that everyone did it differently – and here’s one such – Slim and Slam.

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Two obvious differences here – one is that there’s a lot more emphasis on syncopations from Slim Gaillard’s guitar playing, and the other being Slam Stewart’s bass playing – he’s not playing every single beat, as would the majority of rhythm bass players, but instead is playing more sustained notes on the one and the three. It still swings, and it still provides the drive and energy. Another characteristic of Slim & Slam’s songs (aside from their utterly gleeful insanity) is when Slam stops plucking the bass, and gets out his bow. It’s the dreaded bowing solo.

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For these solos, much of that amazing energy is lost – it really shows what can happen to a rhythm section when one of the driving forces stops doing its job. They’re still great songs for dancing, but dancers have been known to edit out those solos when choreographing routines to Slim & Slam.

That Crucial Swing

Freddie Green rarely played solos, and there’s a story told by Harry Edison from when he played trumpet with Basie’s orchestra about why this was. According to Edison, whenever Green, who had an electric guitar and amplifier did play a solo,  the rhythm section fell apart, and stopped swinging… so Edison and some others took it upon themselves to start a campaign of sabotaging his amplifier to stop him from doing it and, in their view, bringing down the orchestra – which was providing their livelihood.

While I don’t have any examples of this happening with Basie’s orchestra, here’s an excerpt from Charlie Barnet’s mostly wonderful track Growlin’ – where exactly that happens. This section demonstrates why it’s been relegated to my “Listen for pleasure, not for dancing” list.

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Still Optional

So after I’ve been banging on about the importance of the rhythm section – can one play swing without one? Well – yes, and we’ve most of us danced to bands who do just that – and see Ralf’s comment on one of my earlier posts for that one – this is a great story.

“In April 1941 Gene Krupa played a battle of the bands with Jimmie
Lunceford in Baltimore. “It was no fight at all – we lost terribly, it
was rout”, recalls trumpeter Graham Young. “They pulled one thing in
the first set. They started the last number and I remember the first
guy to quit was the drummer, but the dancers kept on cooking as if
they had one. Then, pretty soon afterwards, the bass player left, then
the guitar and the piano, and they were swinging like crazy without a
rhythm section at all – thus proving they were just using a rhythm
section for sound, they weren’t leaning on it”.
Christian Batchelor: “This Thing Called Swing” p. 239
(via http://dancing.org/music.guidelines.html)

So… yes – a band can get by without it… but for a full big-band sound, or for that energetic driving swing that gets us a little crazy on the dancefloor, having a great rhythm section powering the band is a very hard thing to beat.

GillianI was chatting to a dancer at an event recently while I was waiting to begin my DJ slot. It turned out that she assumed that DJs have a pre-prepared set list which we play and maybe tweak a little as we go along.

Most of the DJs I know don’t use pre-prepared lists and certainly Lindy Jazz DJs me and Andy don’t. Instead we choose what we are going to play “on the fly” responding in real time to the energy in the room, the mood and previous DJ choices. You will see us watching the floor with our earphones on sifting through our music collection choosing the best track to play next. Quite often we will choose the next track and then change our mind literally seconds before it is due to start and replace it with something better!

Its a lot more effort and takes a lot of concentration to DJ like this which is why I don’t dance while I am DJing at events and socials, but I believe it gives the best musical experience for the dancers.  Its good fun doing things on the fly and it keeps me on my toes!

Thats not to say that I don’t have a mental wish list of tracks I really want to play, especially when I have just acquired something new and am excited to see the dancers reaction, but if the mood isn’t right for it then it stays on the wish list for next time.

So when you see me at the DJ desk looking like I’m concentrating I probably am! and its all to give you the best experience I can.

Well – it’s been a few weeks now since I posted the most read article this blog has seen. Probably the most read article this blog will ever see. To put that in perspective – this blog has been going since 2011… and in four days, that article gathered fully a quarter of the hits the blog has ever had. The blog even broke a couple of times. Strong opinions seem to get more attention, it would seem.

I was going to leave at that – at least for the time being… but there have been a lot of responses (well – a lot by the standards of this blog), both positive and negative – and some of them have been extremely interesting. I’d like to respond to a few of these and discuss some of the points made, but rather than write another huge essay on the subject, I thought I’d start small, and respond in bite-size chunks. So here is the first morsel – written, for the most part, while sitting in Helsinki airport.

Criticism of my DJing

I confess – I didn’t expect that one. Perhaps I should have done – we all make mistakes, and I’ve certainly made my share of blunders while DJing, but the thing I found interesting was that for the most part these criticisms had, so far as I could tell, nothing at all to do with the content of the post. Draw your own conclusions.

One criticism, however, was particularly interesting to me – apparently, I am guilty of not “ensuring that *every* track has a clearly discernable beat“.

OK. So do I think this is justified? Do I believe I ensure that every track as “a clearly discernable beat”?

The answer is no. I do not. I do not care if a swing track has a clearly discernible beat. I couldn’t give a monkeys. If I’m playing beginner-friendly music, yes, that’s one thing, and I’ll do more to ensure that the beat is clear. For more advanced dancers, no. It’s not an issue for them, and it’s not an issue for me. Lindyhoppers get off on rhythm. Great swing dance music plays above all with rhythm, and it’s one of the main things I listen for, and by which I judge what is going to work for dancers, and what isn’t. For an example of what I’m talking about, here’s the beginning of the classic Bob Zurke stride piano number – You Hit My Heart with a Bang

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For a beat – well – you can hear the rhythm section quietly doing its thing in the background…. but that’s all. Most of the rhythm in this section is coming from the piano and the horns… who are having so much fun its completely irresistible. Who needs a beat when you have rhythms like that to dance to?

Here’s another sample: Cab Calloway’s Three Swings then Out.

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Yes – there’s the rhythm section again doing its job in the background – and there’s the rest of the band swinging away like crazy. That’s the part I want to dance to. If all I wanted was a beat, well – then I shouldn’t be a swing DJ… and dare I say it, perhaps I’d be focussing on the wrong dance for me.

Epiphany e-DAC

Epiphany e-DAC

Welcome to another of the bees in my bonnet – the use of an external sound card while DJing from a laptop.

First question: what is an external sound card?

Very simply: it’s a gadget, usually USB-powered. You plug one end into your laptop. You plug the other into a mixing desk, some kind of speaker, headphones, you name it. Sound comes out.

Second question: I have a perfectly good headphone socket on my laptop – why on earth should I spend money on something like this?

Well – there’s a host of answers to this.

First – if you use the right DJing software, you can preview – in other words, you can listen to tracks on your headphones while playing – so it makes it easier to find the next track you want to play.

Second – redundancy. Headphone sockets break. The one on my last laptop did, during a gig, which would have been highly embarrassing had I not had one of these widgets handy.

HRT Music Streamer II

HRT Music Streamer II

Frankly though, both the above reasons are just useful extras. The real reason is that laptops are not designed as high quality audio devices. Apple laptops have far better sound quality than most, and they sound dreadful if you pipe the music out over a decent set of speakers. Netbooks, which a lot of DJs use, are cheap, with cheap components, and they sound diabolical. Add in the fact that much of our music comes from very old sources, and the sound quality is pretty iffy to start with… so it’s far worse once piped through a laptop’s dodgy sound output. Sound cards, on the other hand, are designed for only one purpose – to play sound. Even a fairly cheap sound card will generally sound better than the best built-in headphone socket. Add a quality one  – and the difference is night and day. Sadly, this is not something I can demonstrate via samples on a blog… but it is something I can easily demonstrate in person, and I’m more than happy to do that – so do ask me about it if you see me at an event.

As an aside, I’ve seen people advocate the use of sound cards purely to preview, while using the headphone socket as the main sound output. This is terrible advice. You don’t need the quality for your own headphones. You need it for the dancers.

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