This article is intended to help Lindy Hop/Swing dancers understand how to learn about listening to music and how to broaden their music library. If they should choose to be inspired to become DJ’s that is just an added bonus! Often the advice given by DJ’s for people who want to learn more about music is “listen to as much music as you can”, I have found that people have many innovative ways to find new music!
The methods for discovering music as well as the accessibility of it has changed over the years. With the advancement of technology dancers today are spoiled rotten compared to when the dance started out. There are many reasons for this, one of them obviously being that we now have a century full of swing music to dance to! Although some decades may be more favorable than others…
At first dancers could only hear music live. Imagine only being able to listen to swing music when you went out at night to dance. In this video two celebrated dancers; Norma Miller and Frankie Manning, talk about the night Chick Webb and Benny Goodman battled it out at the famous Savoy Ballroom. Both bandleaders had many of the same arrangements so the listeners could decide who the real King of Swing was. Now we have the ability to go online and hear dozens of versions of the same song by many artists. This is one of the many great ways to discover music and musicians, find a song you like and listen to every version of it.
The accessibility of music today is incredible. Imagine only being able to listen to music live or on the radio, the listener is at the will of the player. As technology advanced from records, to tapes, CDs, and digital files, now to streaming music, there are so many ways to discover and listen to music for your own enjoyment.* I interviewed some of my friends who like to listen to music about their methods for discovering new music. I also asked them about different sub-genres of Jazz music that are dance-able (as far as we are concerned at least) so new listeners can have a general outline of what they are listening to.
What platforms do you use to listen to music?
Abby: If I hear a song and I can’t ask what it is I use Google on my tiny hand computer. I can open up a song right in Spotify and save it or add it to a playlist. I also use MusicBee on my computer for music that is not streaming and I can add that right into Spotify which is where I primarily listen. I love that I can go back and forth between my phone and my computer. I pay for Spotify Premium (with a student discount), which eliminates ads and lets me download my music, for the amount of music I listen to it is well worth the cost.
Kyle: I first started listening to jazz with YouTube and Bandcamp. Both of these websites are free to listen to (bandcamp you have to pay after a number of listens but you can listen to full songs/albums a couple of time before having to buy it). The issue with YouTube is often quality of sound – although some video have good enough quality. Recently I’ve been using Spotify to find music. Spotify has been really great and worth paying for premium. I have been best able to expand my music to older tunes and bands that I really love dancing to, but couldn’t find high quality recordings of. There is also an immense amount of jazz that I don’t like or has a low quality of recordings on YouTube and Spotify – so it’s a lot more to sift through in my opinion.
Nii Attoh: I primarily listen to swing music on MusicBee (PC) or Poweramp (Android). I use Spotify [premium], Bandcamp and Youtube to listen or find music as well. MusicBee has a customizable interface, access to an equalizer and a lot of easily accessible tag editing. Having bpm [beats per minute] tagged is great for a lot of reasons. MusicBee just does everything that I need for a music player without some of the random hiccups or limitations of things like iTunes. Poweramp is just a good mobile musicplayer…more limiting than MusicBee but I don’t need as many features on my phone. Bandcamp is a great source to find modern swing music, particularly from artists in Europe who you might not have much exposure to here. Spotify makes it really easy to find some of the more common tracks and share them with people. Everyone has access to Spotify which really streamlines a lot of hidden work of sharing/organizing music. In short, MusicBee is what I use to play and organize music and everything else is either to help with sharing playlist (between myself or others) or to find new music.
How did you start listening to music outside of social dancing? What methods do you use to discover new music?
Nii Attoh: I think it came from going on rides to Jazz Attack, Mobtown, or another weekly event with friends who were meant to DJ that night. I started to become familiar with the songs that were usually played and would explore the albums they came from or songs that were potentially related (same bandleader, same musician on the sax, same genre + subgenre).
Sometimes someone may have a DJ setlist up and you can find songs that would take you months to find on your own. YouTube is a great source for finding recordings and songs that Spotify lacks, particularly when it comes to live performances. I find new music from hearing a cool song from someone’s set and either asking the DJ what song it was or finding it on my own via artist recognition and the correct search terms. I usually will search through Youtube or Jazzonline (for older/classic artists) or Bandcamp (modern artists) to find these songs. I’ll take a listen to albums when recommended by friends and peers if it wasn’t something I found on my own.
With Spotify I’ll take a look at some swing playlist to see if there’s a song that catches my attention. If there is I’ll generally listen to the album that song is a part of and see if there’s more music on there that I really like. Then I usually just explore that artists music from the 20s to 50s and see what songs I really enjoy. I also will find new songs from event/competition videos. Sometimes it will be songs played during some sort of luck of draw/jnj comp that I don’t have. Other times it will be a band playing the riff of a song for a jam style comp and I’ll try and find the original song. This is how I found Cottontail, The King, That Da-Da Strain and a large number of other songs.
Lauren: I listened to a bit of jazz from a relatively young age, because I was in jazz band throughout high school, but I didn’t start listening to swing jazz avidly until I began lindy hopping. When I started dancing, I always really connected to the music. Some of my mentors gave me portions of their music library, and I kind of exploded from there. (This was before Spotify and Pandora existed….lol). I found songs that I really enjoyed and connected with, and looked up the artists and found more of their work.
I got a ton of my music from jazz-on-line.com, which is website where all the public domain jazz music hangs out for people to download, legally, for free. It’s a great starting point for looking for music. I also constantly visited the libraries near me, and picked up CDs. The great things about the CDs are the booklets you can read There’s always really great stories and anecdotes. I also use bandcamp.
I do follow a few playlists on Spotify (one of them is great, it’s called Lindy Hop Collection by Terrace Ellis). I’ll find songs I like on there, and find more from that artist, sort of getting me down lots of different rabbit holes
Kyle: Dancing and DJing is why I started listening to swing jazz. I fell in love with it once I began to listen and have been unable to stop since I began listening three and a half years ago. For the first two years that I danced I only listened to swing jazz before I began to relisten and explore other genres that I enjoy.
Bandcamp is great for finding newer swing jazz. I would look up bands that I know then go through the suggested artists section for new bands. Bandcamp won’t really have older tunes though. YouTube is a great place to start with a similar system of suggested videos, looking up bands/songs you like and listening to multiple versions of the same song. YouTube was most useful for me to find songs that I knew played by a variety of artists. I’ve also found music by watching Lindy hop videos and finding the song that is playing – sometimes even deep in the comments section of videos.
The most fun way to expand my music library is by far sharing music with friends and asking DJs for songs that I like that they have just played. I would highly recommend asking your friends what music they’ve been listening to and asking DJ’s for song names/artists when your at dances. Personally, I love sharing music with dancers when they ask me what song I just played, and it makes me feel great about my set.
Abby: My Mother started swing dancing in the late 90s so she played neoswing songs like Jump, Jive, an’ Wail by Louis Prima or Go Daddy O by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy when we were in the car. My sister and I were both under the age of five and my Mom would take us with her sometimes when City Rhythm Orchestra played summer concerts. We loved the main singer because she always wore these incredible dresses and jewelry. So I was listening to the music before I was dancing, and once I began dancing I began DJing pretty quickly. When I broke my foot and couldn’t dance that was when I started listening to music outside of dancing on a whole new level. No longer could I focus on my body while I listened so I had even more energy and time to listen to music.My favorite ways to discover music are through friends and strangely enough, Wikipedia. I spend a lot of time reading about artists on Wikipedia. I will read through their entire page and listen to their music while I read. If the article mentions a specific song or album that was influential or was a hit I will queue it up on Spotify and if I find myself dancing along, I save it to my library. If another artist is mentioned in the article I open them into a new Wikipedia tab and do the same thing. Some artists have decades and decades worth of music so this gets me pretty far in terms of older music. I like to listen to artists progress throughout their careers. It also gives me a general understanding of who I am listening to and what kind of person they were while making their music or what might have been going on in their lives at the time.
When I travel to dance events I try to buy their CD’s. I think it is really important to support the bands because I want the musicians I love dancing to to be successful and continue making music for us all! I love to hang out with friends and share music as well. That can mean anything from sharing a song in a group chat or sitting around for a few hours and DJing for each other. One of the things we like to do is try and guess who the artists are on the recording, it is a fun challenge. It is a great way to practice DJing, be exposed to new music, and it feels great to share something I love so much with people I care about. I love DJing songs my friends have shared with me during a night of dancing they happen to be there, and it’s cool when they DJ songs that I shared with them- of course, it helps to have friends who have good taste.
Often on the social dance floor many different sub-genres of Jazz are played. How would you describe sub-genres to new listeners?
Kyle: Sub-genre’s are different types of jazz that I feel are still good for Lindy Hop (in this context). I’d say the best way to know is to listen to an example of each one so here’s a probably incomplete list of sub-genres that I personally like to DJ at swing dances that primarily know Lindy Hop.
1. Small group. (Typically five to seven members, but generally consists of no repeating instruments) This sound is generally more open and the artists are not tied to written charts. This allows the musicians to alter the chorus’ and have very personal solos. Example: Don’t get around much anymore – Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong on The Great Summit
2. Big Band Swing. (Nine plus band members, typically associated with thirteen to fifteen musicians) This sound has horn and brass sections and has been featured heavily the past several years at Lindy Focus. Three to five saxophones, a few trombones, a couple of trumpets, a guitar, piano, bass, drums, and vocals are often all featured. A lot of bands with “orchestra” or something similar at the end will hint that it is big band swing. This sound typically is more tied to charts and has a more sectioned feel than smaller groups and can swing hard. Example: Spinnin’ the Webb by Chick Webb
3. New Orleans. The birthplace of jazz. This sound generally has dirty, muted brass (trumpets/trombones) than other sub-genre’s and features a pronounced rhythm guitar, usually no piano, and sometimes tuba to hold down the bass instead of an upright bass. I would break New Orleans jazz into two genre’s for dancing/DJ purposes. New Orleans for Charleston and New Orleans for Lindy. A Charleston feeling song will feel more straight on the beat and not like a triple step could fit in. If you listen to the rhythm section you may hear a “do daht” two beat rhythm Example: Some of These Days by Tuba Skinny. A New Orleans song that I would Lindy Hop to would have more of a swinging rhythm “dah do-daht” Example: All That Meat and No Potatoes by the New Orleans Jazz Vipers.
4. Jump Blues. This sub-genre is upbeat and has a chunkier and closer to rock feel compared to New Orleans, Big Band, Small Group, or Traditional Jazz. I really enjoy dancing to it and often consists of high energy songs that always make me excited. Example: Oh! Babe by Wynonie Harris
5. “New” Authentic Swing Jazz. This sub-genre includes all musicians that you hear live at events and in videos in the past 20 or so years. Bands such as Jonathan Stout, Gordon Webster, Naomi and Her Handsome Devils, and many others you’d probably recognize if you are a dancer. Generally these artists have a really clean sound compared to older jazz recordings. This sub-genre does not include “neoswing” from the 90’s such as Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, which I would discourage for playing at Swing Dances.
6. Trad(itional) Jazz (Also known as Dixieland Jazz). This from the origin’s of swing jazz. This sound is has a really upright and straight on feel compared to big band or small group swing bands. Example: Beale Street Blues by Lu Watters and His Yerba Buena Jazz Band or Zero by Wingy Mannone and His Orchestra
7. “French-ish” Jazz. This sound developed in Europe and has a specific feel to it. Think Sidney Bechet. Example: Southern Sunsets by Sac a Pulses and Joshua Fit the Battle Of Jericho by Sidney Bechet
I’m not an expert and musicians would potentially laugh at my descriptions of genre’s but this is in terms of dancing – not listening.
Nii Attoh: I pretty much agree with everything there.
Abby: I would add Gypsy Jazz to the “French-ish” category. Django Reinhardt is given most of the credit for this category. A modern band example inspired by this category is The Moonshine Rhythm Club.
How has listening to Jazz off the social dance floor impacted your experience on the social dance floor?
Nii Attoh: I started listening to a lot of music maybe 10 months into dancing. It definitely has shaped my dancing pretty heavily. I became familiar with the “skeleton” (structure) of most of the songs we would dance to. I became familiar with the breaks in songs and AABA format and would dance to those things accordingly (even though I didn’t directly know those were what I was dancing to). I noticed repeated patterns during phrases which led to me valuing repetition in my dancing mainly doing some sort of 8 count pattern (may it be complex or simple) across 4 8s. There’s a lot to say about musicality so the biggest thing would be that all my movements were done with some intention of following what the music asked for.
For me in particular, listening to music totally changes how I do my footwork. Not strictly a positive or negative thing but I’m generally doing some sort of variation of the basic footwork a majority of the time. I will regularly add and subtract from my footwork to fit my interpretation of the music. I will also regularly look to make sounds, either through stomping, snapping or clapping, while I dance as well. I find these two qualities were the main things that came from listening to swing music outside of just social dancing.
Kyle: One of the reasons I like listening to swing music outside of social dances is because I like finding music to DJ and to dance to later. I also listen to swing jazz because I love how different each band can sound. I love that there are so many versions of songs that I think are awesome and they each sound so different. I enjoy listening to swing music and thinking about how I would be dancing. I think that listening to this music so much has impacted my dancing significantly. My dancing is really focused on the music I’m dancing to. One of my favorite ways to dance is to try to look like a rhythm I’m hearing or try to communicate my to my partner what I’m hearing and to also try to listen to what they are dancing to as well. I think that listening to swing jazz so frequently has allowed me to dance the way I like to better.
Abby: Listening to music outside of dancing changed what I valued in dancing. I stopped worrying about thinking and focused entirely on listening. This had the biggest impact on my solo dancing and creativity. I don’t worry about what moves I am going to do and instead imagine I am using my body to translate what I can hear in the music. If I lose focus on the music it is clear in my dancing so I am never afraid to slow down and step back to a basic pulse while I listen. I took a lesson at Lindy Focus where Jen Hodge played the bass for us and I realized how much was happening with just that single rhythm instrument. I often like to listen and dance to just one instrument for as long as I can until another one forces my attention. At dances, I really appreciate the music that is being made so I think it is important to interact with the music and show that it isn’t in the background, especially when playing to live bands. It is also way more fun this way. I have also gotten to become friends with a lot of talented musicians, which comes with some cool perks.
Lauren: Listening to music more outside of dance has made dancing soooo much more fun and intricate. I appreciate the music and artistry in the music so much more, and am able to make so much more happen in the dance being familiar with the music. It’s also fun to see how each individual artist contributes in unique ways, and how completely different songs can be connected in style or in form just because of the artists they had playing on those tracks. Listening and becoming familiar with the structure of the music has also made the flow of my dancing easier. When you know when the hits or breaks are coming, you can do cooler stuff in your dancing with better timing, and it makes your dance feel even closer/more connected to the music.
You can follow Kyle, Nii Attoh, and Abby on Spotify to see what they are listening to and what their latest DJ set includes! Click on their names to be taken to their profiles.
How do you find new music? How has listening to music as a hobby outside of social dances brightened your life?
*You can learn more about the history of recording music here to understand why older music may sound crunchy or less clear.