A Quick Note On Training Bands To Play For Dancers
Recently asked: Wouldn’t it be great to do an article on how to train modern Jazz bands to play better for dancers?
Indeed. I think such an article, if done right, would require me interviewing quite a few musicians and dancers and researching the thoughts of the original big band musicians and jazz philosophers. Until I can do so, I had a few quick notes on the subject.
First off, I’ve asked this question in some way to every band leader I’ve interviewed. Check out their responses below.
In addition to what those guys say, a few tips I think help a group get started:
Short songs, around three minutes or under. Even the greatest swing bands in the world would tire a dance floor out with five minute songs where every band member gets a few solo choruses per song. (Concerning local bands beginning to play for dancers, this is usually the biggest problem that is easiest to fix that for some reason hardly ever gets fixed.)
A range of tempos appropriate for the primary dance being done. This is trickier, because it requires some homework on behalf of the band. They should know that a dance floor of beginner Lindy Hoppers is going to have vastly different appropriate tempos and range of tempos than a dance floor of advanced Lindy Hoppers, which will be different than a Shag/Balboa event. A band will have to learn how to read the
floor. (A good rule of thumb is that beginners are usually there at the beginning of the night, the advanced dancers later.)
Flow of tempos. The tempos should vary but flow from one into the other without too far of a jump. So, no constantly having bipolar tempos changes. It’s rough dancing to a band that plays 120 followed by 230 followed by 115 followed by 270. To a listening audience, the jump is no big deal. To a dancer, it has a subtly powerful effect on the night’s dancing.
Rhythm section has to know their jazz rhythms and be solid at all their tempos. The rhythm section can’t be the weakest part of the band.
This is a weird analogy, but I think it’s a fitting one: A boat pulls a water skier over the water so that the water skier can use the momentum to surf and freestyle in the wake. If the dancer is the water skier, then the boat is the rhythm section. Imagine water-skiing behind a boat that surges with drops or increases in speed or bumps along the ripple of the water, rather than one that glides across the water with smooth momentum.
(See Jonathan Stout’s interview link below for more opinions on this point.)
If the soloists can improvise in a *somewhat* predictable manner, it’s fantastic. By predictable I mean that they use clear phrasing, they reinforce the theme of the main melody, they use repetition and allusions and musical “alliteration,” and they attempt to create a narrative with their solo that a dancer can follow along to. A person who solos in a more modern style, with unpredictable tangents and rhythms, or a stream-of-consciousness style, can be very sophisticated and fulfilling for a listener — but if the dancer can’t in some sense follow it along, the dancer won’t be able to “process it” and dance with it. (Check out Illinois Jacquet’s famous sax solo on 1942’s “Flying Home” to get an idea of the use of narrative, repetition, and theme that a dancer can follow along with. Of course, we’re not expecting every solo to be this incredible. Enjoy this NPR documentary on Illinois and the solo here.)
That’s the difference between dancers and listeners: a listener follows the music with their ears, a dancer follows it with their feet. It’s much easier to follow along to something with your ear than with your feet. Musicians wanting to really play for dancers need to know this.
It might be surprising to musicians that expressing your music for dancers to express themselves to is intrinsically different than what most of them have been used to their entire lives; expressing themselves simply for listeners to listen to.
So, a good swing musician for dancers will look for the response to their music in how the dancers are dancing to it.
This is not saying a soloist can’t switch it up and throw down a challenge. But they can still keep the dancers in mind when they do so. For instance, if a soloist throws out a wild and tricky rhythm, we dancers love it if they repeat that rhythm a few more times in the course of their solo to give the dancers a chance to look for it and express it in their dancing.
A small tip for Gypsy-swing manouche style bands: It’s best if they have at least one instrument — like a clarinet or a violin — that can resonate notes longer than a pluck, so that dancers don’t have a long night of interpreting the short plinks of picking guitars. Beautiful, but melodically repetitive (in my opinion) for three sets of dancing. Otherwise, having a good and appropriate range of tempos is a good rule for these groups to follow. Gypsy swing was one of the first forms of swing music that was primarily meant to be listened to; its home is often in break-neck rhythms or slow, minor-note ballads. So, these bands might need to pay special attention to tempos and song length if they are not used to playing for dancers.
So, there are a few thoughts. Below are the thoughts of band leaders I’ve interviewed here.
Boilermaker Jazz Band
“Mainly just making sure that the tunes were not too long. Each solo generally should just be one chorus instead of as many as you want. You don’t want to kill anyone out there. Other than that, it is not too much different from playing a concert- change up the tempos so that it doesn’t get boring, pass the vocals around. It’s not too complicated if you just give it a little thought.”
In an interview I did with Jonathan Stout the bulk of the article was centered around this question, mostly focusing on the rhythm. A video interview I did with Josh Collazo, his drummer, explained a few things even more.
“Well, there’s no one single thing, it depends on the crowd and the night, but it definitely makes it easier to know what dancers are feeling when you know how to dance. Overall I think that the most important things are probably to have a good mix of tempos, to play arrangements, and to have the right style.
A lot of bands really don’t play anything that’s mid tempo because it’s, IMHO, the hardest music to swing on. I try to pick a lot of charts in the 130-180bpm range for our sets. Of course someone’s always going to complain about any band and say that there’s not enough mid tempo music because everyone has a different idea of what they consider to be mid tempo. I think live music generally feels faster to dancers as well because it has 10x the energy of a recording and so it’s more demanding of dancer’s energy at any speed. I usually try to keep a BPM counter and a metronome on the bandstand with me to make sure we’re hitting lots of tunes in the range.
Arrangements are another important thing when it comes to playing for dancers. Even if they’re simple arrangements it really makes a difference; I find it boring as a dancer to hear a band play head tunes all night. It’s a dance, not a jam session – a good band leader respects that. Honestly, it’s a giant pain in the ass to write arrangements and actually find people who can both play them and who also understand the style, but it’s essential and pays off so it’s worth it in the end.
The style is a tricky thing. About 90% of jazz musicians think they get it, about 10% actually get it. I try to only play with ones who do. Of course there are other more subtle details to this as well but I suppose those are my trade secrets. :)”