Monday, April 14, 2014

Why you gotta play all that old stuff?

In the swing dance scene lately, I've heard a lot of conflict between people who want to expand the variety of music at dances versus those people who favor some sense of authenticity.

I'll admit that I'm on the authenticity side... but at the same time, I don't think we should be too dogmatic about it, because nothing we can do will ever be truly authentic.  (That's a discussion for another day.)  Nonetheless, I favor old recordings, or new recordings that are reminiscent of old recordings, particularly from current-day New Orleans bands.  Why?  Well, it actually doesn't have a whole lot to do with any idea of authenticity.  It's because I think it's the best music.

I find that the music that most makes me want to dance is music recorded before World War II There are very few players today, and even fewer bands, who are as good as the old bands.  That's just a fact.  If you want the best chance of finding a great recording, you should search through the old stuff.  Why is this?  There are many subtle qualities that I could point out in these recordings, and many reasons why those qualities might be present, but I think the real difference comes down to three major reasons.

First, these recordings are the sound of innovation and creativity, and they capture the excitement of the creative act.  It's very hard to bring the same feeling to something which is essentially an act of recreation.

Second, the players on these recordings were immersed in this music.  They weren't working in an obscure specialty, which is what swing is today.  They were working in the dominant idiom of their time, surrounded by it all the time.  Additionally, dancing was one of the most popular social activities.  Thus, the music was not primarily music for listening.  There were certainly groups that played a sophisticated music for listening, but the work of a musician in those days was mostly to play for dancers.  This is important.  Dances and music evolved together, to fit each other.  Perhaps more importantly, musicians' paychecks depended on making dancers happy.  The most successful musicians were the ones who excited people to dance.  This is a situation which simply does not exist any more, and, as a result, modern re-creations of swing music and hot jazz do not have the same feel.

Another thing that we can barely imagine today is how much the musicians of previous generations played.  Read about the jazz and swing era, and you will come across many accounts of endless days and nights of rehearsing, recording, performing, and jamming.  It wasn't only the alcohol that resulted in so many musicians dying young.  In his book The Swing Era, Gunther Schuller says of Bunny Berigan that  "During most of a six- to eight-month period, calculations indicate, Bunny's trumpet was pointed at either a microphone or a live audience for at least seventy hours per week."

No one plays this much today.  But jazz bands in New Orleans play almost every day, often for many hours.  I believe this is one simple reason that there is better music coming from New Orleans than almost anywhere else.  Also, in New Orleans, music is still primarily social.  Bands play mainly for tips, and the band that gets people moving is the band that makes a living.  I think this accounts for the fact that most of the new recordings that I find as exciting as the old ones are from New Orleans bands.  I think there is no way to learn the style of playing that will really make dancers want to move, other than playing for dancers.  Possibly the only place where this environment still exists to some degree is New Orleans.

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This happens (almost) every Sunday in New Orleans.  You can spend hours following the band around, running into friends and neighbors, and catching up on the neighborhood news.  This, in my opinion, is the only example of a living tradition of swinging, social jazz for dancing.

Another of many possible examples from New Orleans.  This band is not playing for dancers, but they are playing for dancing and socializing.

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