Friday, September 30, 2011

A Great Day in Harlem

You may already know about the famous 1958 photograph titled "A Great Day in Harlem" and featuring many of the greatest jazz musicians of the time. But did you know about the 1994 documentary of the same name? It's about how the photo came to be, and includes lots of behind-the-scenes photos shot by the musicians' wives and a good deal of archival interview footage from the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Milt Hinton, Marian McPartland, and Buck Clayton. My wife and I watched it a while back when we still had a Netflix subscription (it's still available there, on whatever they are calling it now). Definitely worth wasting an hour on.

I use the photo for my laptop wallpaper, so I spend a fair amount of time staring at it. My favorite parts are:
  • Dizzy Gillespie and Roy Eldridge (lower right hand corner), cracking each other up.
  • Count Basie sitting on the curb.
  • Stuff Smith, looking like he probably hasn't changed clothes since finishing last night's gig, smoking (who knows what?) with Coleman Hawkins
  • Drummers Jo Jones, Gene Krupa, and Sonny Greer all hangin' out. Jones was the drummer for the Count Basie Orchestra, Krupa for Benny Goodman (before leading his own band), and Greer for Duke Ellington.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Side effects may include geekiness

Based on a couple recent conversations I've had about encouraging more people to take an interest in DJing, I'm wondering whether some folks out there may have a mis-impression about swing DJing. Being a good swing DJ does not require that you know a lot (or really almost anything) about music theory or jazz history. These are common side effects of DJing, not pre-requisites to getting into the club. Really, all you need to start is 1) some good music--maybe enough to get you through 2 hours without playing anything really shoddy--and 2) the means and the nerve to play that music in public. It's possible to start out really modestly--to just get a toe in the water--without even having a ton of music, decide whether you like it, and then gradually wade deeper and deeper in (the water, children....).

If and when you do get more into it, many DJs tend to start to get interested in jazz history, to read books like Good Morning, Blues and Pops, to start combing through the archives of, quoting early episodes of Hey, Mr. Jesse, wondering whether the correct spelling is janky or djanky, and fretting about copyright infringement while scouring But none of this is at all required.

It periodically occurs to me that Chicago could really use more low-pressure opportunities for people to DJ. Right now there's....Java Jive, maybe? Maybe something up at Northwestern? But nothing in terms of city venues.* In my mind, the ideal opportunity would be hour-long (or even less maybe) slots at venues that have a dependable core of dancers. Maybe the organizers could give the DJs a small tip or let them in for free, but beyond that, no compensation--just some experience, status if you can really win the crowd, and satisfaction from sharing your favorite music. I could see some venues including one or two of these slots every week/month, with the rest of the evening covered by a more experienced house DJ (swing DJ, not house).

Readers, what do you think? Would you give something like that a try if the opportunity was there? Organizers, what say you?

* Of the regular swing and blues events:
  • Fizz (Mon., weekly) has a group of decrepit old dudes who've been DJing there for ever.
  • Black Rock (Tues., weekly), I think Nicolle usually spins on non-band nights, though I'm not totally sure. She invited me to DJ there once--a Mardi Gras set--and I had a fun time.
  • Java Jive (Fri., weekly), I have no idea, never having been there.
  • First Friday at Big City Swing (monthly) I almost always DJ, along with Bob or Chris.
  • Lucky's Savoy Stomp (First Saturday, monthly) is a new venue, not sure who will be DJing.
  • CodeBlue (second Fri., monthly), the organizers cover some of the DJing but have also asked others to step up.
  • Saturday Swings (usually third Sat., monthly) usually hosts live bands, with the organizers DJing the band breaks.
  • Alhambra Palace (last Wed., monthly), always has a live band and somebody I don't know plays music during the set breaks.
  • Bluetopia (last Fri., monthly), not sure how they work.
  • Willowbrook (occasionally), I think it's probably mostly Riley.
Looking at this list is this everything Chicago has going right now?!?! How many million people live in this city?

[Updated to revise the venue list.]

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Tempo changes - more tunes

Continuing on the theme of tunes that change tempo mid-song...

I associate tempo-changing tunes with older styles of music, from the early days of jazz when the tunes had crazy structures to them instead of just just straight 32 bar phrasing, and all of the New Orleans musicians still played in marching bands in addition to night clubs. Taking a slow tune out with a piping hot chorus must have be a standard Dixie trick.

As far DJing goes, tempo changers are almost always strictly novelties. I play them sparingly for fear of getting a reputation as a jerk who likes to mess with the dancers. But I do enjoy them myself, especially when you can feel the change coming on and dance through it. Here's my list of tunes with fun tempo changes, starting with the ones that all the DJs probably know:
  • All the Cats Join In - Jessica Molaskey - A Good Day - 4:15 - 125/250/125. Slinky, groovy, then all of a sudden really flipping fast, then back to groovy. Jessica Molaskey is really a Broadway singer, but she dabbles with jazzy stuff and is married to the guitarist John Pizzarelli.
  • Bei Mir Bist Du Shane - Janis Siegel - Swing Kids soundtrack - 4:11 - 150/90/180. There was a time when I watched this video over and over and over again. If you've been dancing for more than 8 years, admit it, you were watching it too.
  • Darktown Strutter's Ball - Alberta Hunter - Amtrak Blues - 5:24 - 90/150. More evidence that these sort of tempo changes come from old-time show music, since Alberta Hunter was there at the beginning. I know of one other version of this tune that mimics the tempo changes in this one: Jeff Healey - It's Tight Like That - 4:51 - 115/215. It's fun and peppy, though I don't care for the electric guitar in this (it's there because Healey was originally a rock guitarist, who turned to jazz only later) or the fiddle solo.
Tunes that I have DJed to good effect:
  • Honeysuckle Rose - Louis Armstrong - Satch Plays Fats - 2:56 - 85/170. The slow intro, featuring a seldom-heard verse of this tune, will fool people into thinking it's a blues. Then it doubles, forcing them to swing out. Hahaha gotcha. (You could also fade in after the slow intro.)
  • Yesterdays - Carmen McRae - Carmen McRae Sings Lover Man - 4:54 - 60/120. Starts as a very slow ballad, truly spell-binding. I could listen to nothing but Carmen McRae for days on end. Midway through, the tempo doubles to a very comfortable, groovy 120 bpm. Great song for transitioning and notching up the energy.
Old school jazz with crazy bits:
  • Honeysuckle Rose - Adrian Rollini - 1934-1938 - 3:13 - 105/185. A live recording that starts as a deceptively mellow vibraphone solo before jumping into a surprising, swinging jam session.
  • Swing It Way Down Low - Louis Prima - Complete Brunswick & Vocalion Recordings - 2:43 - 130/260/130/260. Danceable small combo jazz with one of Prima's distinctive vocals, plus extremely fast interludes.
  • Tin Roof Blues - Louis Prima -Complete Brunswick & Vocalion Recordings - 2:59 - 90/205. Classic Dixie blues number, with a peppy out-chorus.
  • Dear Old Southland - Sidney Bechet - Perdido Street Blues - 4:01 -90/215. Almost dirge-like blues, taking on a much more up-beat mood for the fast finish. (Note that Bechet recorded this tune many times, at different tempos. Another good version can be found on Classic Sides, 1931-1937, at about 140 bpm throughout.)
  • Ain't Misbehavin' - Fast Waller - The Very Best of Fats Waller - 4:00 - 100/260/100. Starts as a genteel, delicate piano feature, then adding Waller's vocal to one of his best known songs. A long, building drum-solo takes things into an exciting up-tempo chorus, then everything slows down again for the last little tag.
  • That's A Plenty - Ella Fitzgerald & Bing Crosby - Bing Crosby with Ella Fitzgerald & Peggy Lee - 2:24 - 185/230. Snobs will object to Bing Crosby being put on the same footing as Ella Fitgerald. Whatever. Before discovering this track, I didn't realize that there were lyrics to the tune. Ella & Bing do a nice duet, then there's a fast instrumental interlude, pure dixieland, and then a fast vocal verse for good measure.
Tunes that are too theatrical or showy to use for DJing:
  • Prince Nez - Squirrel Nut Zippers - Hot - 253 - 175/300+. I have a soft spot for this one (again, showing my age here). This starts as a duet, then has a minute-long outro that sounds like the finale of a Vaudeville show.
  • St. Louis Blues - The Deep River Boys - London Harmony - 2:50 - 120/300. This is like something out of a Vegas rat-pack show, complete with big brass arrangement and (I can imagine) flashy choreography for the Deep River Boys. And of course, since it's St. Louis Blues, you have the rhythm changes in addition to the tempo changes. A train wreck of a tune.
  • Bill Bailey - Patsy Cline - The Last Sessions - 2:48 - 70/140. Yeah, sure, Patsy is pure country. But the arrangement here is so jazzy, that I could almost play it at a dance. If only Patsy could have ditched her male backup singers.
So these are just a few that I had marked in my iTunes library. I know I must be missing many more, especially big band numbers (Chick Webb? Jimmie Lunceford?). Some commenters on the previous post have already added to the list. Let me know if you have a favorite tempo-changing swing tune by leaving a comment.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Tempo changes - After You've Gone

For whatever reason, my latest obsession is songs that have tempo changes (purposeful...not just because the drummer can't keep steady time for three minutes). I remember years ago, my (future) wife and I were at the late night of an exchange in Portland, Maine, and the DJ played a slow, slinky version of "All the Cat's Join In" and everybody was getting into the groove of it when all of a sudden it doubled in tempo and basically the whole crowd went "WTF?!?!?" as the DJ cackled. I went up to him afterwards to ask what the song was (it was Jessica Molaskey, off the album A Good Day) and tell him that he was a jerk for taking everyone off guard.

When I think of tempo changes, the other thing that always comes to mind is the routine that Zach Richard & Carla Heiney did a few years ago, to the Titan Hot Seven's version of After You've Gone. They had to heavily edit the recording, since the original is way too long, but they did it quite seamlessly so all of the umpteen tempo changes sound natural. It's a great routine, made all the more engaging by the way they capture the different character of the slower and faster sections of the song.

After You've Gone is the quintessential tempo-changing tune. Of the 22 versions of the tune in my iTunes library, 6 have tempo changes:
  • Tuba Skinny - Tubaskinny - My current favorite. Starts off around 100 bpm, then doubles without feeling at all frantic.
  • Sidney Bechet - Blues in the Air - Great soloing from Bechet, at 90 bpm but with a lot of momentum. Then a short drum solo and it is suddenly TRIPLE time. Yes, a blazing 270 bpm. Don't mess with Bechet.
  • Fats Waller - Yacht Club Swing 1938 - This is only a snippet, barely 2 minutes long, just a glimpse of Waller & his Rhythm at their perfectly laid back, swinging best. The thing that kills me here is how Waller handles the ritards. At 0:58 he stretches out his break, then rolls into his solo at full time. Then at 1:12 he plays the same stretched out break, but this time it is a signal to move to half time. If only this were a full recording with a vocal! Two other recordings of his (both off the Definitive Fats Waller, Vol 1.) do have the full vocal treatment, but the tempo changes aren't handled as artfully.
  • Cecile Mclorin Savant - Cecile. I love this woman's voice. Great modern treatment of the tune, which I would totally play at a dance if it weren't for the extended drum solo that starts the fast section.
  • Katherine Whalen - Jazz Squad. This version goes from 75 to a relaxed 210 bpm, then back to 75 at the very end, handling the transitions nicely. The ensemble is an odd hybrid of a modern combo with Dixie leanings. Very danceable throughout.
  • LaVern Baker - LaVern Sings Bessie Smith. This version starts out really slow (under 65 bpm), acts as if it is wrapping up, and then finishes out at about 230 bpm (that's quadruple time!). The transition is a bit corny though, and the fast section has a stagey feel.
As you've probably guessed, I'm completely smitten with this tune at the moment, and have been driving my (present) wife nuts by playing all 22 versions on repeat all day long. Please leave a comment and let me know if you have a favorite version, so that I can continue obsessing.

Also, in a future post: other tunes with tempo changes.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

First Friday at Big City Swing 9/2/2011

Between the heat and the holiday weekend and other events going on, it ended up being a lighter night than usual for the First Friday dance. I didn't mind that, as it meant there was more space to dance and it didn't get as sweaty & stinky as it would have if it were packed. The crowd seemed to be an even mix of 6-count and lindy hoppers, and really seemed happiest in the 150-170 bpm range--I had a bit of a hard time dipping under or pushing it above that range, though I tried. I also tried to avoid playing much New Orleans style stuff, since my friend Chris was DJing after me. He's got an enviable collection of music from New Orleans bands, and I figured he would top whatever I tried to play, so why bother pushing my luck. Instead, I stuck to a lot of classic big band and small combo music, which was hardly a chore. Here's what I played (plus BPM sparkline and freq. distribution):
  1. Nice Work if You Can Get It - The Boilermaker Jazz Band - Nice Work If You Can Get It - 3:19 - 170 (Last song of the lesson)
  2. Now Or Never - Katharine Whalen - Jazz Squad - 2:13 - 165
  3. Dunkin' A Doughnut - Andy Kirk & His Clouds of Joy - An Anthology Of Big Band Swing 1930-1955 - 2:51 - 170
  4. Rose Room - Artie Shaw - Artie Shaw, King Of The Clarinet - 2:43 - 155
  5. I've Got A Feeling I'm Falling - Louis Armstrong - Satch Plays Fats - 3:13 - 160
  6. South - The Solomon Douglas Swingtet - Live at the Legion - 3:17 - 180
  7. Hey, Ba-Ba-Re-Bop - Lionel Hampton - Lionel Hampton Story 3: Hey! Ba-Ba-Re-Bop - 3:21 - 140
  8. Georgia Grind - Lillian Boutté - Music Is My Life - 3:32 - 145
  9. I'm Alone Because I Love You - The Palmetto Bug Stompers - Live @ D.B.A. - 3:29 - 150
  10. Yacht Club Swing - Fats Waller - Yacht Club Swing 1938 - 3:51 - 162
  11. Rhythm Itch - Jonathan Stout & His Campus Five - Moppin' and Boppin' - 3:11 - 170
  12. Bennie's Bugle - 4Beat6 - The band that plays the music of Benny Goodman - 3:01 - 195 (This song kills me.)
  13. Miss Brown To You - Stephanie Nakasian - Billie Remembered: The Classic Songs Of Billie Holiday - 3:15 - 145
  14. Route 66 - Gordon Webster - Live In Philadelphia - 4:24 - 150
  15. Splanky - George Gee - Swingin' Live! - 3:18 - 135 (Oh splanky.)
  16. Little Jazz - Roy Eldridge - Little Jazz Giant - 3:06 - 140
  17. Bassology - Slim Gaillard - The Very Best Of - 2:49 - 155 (This really isn't the greatest dance tune, but I love Slam's bowed bass work so much that I had to play it.)
  18. Baby, Won't You Please Come Home - Jimmie Lunceford - Jimmie Lunceford - 2:54 - 165
  19. Honeysuckle Rose - Adrian Rollini - 1934-1938 - 2:38 - 160
  20. Dipsy Doodle - Larry Clinton & His Orchestra - G.I. Jukebox - 3:03 - 175
  21. Back Bay Shuffle - Artie Shaw - His First Three Bands: 1936-1940 - 3:15 - 190
  22. Too Darn Hot - Ella Fitzgerald - Mack The Knife: The Complete Ella In Berlin (Live) - 3:16 - 160 (This song has a longish intro where Ella sings "It's tooooo darnnnn hot. It's tooo-ooo-ooo darnnnn hot." The floor completely cleared during this, and for a second I was scared that people heard her singing and thought "You know, she's right. I should really go get a drink of water and then maybe go home and take a shower. )
  23. Easy Does It - Paul Tillotson the Love Trio - Lindy Hop Blues - 2:57 - 130
  24. Melancholy Blues - Milano Jazz Gang - To Satchmo with Respect - 2:51 - 115 (Nice new version of a very old tune.)
  25. Perdido Street Blues - Southside Aces - A Big Fine Thing - 3:54 - 135
  26. It's You're Last Chance To Dance - Preservation Hall Jazz Band - The Hurricane Sessions - 4:30 - 180
  27. Tain't What You Do - Sy Oliver - Sy Oliver et son orchestre: 1949-1952 - 3:07 - 155 (Shim-sham.)
  28. I Can’t Dance (I Got Ants In My Pants) - Chick Webb - Stomping At The Savoy (Disc 1) - 3:00 - 205 (Slightly awkward Balboa demo.)
  29. Tuxedo Junction - The Solomon Douglas Swingtet - Ain't No School Like the Old School - 3:14 - 155
  30. Summit Ridge Drive - Buddy DeFranco - Plays Artie Shaw - 4:35 - 145
  31. Black Coffee - The Careless Lovers - Black Coffee - Single - 2:39 - 195