Over at Fog City Stomp 2017, Nirav hosted a Musician’s Panel which opened by asking Michael Gamble his thoughts on the role of the DJ. Check out the answer starting at 4:50.
The first thing that struck me was his view that the DJ’s role is to cultivate the musical taste of the scene. Even if your local scene doesn’t have good to great swing bands, you can still access the greatest swing music ever played. In fact, he implored DJs to widen their catalogs and search for unfamiliar (to you) swing dance tunes.
That’s an important charge and one I’d like to make sure we’re meshing with our DJ philosophy of playing, I’ll say, visceral music. We want our music to relate to deep inward feelings rather than to your intellect. Then we have cultivate our DJs’ taste along with our audience’s taste.
This is invaluable advice to move our scene forward and another important aspect to the role of the Swing DJ. You’re not just letting a playlist run, you’re the curator of taste.
Back in the day, the Mercury Cafe was the top spot to DJ swing music. It became one of my goals to be asked by Dan Newsome to DJ there. The main question was – how do you get asked when they’re never going to hear you play?
Well, the opportunity arrived later in 2005, the year I moved to Denver. I was still trying to run the occasional workshop in Kansas City and I asked Dan and Tiffiny to teach there. I was also going to DJ the Saturday dance at someone’s dance studio loft. Plan in motion.
I eventually ran into a problem; there were break-dancers attending the dance. How in the world was I supposed to get them onto the dance floor and still cater to the swing dancers? Also, I knew what the Merc’s DJ program was all about – solid swing music, very minimal novelty songs, strong DJs. I was concerned, but mentally said “screw it” and played “Hey Ya.”
Well, the break-dancers and swing dancers took the floor. If I recall properly, I think a cypher even occurred. It worked and I even got a crack at DJing the Merc a month or two after this. Thanks, Outkast.
Back in 2007, I DJ’ed the 4th Annual Harlem Nights in Utah alongside Mike Faltesek, Ryan Borkenhagen (that guy again!), Ron Dante Capunay, and Jimmy Suisse. One of my best memories is finding out about Wingy Manone that weekend. I love the vocals, the chunky rhythms, the spirited horns, the chunky rhythm carrying your movement through and through. Search for more of his music on Spotify or here to download.
Today and last week has featured brass band Spotify playlists. Recently, we were approached about working with a brass band for a New Orleans-type event where a buy-in would be involved. My question to answer for this level of implied participation and promotion was – do you swing?
Recommended listening included Rebirth Brass Band, Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Treme Brass Band, and others from Spotify playlists. The bottomline is that while this music makes me want to groove, move, and shake, it doesn’t swing. It’s funky, fun, calls & responds, but does not make move like a swing dancer. Check it out!
Recently, Kyle Smith, David Lawrence and I sat down to talk music. That’s when both of us discovered that Django once did a tour with Duke Ellington. Fascinating! This reminded me of one of my favorite dance memories. Years ago, CMDance organized an event where the Saturday night dance featured Gypsy Swing Revue. This happened the same weekend as Summit Jazz Festival. Well, Ryan Borkenhagen, a former Denverite (too old school for me to find videos on YouTube), knew many musicians there and brought over Duke Heitger and a couple other horn players. It was an amazing dance night reminiscent of Django (and Friends).
Recently, Jive Junction, a SoCal swing Facebook group had a thread erupt regarding racist lyrics in a jazz song. Team Sweden’s routine performed at ILHC featured the lyrics “corny jigaboos,” which is a racial slur used to disparage black people. This online discussion may still be ongoing and is worth reading.
I decided to call attention to it after I saw a swing dance group share this video. It’s certainly great dancing and Sweden killed it at ILHC, but I think we should be mindful about what we celebrate and the larger conversations that circulate within our international scene. After all, us teachers and scene leaders are curators of this information. If we share these videos or perhaps DJ these songs, are we stating these lyrics are ok? We might even be missing important historical and racial context.
Kelly Porter writes: “It’s also the weirdest thing to me that so many instructors and really talented performers have so much encyclopedic knowledge about the dance and music of that era without any comparable understanding of its social context– that’s how you wind up with foot-in-mouth decisions like this Swedish debacle, or adorable Russian women performing in blackface in the 21st century.”
As we find out, though, the Swedish dancers did not know about their song having racist language. So things get missed across language and culture. Felix Berghall from Sweden writes “On behalf of Team Sweden we sincerely apologize for our selection of music in the Team routine at ILHC 2016. We had no idea the meaning of the lyrics. If we have offended anybody, we greatly apologize and thank you for letting us know. We have learned from this experience and we will not let this happen again.”
I find that one of the most difficult tasks as a competition DJ is picking out the right music for a spotlight competition. It starts with communication with the contest coordinator and head judge. Continue reading →
One of my recent goals in swing dancing is to get out of my comfort zone – in technique, in aerials, in event planning, in teaching. The list goes on. So when one of my friends approached me about possibly DJing at an out-of-town workshop weekend, I was nervous, but said yes given that it aligned with “getting out of my comfort zone.” Continue reading →
Some people think beginners should be treated differently because they’re fresh, but we’re all swing dancers at the dance. I think it’s great to recognize they have a comfort zone, but don’t we all? One of my main goals when DJing after a lesson is to develop musical taste and have fun while doing so.
Here are some of my lindy hop favorites:
Gimme a Pigfoot (and a Bottle of Beer) – Nina Simone (124)
Bill Bailey – Ella Fitzgerald (132)
Spinnin’ the Webb – Chick Webb (138)
Shoo Fly Pie – June Christy or Jonathan Stout and his Campus Five (130 range)
They’re lower tempo, good energy, most have vocals, and they have great rhythms. DJing for beginners is sort of like me taking my parents out for dinner. I have expanded palate, they’re a bit more limited, but I recognize they want good food. No to sushi, yes to palate expansion at Tocabe. It bridges the difference and everyone has a good time.
Another reason to play the good stuff… there are many other dancers there of varying skills. Play to them also. Become The DJ.
There’s a national-caliber event that just posted a DJ application for their event. As I was reading through their application, two things jumped out that bothered me. First, they didn’t ask anything about desired rate or compensation. To this event and any DJ applying for such an event, start this discussion early. Both sides should set their expectations.
Second, was this request – “Provide us an example of an hour set that you would want to DJ at an event.” For a professional DJ, this question rankles. If I was one of people that pretty much plays the same songs each set, not so much. So what are my issues with this request? Continue reading →