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Satin dolls & The Great Jazz Conspiracy

Yesterday, I sat & supervised a room in the University's Hall Building, one that I'd reserved on the off-chance that anyone needed some practice time to test their swinging skills. I pushed the profs' desk against the wall, and sat scribbling notes on my research into female circumcision while Oscar Peterson's album, "A Night in Vienna", played off the boom-box. Oscar Peterson is not the sort of musician you might normally expect a dancer to be listening to; he's too new, too contemporary, and, for some people, too alive - in the physiological sense - to be worthwhile. What makes it particularly embarrassing is the fact that Peterson was born & raised on the Island.

Photo of Oscar Peterson

An odd thing about the swing community in Montreal is how deeply seperated it is from the jazz scene. Jazz musicians that are brought in to play the odd gig are expected to meet a demand for music that was written in the 1930's. They are not part of the swing community, and neither are dancers part of the jazz scene; they are two different worlds, threaded together by only the flimsiest of historical happenstance.

The focus from dancers on pre-1950s recordings is particular in its wrongheadedness. The myth that contemporary jazz is undanceable - and, conversely, that danceable music is not worth the listening time of serious jazz afficiandos - is made comedic when you listen to Peterson play his arrangement of Duke Ellington's "Satin Doll". The song, co-written by Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, & Johnny Mercer is one of the deceptively simple sorts that you often find among the jazz standards; a few bars of tickled-ivory, strung together in a repeating pattern with a steady rhythm. Peterson's variation is danceable, it's subtleties are fine on the ear, and he just manages to evoke the mild impression that Ellington had a noteable fling with Mary-Jane shortly before he composed the tune - it's all ups & downs of langour along an edge of junkie's paranoia.

Now, that's the sort of thing you don't hear too much of in the swing scene. Neither are you likely to hear anything by Thelonius Monk, whom I've also found has composed tunes that are perfectly danceable, albeit challenging, like "Japanese Folksong".

These are the types of things you're not likely to hear or see if you live in the swing-bubble, or segregate yourself to the jazz scene. Thus, I announce The Great Jazz Conspiracy. Call it an evolutionary coup against the established patterns, but this old, two-headed goat is getting put down. Current membership is four; buy your tickets now!


( 15 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 16th, 2006 02:36 am (UTC)
I've been bitching about that ever since I got involved with swing dancing ;)

If history hadn't attached swing dancing and jazz by the hip, there'd be no connection. The average swing dancer today is more in love with the concept of jazz than jazz itself.

Swing started as a street dance. It came from the ghetto. It was danced by a poor, uneducated, and oppressed minority. A minority which did not have the money to take dance classes. If dance schools did teach swing (and most dance teachers at the time looked down on it, with trademark racism), it was the cheap knock off east-coast variety.

Now? Pah. Now it's mostly danced by affluent, middle upper class white people with strong academic backgrounds. These middle-crust brats wine when they have to pay $15 to see a live jazz band, but gleefully spend hundreds (and sometimes thousands!) of dollars on workshops, dance classes, and bootcamps.

One of the huge problems with the swing revival is that it the new breed of swing dancers come from a cultural background that doesn't know how to appreciate anything that isn't rigidly structured. For them, swing dancing is all about taking classes and dancing to CDs.

If you really want to make swing kick ass again - you have to do it outside a schooling context.

- m.
Jan. 18th, 2006 02:27 am (UTC)
If you really want to make swing kick ass again - you have to do it outside a schooling context.

The environment in Montreal hasn't yet reached a state yet that will allow for the on-the-floor learning that was the norm at the on-set of lindy-hop. Historically, the lindy-hop only developed in the context of the jazz explosion (not that dancers were often appreciated by the musicians, who, at least at first, considered them a nuisance), and the jazz explosion was created by artists in the context of a demand for live shows by bar or club owners.

Since then, the jazz & swing scene has been pushed-back by the forces of rock'n'roll, combined somewhat with an assault on "old" jazz among musicians, who reacted against the artificial restrictions on the style that came with sterilization for mass-adoption. And thus were begat bebop, hard bop, modal jazz, acid jazz, etcetera; overall, the drive for many years was away from set arrangments, which had the effect of often removing the steady rythms needed for dancing.

And so, a new generation of those interested in dancing developed & learnt in the context of rock'n'roll. Which of course was eventually sterilized for mass-adoption. :-)

In the here & now, we've seen something of a revival of classical ideals of jazz (not necessarily classic styles), and something of a resurrection of blues music. Thus, we once again have an environment that is fecund for the development of ancillary, non-musical art-styles. The problem is that, unlike in previous generations, jazz and blues both exist in one niche among many. They compete with r'n'r, which compete with latin-music, which compete with hip-hop, which competes with house music...

The environment is thus much more competitive, and will remain so for the forseeable future. The question becomes, what does jazz or blues have to offer that make them a better choice for the hearts & minds of Montrealers? What jazz does have is a rich history, and deep ties to related arts to draw upon, but which are not exploited by the businesses in Montreal - they rather tend to overspecialize as jazz longes, or dance halls, and create an environment that leaves little room for novelty. And, of course, the good 'old blues just don't get any respect from anyone. :-)

So, I suppose making anything "kick ass" again will essentially require not waiting for established businesses to take any kind of lead. So be it!
Jan. 18th, 2006 05:47 am (UTC)
The environment in Montreal hasn't yet reached a state yet that will allow for the on-the-floor learning that was the norm at the on-set of lindy-hop.

At the on-set of the swing revival in the mid 90s, most of the swing dancers were learning on the floor - not in class. As the swing fad petered out, and the venues died, the schools took over and they're what's maintaining swing dancing.

All it takes to get people to learn on the floor is a good party. If you throw a good party, people will dance. If that party has awesome music, they'll dance even more.

That's all Montreal needs - really, really good parties :P

Jan. 18th, 2006 06:50 pm (UTC)
That's all Montreal needs - really, really good parties :P

...With larger venues, linkages to related scenes (jazz & blues artists especially), and sideline entertainment (drinks & live music).

One thing that on-the-floor learning really requires is physical space - especially for lindy. That's one thing that the old "Swing Ring" had over the current joints. It's also one of the reasons why I thought relocating "Studio88" to Cremazie was a bad choice - it's now a smaller joint, in a less convienient location.
Jan. 22nd, 2006 04:11 pm (UTC)
I'm really surprised that you guys (or maybe just Marc?) give preference to learning on the floor as opposed to in classes. I agree %100 that no dancer ever got good at social dancing ONLY in the classroom, but I think classes are necessary for most people too. Otherwise, nobody tells you what it feels like to have someone yank you through a spin, or to wait for a lead before running into the next movement. Fine, people can communicate that stuff on the floor too, but it makes the party a whole lot more serious. For some people, fine, but the majority I would say need a lindy class or two (or three) before being comfy on the dance floor.
Jan. 22nd, 2006 07:24 pm (UTC)
For my part, I prefer variation over revolution when it comes to the learning process. I think that an expectation has been created among people coming into the scene that they have to learn in a certain way, and that the way is the large classroom environment.

For some, the large classroom works; they tend to be the people who already have strong body awareness through other forms of dancing, or through martial arts; they have no trouble figuring things out. For most people, the large classroom is only "okay" - and I definitely fit into that category at the time that I started. For people of my sort, it would have been better (and less expensive) to have taken a few hours of semi-private courses with a mentor, and then complemented that with free-form practices, rather than classes. Otherwise, you need to have the good-sense (as I did, fortunately) to take the available classes several times over to achieve the same level of awareness.

The irony then is that the people who are most likely to do well in a large classroom are the ones who need the least instruction. Those female friends of mine whom have a dance background have tended to complete one session of classes, and then moved on. Those without such a background have stuck with it for much longer to be able to pick things up; they would have been better off being mentored by a single, experienced dancer, instead of being subjected to alot of inexperienced arm-pulling. As for the guys, they learn what not to do much faster when their partner can tell them, with confidence, to "knock it off!".

So, some people can learn quickly through on-the-floor experience. Others can learn expediently through a few weeks in a large classroom. Others, such as myself, would save themselves a whole lot of headache through private mentoring (by either taking private lessons, or dating an experienced dancer), and through free-form practicing with others. I strongly disagree with having that majority of people simply take two or three sessions of classes; too many leads (*cough*, guys) come out knowing next to nothing about body awareness - particularly where their partners' bodies are involved. They end-up learning through experience, not classes.
Jan. 16th, 2006 03:53 am (UTC)
I don't know if I completely agree. I find it disheartening that the scene in general is not so keen on supporting local jazz musicians, but I do think it's fine that the dance has evolved and changed into something more "academic". Fine, it's not that for everyone. Sometimes I just want to blow off steam and I couldn't care less about being musical. Really, it's only been once that I felt like I was reeeeally connecting to the music, and it was very neat. Not rigidly structured at all though. I think this is what many people are often striving for when they spend all that money on workshops.

It's kind of a bummer too that the scene is detached from the local jazz scene (to an extent). But really, the dance hasn't evolved with the music in such a way that you can dance to a lot of the jazz appearing these days. Some yes, and I do think dancers are open to that, but lots no as well (and lots of people are inspired by different music also). But then I also think it's fine that the dance is not always about the music, or even about the dance a lot of the time. One of the most wonderful things about Cat's Corner is how it is a safe place for people to get comfortable meeting new people. That's pretty special, and I wouldn't scoff for a second at anyone who told me that that is why they love to dance.
Jan. 18th, 2006 01:51 am (UTC)
I don't know if I completely agree. I find it disheartening that the scene in general is not so keen on supporting local jazz musicians, but I do think it's fine that the dance has evolved and changed into something more "academic".

Hmmmm, well, I did consider a longer, more detailed argument, but I'll provide this instead:

Have either the jazz, blues, or swing-dance scenes in Montreal reached the ideal of perfection? If they have not - and I don't believe they have come even close - then that suggests that they could be a better. The fact that people within the swing-dance scene have increasingly been voicing dissatisfaction with it (or else simply "voting with their feet") also does not speak well of its health. I'm personally planning on initiating different approaches, because I'm aware that there is not much will to risk change among the established groups on the Island ("Cat's Corner", "Studio88", "SwingExpress", "Arthur Murray's").

There is no pressing reason to not to have tried different things, beyond simple conservativism - which runs counter to the very spirit of the thing that is being protected from change. Things could be a lot better; a number of people, including myself, just don't expect anyone else to ever get around to making genuine improvements. So, we're just going to do it for ourselves, in our own ways.
Jan. 18th, 2006 06:54 am (UTC)
Hell, I just plan on throwing some really awesome parties.

I've also got that website in the pipeline. I should actually start working on it, now that I've got some freetime.

The swing schools NEED to change. If they refuse to, it will be at their own peril. I saw several things go down behind the scenes that left a really sour taste in my mouth. I think all the studios have their hearts in the right place, but they both have unhealthy cultures that will catch up with them in due time.

In any case, neither schools have been providing Montreal with the kind of swing parties my friends would attend - and this will not change. Ultimately, that is the only beef which concerns me.

I love the music, I love the potential it holds, and I love the dance; Lindy Hop as an idea, it blows me away. I want to see Lindy Hop expressed the way it was meant to be. If that happened, it would make for the kind of parties my friends can get excited about. Last year? I brought a girl to a swing party at McGill, and her flatmate made fun of her for it. Right now, Lindy Hop isn't exciting - it's an excuse for people to make fun of you.

I want that to change.
Jan. 18th, 2006 06:37 pm (UTC)
Hell, I just plan on throwing some really awesome parties.

Damn it man, you're giving away the entire Conspiracy! Where's the ether when you need it...
Jan. 22nd, 2006 04:21 pm (UTC)
I don't know guys, maybe I'm a lindy snob, but crazy [swing] dancing with people that can't lead doesn't really interest me, even if both parties are really into the music.* A lot of the joy is in the interaction between dancers, as well as between the dancers and the music.

It would, however, be super hot to find a bunch of darkish fun people who were interested in learning the dance and taking it new places. But I think they would be harder to find than you think - learning to dance takes work, and lots of people want to go in and throw themselves (and their partner) around without first understanding the fundamentals.

*Anyone working to improve their dance doesn't count here. I'm moreso referring to the people above. cockiness turns me off fast.
Jan. 22nd, 2006 07:57 pm (UTC)
I don't believe that most people would have the... intestinal fortitude to learn purely through on-the-floor experience. Guys in particular, in this culture, would not be up for it.

That said, I think that our dance-schools are in the process of rediscovering all of the problems of the public-school system; achieving better "economies-of-scale" by increasing the number of students for each teacher. At the moment, the trend is for a 12:2 ratio or greater (one-hour, Friday-night classes notwithstanding). If lindy were a lecture class in sociology, those would be great numbers. For an inherently and strongly interactive learning process, those numbers are terrible for the students.

Let's put it another way: the most productive classes I've ever involved in were those in which there weren't a sufficient number of leads signed-up. In those cases, a bunch of experienced fellows were asked to stand-in. As a result, there were effectively five or six teachers/mentors in the room, rather than two, and the ratio was closer to 2:1. The follows learnt much faster, and they were much more able to communicate problems to the new leads, because they had a much better idea of what the dance should feel like. Consequently, they were all more confident when they joined in on The Real Thing, and became much more involved.
Jan. 18th, 2006 06:32 am (UTC)
In 2004, I told my mom that I was learning the Charleston in one of my dance classes.

When she heard that, she started dancing the charleston right in front of me. It blew me away. It was authentic Charleston; she had learnt it in the local dance halls during the heydays of rock & roll. She had been a teenage jitterbug. And she didn't learn her moves in dance school.

She might of been rusty, but her dancing was amazing. I realized then and there that there exists a distinct different quality between those who learnt on the floor, and those who've learnt in class.

The people who learn in class are much more mechanical, those who learn on the floor are not. Creativity, passion, and curiosity are severely limited in overly structured environments.

I won't deny that Cat's Corner is a very warm place that people find non-threatening. Unfortunately, like most schools, it is not an extremely passionate environment. It feels more like a birthday party for a 12 year old girl (harmless) than a venue for passionate adults (dangerous).

Modern swing dancers would not fit in at the old school dance halls of the 30s, 40s, and 50s. They would be petrified ... Terrified with what they saw. I often feel that today's swing dancers do not respect the history of the dance they practice. They have declawed it, neutered it, cut it's balls off, taken out all the spice and sex and dirt and grime and left us with the Pillsbury Doughboy.

I don't mean to rip into what swing dancers are doing; they are performing a valuable service by keeping a rough version of the dance alive. And obviously, they love what they're doing. Unfortunately, the people doing it are boring, safe, law abiding citizens who draw well within the lines. Without the passion and rule breaking that made the dance so popular in the first place, lindy hop is on life support.

I just want to be able to go to a swing party that is as off the wall and exciting as the parties which existed yesteryear. A place where there is booze, drugs, passionate musicians, and crazy dancers. Swing dancing isn't supposed to be "nice". The dance no longer has any teeth. I want teeth!

P.S - Please don't hate me ;)
Feb. 10th, 2006 04:59 am (UTC)
Glad to have found that swing scene website. Thanks! I love vintage jazz, big band, rockabilly and swing music. If you hear of any events of interest taking place, I'd love if you could post it in montreal!
Feb. 11th, 2006 08:22 pm (UTC)
Swinginmontreal.com has a mailing-list that you might like; people tend to announce their events there. There are also several university groups that do their own thing, and which you might be interested in checking out if you're a student.
( 15 comments — Leave a comment )

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