DJ Challenge # 489: Charleston stuff

Crinkle wanted me to plumb the depths of my collection to find some songs for her that she could choreograph for. The challenge: “give me some nice Charleston stuff”. Now, I have an awful lot of stuff you can do the Charleston to, so I needed to think of some limitations myself. First of all I needed to limit my search to tunes that would possibly work for a performance. That removes a bunch of stuff already. Anything too long, boring, fast or slow is out. The second factor was more important — it really needs to have that authentic Charleston feel.

But what does that mean, and how do you go about finding it easily — particularly if you don’t have things categorised for different styles? I do, of course, for the purposes of teaching, but often what you use in a class isn’t what you’d use for a performance. So let’s just pretend there are no playlists helpfully grouping Charleston stuff. The two things I immediately searched on were “stomp” and “rag”. A lot of the songs from that Dixieland era were rags, of course. But I guess it wasn’t until getting that challenge that I’d really started to think about how you’d go about defining Dixieland jazz. This definition sums it up for me:

Dixieland combos usually have a rhythm section with a combination of drum kit, upright bass, piano, and banjo or guitar. The lead instruments are usually restricted trombone, trumpet, and clarinet. The definitive Dixieland sound is the simultaneous playing of the three lead instruments. [Wikipedia]

Naturally enough a lot of Dixieland tunes were rags, having grown out of ragtime. Of course, a heck of a lot of stuff was also blues, the other main jazz precursor. So what’s a stomp? Now, as every good geek knows, Google is always your friend in these circumstances, so I did a search on “definition jazz stomp”. The amusing article I turned up from Downbeat magazine is really interesting: check it out. In summary it’s a piece written in the name of Jelly Roll Morton claiming responsibility for creating “jazz and stomps”. This letter is entirely in keeping with Morton’s character if other historical accounts I’ve seen are right, so I think it may be real (notwithstanding the incorrect date at the top). But even if it’s not, it’s great reading. The first stomp was King Porter Stomp (1906), so stomps emerged after ragtime. Interesting.

Anyway my list for Crinkle is looking good. It has 4 or 5 of my favourites from Fletcher Henderson, various rags from Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet, and another 4 Charleston-style novelty songs from Spike Jones, who I love for his craziness. Fats Waller is in there with his performance of the Henderson Stomp, which for some reason I don’t have from Fletcher himself. That should get her started anyway.

Selecting tracks

Okay, this is dumb I know, but I was trying to think about the process I go through when selecting new material. I started by thinking of how the listening to new stuff is an active process of filtering, and before I thought about it I was sketching a sort of funnel with new tracks going in the top and various filters being placed at the bottom. A track that wasn’t filtered out would make it into the collection or Library.

Then I realised that it wasn’t so much a matter of a whole bunch of tracks coming in at the same time (although that’s not too far from the truth). It really is a consideration of each track in turn — a serial process. So when I decided to just map it out as a flow chart (above) it looked really straightforward. The diamonds represent decision points. The rest is probably pretty obvious. I guess there is a possibility that the rejected stuff can feed back into the listened stuff, but in practice I don’t do this nearly enough. The “category” decision at the bottom is not something I use much, but I’d include here the setting up of playlists, classifying tracks by BPM, recording year, and that sort of thing. All of this is sort of adding categories for easier use.

Anyway now that I have it in this form I can’t see any possible reason why someone would want to read it, so I naturally put it straight into my blog!

The Three Thirds Theory

For a while now I’ve been talking about the three thirds theory of DJing. I think it was at the DJ Summit at SwingCity that I first started talking to people about it. I guess it was operating at some kind of subconscious level until the moment that I started trying to explain it, and since that time I have thought about it off and on I guess. I still don’t consciously use it as a method for every set I put together, but it does come into my thinking every now and then.




Well, it’s now, and I need to make sure my set on Friday kicks butt, so I am going to put down my thoughts here. The Three Thirds Theory says that whenever you’re DJing for a regular crowd you want to have three elements in rougly equal proportions: Old, Current, and New. Let me break those down a bit so that there’s no misunderstandings. Old stuff is stuff that you know your current audience — the dancers in front of you at that moment — are familiar with. The audience varies all the time, so you need to be aware of what they are familiar with. Which songs never fail to bring a smile to people’s face? What can you put in on and know, pretty much without fail, will haul their asses off that comfy chair and get them up?

For the sake of it, I’m going to list a few tracks of mine that I would think would be in this first category on Friday night down here: Shout Sister Shout (Lucky Millinder), Royal Garden Blues (Bill Henderson), Rockhouse (Ray Charles), Corner Pocket (Ellington/Basie), Jeep Jockey Jump (Glenn Miller). Any list of favourite is completely independent of feel, tempo, style, or whatever, so this isn’t a guide to choosing which track is right for the mood of the crowd. Just a further means of categorising things.

The second element is the current stuff. What’s popular right now? What are people just getting used to hearing? What are they waiting to hear? Songs in this category right now with your average crowd at the Fun Pit, for me, include: ‘Bill Bailey’ (Ella Fitzgerald), ‘Apollo Jump’ (Lucky Millinder), ‘Lavendar Coffin’ (Lionel Hampton), ‘A Pretty Girl, A Cadillac And Some Money’ (Buddy Johnson), ‘Barn 12’ (Harry James) and ‘Drop Me Off in Harlem’ (Victriola).

This second category can be hard to pick, because it’s hard to keep on top of whether things are just now becoming popular or whether they’re just being played a lot. You can also forget that things have been around for a while, or miss stuff that people really hang out for. I just focus on my own stuff for the most part, and this second category would be stuff I have in “high rotation” at the present time.

The third element is the new stuff. Now, I’m specifically not talking about new recordings here, although from time to time I do find new recordings or new releases that will be added to the new category. What new refers to is the “bleeding edge” stuff — what the audience is just hearing for the first or second time. I have long believed that it is important to introduce stuff your audience hasn’t heard much of if things are going to keep fresh. One of the most common problems with DJs I hear is that they play only stuff that they have heard others play and succeed with. They end up sounding like everyone else without really carving out their own niche of interest. This is a sign of a DJ not having a big enough collection, of course — but it’s also a sign that they don’t listen to their own material. Just about anyone has enough material to put together a good set, if they only know their own stuff well enough.

I had the rather terrifying experience of being asked to play some tracks when I didn’t have my trusty laptop handy the other day. It was during the break while the Cairo Club was completely cutting it up at Mayfields, and there was a strong feeling that the feeling was going to be lost during an extended band break. I jogged to my car and picked out the one CD I had that could do the job — a 1 hr collection I bought recently called Harlem Stomp. It’s just one of those cheap compilations you see everywhere (I can’t even find it listed on AMG) but it has some of my favourites and I thought it might have some versions of things I didn’t have. Anyway, all I did was stand in the DJ booth and choose the song order. The toughest part was just choosing the right feel to get people started and then build something up to where I could play the best stuff on the CD a couple of fast classics: ‘Jumpin’ at the Woodside’ and ‘Bugle Call Rag’. Now, if two songs ever said “jam please”, those are them. Anyway, it worked, and I had strangers coming up to the booth telling me I was a DJ god and stuff, but the catch was that I didn’t even have my gear there — just chose a song order from the one swing CD I happened to have in my car.

I know full well that the atmosphere in there is not something I had created — it was a product of the band being so good and a bunch of inspired dancers waiting around for something to bust out to, however I do believe there is some skill in knowing your music well enough to manipulate it. I do know that putting the CD on from start to finish would not have worked. The management already had a CD on with similar stuff playing before I started, and nobody was dancing.

Anyway, in a round about way, that little anectote is just an example of what I was trying to get at with the New category. Too many people seem to look for something radically different when they look for their new material. They often go for something that just doesn’t swing — either it’s tinkly complicated 7 minute bop stuff with undancable bass solos (ugh) or some monotonous R&B variant. Now, I am not saying that R&B isn’t fun, and I am definitely not a purist. But you have to look hard at whether something really makes a good dance song. Is it short enough? Does it have enough going on to make it interesting? Does it have a swinging beat, or is it something different (shuffle rhythms are a personal dislike of mine and a sin committed by way too many DJs for my liking).

The truth is that good new lindy hop stuff is probably going to sound quite a bit like good old stuff, but different. It’s probably going to swing if it’s any good. It’s probably not going to be produced by a ska band. It’s probably not going to have a latin beat, or be a hip hop tune. I don’t rule these areas out by any stretch of the imagination, either as novelty songs or as a whole new area of dance exploration. Hell, go for it — I dance to ‘Plenty’ every time it’s played and couldn’t think of anything I’d like more than busting out to some hip hop stuff. But do I go looking for those tunes to expand my collection? Nah. There’s way too much good swingin’ lindy hop stuff yet to be discovered.

So what will be on my new list this Friday? I managed to snaffle a bunch of stuff on the locally produced Flashback label in the $3 bin and I got a stack of Lunceford, Barnett, and Hamp that I hadn’t seen yet. I also remembered to use most of my monthly quota on eMusic.com to snaffle a few albums and pick the eyes out of some others. I got some brilliant Roy Milton stuff, including a version of ‘Taint Me that I am officially In Love with, and the best version of Blue Skies that I know. I grabbed everything I could get from Nellie Lutcher in their collection (an album called Hurry On Down) an album by Big Joe Turner (All the Classic Hits 1938-1952) and a couple of songs from Illinois Jacquet, including the fast and gorgeous ‘Bottoms Up’ (what an excellent riff that is). The posthumously released Grammy winning ‘Genius Loves Company’ from Ray Charles and others was worth it mostly for listening value, but I will probably spin ‘Fever’ (duet with Natalie Cole) if the moment is right.

I snaffled Bill Bailey from the Apple ITMS because I know it’s a current favourite (that’s category 2, for those of you keeping score at home) and didn’t have it. It’s hard to get on CD. Mr Borgida also recently turned me onto some new stuff including the most fantastic version of Strictly Instrumental (a vocal, would you believe) by Eddie Jefferson and a few other characteristically Bill offerings that I don’t think anyone is playing yet. Bill’s tracks are almost bound to be hits, going on past experience, but their introduction must be managed carefully. You can’t go overBilling people in one set, because they will not appreciate how good it is!

So we’re back to the Three Thirds Theory again. Use this information wisely, dear reader.

Inspiration and DJing for newbies

Just when I was thinking that Melbourne’s social lindy hop scene is on the slide (see this entry), it jumps back up and takes me by surprise. First there was the good fun vibe of the Easter Hop, which seems to keep on keeping on from year to year. Then last Sunday’s Cairo Club performance, which packed a very meaty punch for a lot of us, and has been a source of energy for a lot of the CRR crew since. Then last night we headed to CBD and there was a nice crowd that included a few from interstate and overseas. I can’t say the music grabbed me much, but I did enjoy quite a few nice dances. And tonight was one of the best vibes at the Fun Pit for me for a long time. There were heaps of people and it didn’t seem at all too dominated by cliques (an inevitable but frustrating part of any swing scene). The super-friendly Tim approached me and asked if I would mind DJing there next time. I chose the late set because I always favour DJing to the hardcore and experienced swingers. I admit to opting for the easier option. It’s just that my own tastes have moved on from the days when I was starting out.

Actually, tonight Doz and I had an interesting conversation about what to choose for less experienced dancers. Conventional wisdom still says that the best stuff for this crew is neo swing and (sometimes) R&B, because a). they are more ‘mainstream’ than vintage artists and b). their rhythm lines are easier to follow. My own theories about the topic were once sort of along those lines, but have become more developed these days. As I have begun to think more about swing music, it seems like I’ve started to understand the way the original swing bands actually worked, as well as typical swing themes and structures. I guess teaching beginner classes for about 6 years now has also given me a handy touchstone as far as appropriate music for inexperienced dancers. The truth is, it’s not necessary to make a choice between good vintage music and music that new dancers can enjoy dancing to. You just need to know what the elements of the right music are.

First, I look for stuff with a good strong bassline. Walking bass tracks are good (My Baby Just Cares For Me is a classic example). Obviously other parts of the rhythm section come into it as well, such as rhythm guitar, piano, and particularly cymbals. But more often than not you want to be dancing on the bass. It probably sounds extremely obvious, but it’s much easier for people to get the idea of a swinging rhythm (meaning a rhythm that is 4/4 with the emphasis on the even counts) if you have tracks that have an easily heard rhythm section. Next, I look for songs with good strong themes. It’s dead easy to pick up the start of a bar or phrase if you have a repeated section of music to go on. This is one reason I don’t favour playing a lot of R&B or standard 12-bar blues — the blues structure has themes that are not at all like typical swing themes and can catch people off guard. They’re definitely going to be familiar with blues structures and swing structures whether they know it or not, but when you mix the two together a lot at a time when they are trying desperately to get a feel for some of the essentials, it does tend to confuse people a bit. So I stick to mostly AABA song structures for beginners.

Finally, I don’t push the tempo up too high for less experienced dancers. Another easy one. Wow, all of this took a lot longer to type than it did for Doz and I to talk about tonight. Anyway, it may be helpful to somebody somewhere out there, or I may come back to this and write some more at a later stage.

Inspiration and the lack of it

So one thing I should point out from the start is that a big part of my life has to do with dance. Lindy hop swing dance, specifically. For just on 6 years now I’ve been spending a decent part of my spare time pursuing this hobby. It has taken me literally around the world several times, has consumed hundreds of sweaty hours out on the floor, and thousands more inside my brain. Many (but not all) of my best friends have similarly been bitten by the jitterbug.

A topic I talk about a lot with my swing mates is our ups and downs as far as inspiration goes. It seems that this has become a more important topic as the months and years have worn on. So much so that by my estimation a fairly large proportion of the Melbourne Lindy Hop community has been experiencing a crisis of inspiration for some time now.

So here’s what I think. I think social dance inspiration comes from seeing and dancing with new people, and listening to and dancing to new music. It’s not very complicated really. What seems to happen here though is that we get kind of trapped in our own ever decreasing circles. Social dancing in the sense of meeting new people and dancing to a wide variety of music is dead or dying in Melbourne.

There’s another type of dance inspiration too though. Just generally being inspired to dance per se. I think you can be inspired to move for a lot of reasons: because of the music, a need to perform, or even because you just want to do something active.

I’ve been suffering from a lack of inspiration for both social and general dance stuff off and on for at least two years now. So what I thought I would do is list some things that have inspired me in the past.

1. Travel. By far the most inspiring thing for me has been to go to other place and meet new people. The Herr‰ng Dance Camp in Sweden tops the list here (4 times so far), but other notables are SwingCity New York, the Paris Lindy Exchange, Hullabaloo (Perth Lindy Exchange), Canberr‰ng (Canberra mini Exchange) and the Lismore Swing Dance Camp.

2. DJing. The music is what brought me to dancing, and collecting and listening to more swing jazz for the purpose of DJing opened up a new world to me. Getting to DJ at other events (like HDC) is also inspirational.

3. Performing and training to perform. For the last 12 months or so a group of friends and I have been training under the name Crazy Rhythm Revue, and that has definitely been a main source of inspiration for me. Performing and looking good dancing (as opposed to feeling good) was probably the side of my Lindy Hop that I had paid least attention to prior to CRR. So it felt like a major challenge. Also there is a discipline to learning a routine or a new skill for the purpose of a performance that was motivating for me.

4. Other stuff. There are other more general influences that don’t need as much explanation on their own: teaching, watching tapes, running events, seeing performances, talking to people, and thinking about dancing all fall into the category of being involved in a dance subculture.