Here’s the clip which started it all for me.

It’s an eight-year old social demo from Dax Hock and Jo Hoffberg (Emily Hoffberg back then), and when I first saw it as a relatively new dancer and DJ, it blew my mind. I loved the track, was mesmerised by the constantly changing rhythms that they were picking out of the music, and just played around with. I absolutely had to find the song, which turned out to be a relatively modern version of King Porter Stomp. It took me a while, I’m ashamed to say, but eventually I tracked it down to an album called KC After Dark, by the Kansas City Band.

Sounds … simple, but it’s not quite what it first seemed – the Kansas City Band was specially put together for Robert Altman’s Kansas City – a 1996 gangster film set in the 30s. Altman grew up in Kansas City, and wanted the music to be authentic to the period – but rather use than the original music from the time, or recreate the original arrangements note-for-note, he opted to put together a band of great 90s jazz musicians, and had them play some of the classic numbers, in a live setting, in the original style, but adding their own voices. KC After Dark is actually a companion disk to the main movie soundtrack: Kansas City. The results are wonderful.

I’ll say this now – if you don’t have these albums, get them. They’re not available digitally, which is a shame – but you can get the CDs from a few places, including Amazon. They are simply amazing, and it’s hard to sit still while I’m listening to them.

Some of my DJing staples come from these albums – most notably King Porter Stomp from KC After Dark, and Blues After Dark from the main soundtrack – I overplay this for blues (if that’s possible) – it’s an incredible raw, sultry and beautiful sax duel between James Carter and Joshua Redman.

And you can see it here.

This is the part which, eight years on, I’ve only just discovered – although I’m not sure how I managed to stay unaware of it so long.

Robert Altman didn’t just use the music from the Kansas City Band on the Kansas City film. He also made a 76 minute film called Jazz 34, which is nothing more or less than a recreation of a live jam session in a depression-era Kansas City club, with those same musicians playing as, variously, Mary Lou Williams, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Joe Williams, Basie and others, with fifteen of those songs, interspersed with little interludes to give a flavour of Kansas City and its music scene of those times. I can’t get enough of watching this – in fact, this post has probably taken three times longer to write than it should, because I keep stopping to watch more of it. Seeing that music played live, in that setting adds more to it than I can easily describe. I can only imagine what it must have been like to be there while they were filming this.

Now for the bad news – the film has never officially seen a DVD release, and you can only officially get it on 2nd hand VHS recordings. Unofficially it’s a different story, as a short trip to Google should demonstrate. Worth every penny.

On a final note, here’s one more clip – it’s another sax battle, and it’s cool beyond belief. Enjoy!

I’m not a fan of Bebop – it’s not that I think it’s bad, per se – I just don’t understand it. Post-Swing Era jazz generally just leaves me cold, and I’m OK with that – it gives me more time to focus on music I like to dance to.

Today, I was highly amused to find Norma Miller’s take on it, which is a bit more extreme than mine. She just doesn’t mess around in her opinions. So here’s a take from one of the few remaining people who were on the scene when it all started. Enjoy :)

Swing Summit 2015 - Group 3

Swing Summit

Swing Summit this year was, for me, the best Swing Summit yet. Given that Swing Summit is never anything less than inspirational, that’s a pretty big thing. If you’re focussed on learning and improving your dance, this is the one to go to – if could spend all summer there, I probably would.

Anyway – I promised I’d publish a setlist from the Sunday night, so here it is.

Straycat Edits: That Wang Wang blues has an overly long and dull intro before it gets to the fun part, so I chopped that in half. That version of Joshua has … some pretty awful fanfares. OK – so some people do like them, but they make my skin crawl… so it’s either remove the horrible noise, or not play the track. And the rest of the track is awesome, hence the edit.

Apart from that, it’s a fairly standard set for me – playing things a little safe, as it was my first set of the event. Still a lot of fun to play.

Title Length Speed Artist Album
Woke Up Clipped 03:09 111 Ben Webster
Blue Drag 02:51 113 The Gypsy Hombres
Summit Ridge Drive 03:19 130 Artie Shaw
A Chocolate Sundae On A Saturday Night 02:41 132 Pat Flowers
Mop Mop 02:43 144 Jennie Lobel & Swing Kings
Everybody Loves My Baby 03:11 149 Sippie Wallace
I Like Pie, I Like Cake 02:53 158 Jeter – Pillars “Club Plantation” Orchestra
Study In Blue 03:12 159 Larry Clinton
A Little Bit Later On 03:03 166 Chick Webb and His Orchestra Feat. Ella Fitzgerald
Rattle And Roll (Basie-Goodman-Clayton) 03:13 180 Benny Goodman (clarinette) et son orchestre
Skinny Minne (Take 2) 03:03 167 Glenn Crytzer’s Savoy Seven
Wailing Blues 03:21 154 Wingy Manone
Blue Drag 03:02 140 Earl Hines
Four Or Five Times 03:16 127 Jimmie Noone’s Apex Club Orchestra
Where Have You Been? 02:57 142 Bud Freeman
Sad Sap Sucker I Am 03:07 145 Fats Waller
Wang Wang Blues (Straycat Edit) 03:47 154 Kid Ory’s Creole Jazz Band
Joshua (Straycat Edit) 02:29 162 Ralph Flanagan
A Case of the Blues 02:52 166 Glenn Crytzer’s Savoy Seven
Functionizin’ 03:10 173 Fats Waller
Dallas Blues 03:05 183 Woody Herman
Oakland To Burbank 03:08 155 Ray Noble
T’Ain’t What You Do 03:07 159 Jimmie Lunceford
Turk’s Blues (Social Polecat) 03:00 118 Turk Murphy’s Jazz Band
Hawk 06:00 126 Kyoichi Watanabe
Swingin’ On Nothing 02:55 132 Bob Crosby
The Goon Came On 02:22 144 Jimmie Lunceford & His Orchestra
Hoodle Addle 02:43 146 Ray McKinley
A Vipers Moan 03:24 152 Willie Bryant
Take It From The Top 02:57 161 Ella Fitzgerald & Her Famous Orchestra
You Hit My Heart With A Bang 02:43 169 Bob Zurke
Shoot the Sherbert to Me, Herbert 03:14 145 Tommy Dorsey
Bouncin’ Around – Philippe Brun 03:17 131 Philippe Brun
Between 18th And 19th On Chestnut Street 02:55 135 Charlie Barnet
Miss Martingale 03:18 143 Hot Lips Page
Wallingford Wiggles 04:37 120 Glenn Crytzer And His Syncopators
Splanky 03:36 124 Count Basie

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.

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