Calling All Jazz Music Collectors!
Have you got a smokin’ collection of music you love and want to share it with the world? Well, why not consider being a DJ for your local swing dance scene?
It is way more fun and sociable than uploading your stuff to YouTube and a chance to share some of the music you love with people who are going to turn it into some kinetic frenzy!
I am a new Swing DJ since my first gig sometime last May and I would like to share a bit of what I have discovered and what I have been thinking about after doing a whopping (ahem) six gigs over the past six months.
Obviously, you should take into account that I may not know what I am talking about as a DJ, but that should give you all a lot of fun shooting me down in the comments section at the bottom of the page. Feel free to let yourself go!
Going Down Into the Music Mine…
Now I will say that I have a pretty huge pile of music from my favorite musical era (the twenty years from 1925 to 1945) and my particular interest is in the music of small combos (I have relatively little of what would be called “big band” music.)
This includes a wide variety of jazz and popular music including early blues, calypso, ballads, western swing, jump blues, honky-tonk, novelty songs, hokum and jug band music, show tunes, and dance music. That twenty year period produced an incredible variety of incredible music!
I am only guessing, but I think it is fair to say that out of the thousands of song tracks I have from this period, probably less than 3% of the songs are of any interest to a Lindy Hop enthusiast!
That is not to say that the rest of it is junk! Much of the remaining 97% is precious to me, it just won’t do to play it at a dance where the music has to satisfy certain criteria before it can be considered fit to play at a swing dance where the primary focus is on Lindy Hop.
I will have to build my own radio station to play that other 97% or possibly get into Balboa or Blues or some other dance scenes to broaden my usefulness as a DJ.
“It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing!” So said Duke Ellington and his Famous Orchestra, and true as it may be, if I want to DJ a Lindy Hop dance, I have to consider a few more elements or I may not make it out of the dance with my ego in one piece.
The other things besides Rhythm that I will focus on here are Tempo, Sound Quality, and Spirit of the tune.
“The” Rhythm…and that other stuff
As for Rhythm, well, it is essential that I search for tunes with a solid swinging four-beats-to-the-bar pulse. Early Jazz, mostly prior to the late 1920’s, was dominated by a 2-beat feel where the rhythm is accenting every-other beat of a four-beat measure.
I have a lot of this early jazz and I love it, but if I play too many of these 2-feel songs in a set, I may not be able to keep the floor jumping like it should.
That said, I will play a good song even if it is a bit “square” in the rhythm. By this I mean that a four-beat song being played more on top of the beat sounds more like a March.
A March Beat was also a feature of earlier styles of Jazz, however this is not the kind of rhythm that will find great favor among the dancers if you play too many songs like this.
Then there are rhythm styles even further afield. Last week I spun a Ruth Etting number that was a waltz (3/4 time) for the first half and then a moderate 4/4 time for the second half. It was worth it because I think the Waltz is the BEST DANCE OF ALL TIME, but not everybody was happy about that particular number.
I will give Blues a spin and maybe even a Rumba, but this again is just one song or so out of a whole set.
I am also careful to avoid more than one or two Boogie-Woogie tunes in a set. Yes, it seems energetic and danceable, but it gets boring pretty quick. I think it was Fats Waller who described Boogie-Woogie as “Thirty-two bars of nothing at all.” I think too many of these songs would be a drag on the evening.
So, to sum up what I have been thinking about Rhythm, I have been trying to keep it mostly to a solid swinging 4-feel and only play a precious few of anything outside of that groove. But if a really good tune is crying out to be played, I want to try to fit it into the set even if it is not banging out four-beats-to-the-bar. I feel a little variety has it’s place in the set, too.
Yeah, tempo. I think that from where I am coming from, it should be between 120 and 185 BPM. Yes, you can go higher and lower by a fair margin, but whenever I do, I have to watch out.
I can spin a couple at 195 or 200 BPM and above, but if I push it too much I can see the dancers start to loose steam.
In the lower end of the BPM spectrum it depends on how solidly it swings. I have played stuff down to around 90 BPM but those songs have to swing like a monster or people will give up and start to leave the floor.
So, I feel totally safe at 120 to 185 but I will venture away from this safety zone as far as 30 BPM slower or faster for songs that have the juice.
The Sound Quality
I know many folks have a lot of music recorded fairly recently with the benefits of modern sound recording technology. I don’t. Most of my stuff is vintage and that means that I have to watch out for Sound Quality, too.
I may love that screetchy-scratchy old recording that I have listened to a hundred times in my own room, but how is that going to sound to a roomful of dancers? It will sound mostly like a roomful of hiss with no discernible bass!
The people who came to dance are going to care much more about a solid beat than all those wonderful but hard-to-hear things that I like about that favorite record. Just as bad are some of the murky remastering jobs and “simulated stereo” junk.
I have to strive to give the dancers something they can actually hear and connect with and I always stand ready to tweak the EQ to make a marginal track sound a bit better on the dance floor.
The spirit of a tune is also worth considering. This is a bit hard to define, but I hope you will understand what I mean: One of my most important goals as a DJ is to keep the dance floor excited and inspired to express themselves through their dancing.
I can’t expect the dancers to really swing if the song I am playing is too sweetly sentimental or too laid-back and lounge-y.
If it sounds like the tune is leaning too much toward long, sad, or legato passages it is going to sound depressing or boring or both.
If the tune sounds like it might be a part of a Las Vegas nightclub act, that should be left for a time when lounging with a drink in your hand is the goal, not dancing. And a sappy vocal can often torpedo an otherwise good danceable tune.
Maybe it is because of the character of the Lindy Hop that the dancers tend to like the tunes a bit more rough-and-tumble. If the tune is playful with exciting (yet predictable) breaks and a good bounce, it is sure to be a winner!
There are many more things I have been pondering, but let’s leave it there for now and we can all get back to mining our music collections for hidden gems that will hopefully delight and inspire the dancers at the next Swing DJ gig. If you have the time, I would appreciate any comments you have to offer!