Swing & Blues Music - Lots of useful information from the experts

 

Music for Blues and West Coast Swing

 

John Sweeney:

There are lots of clubs running sessions, either individual dances or second rooms at Modern Jive freestyles or weekend events, for dancers who want something a little different in the music.

 

A few years ago these tended to be "Swing Rooms".  These days there is much more emphasis on Blues, West Coast Swing and music that covers a wide range of slower music – Latin, Tango, R'n'B, etc. – for chilling out.

 

Having been to some events where the music didn't really match the advertised description, I realised that there may be confusion about some of the words.  There is a big difference between Blues Music, which is a very wide range of music, and music for Blues Dancing, which needs to be at the speed the dancers are expecting and provide the interpretive opportunities that Blues Dancers crave.

 

There is even more opportunity for confusion about Swing.  Not only does the Swing Music genre cover a very wide range, but Swing Dancing means different things to different people.  I have been to a Swing Club in California where the music was mostly between 90 and 130 bpm and all the dancers were doing West Coast Swing.  I have been to a Swing Club in Montreal where the music was mostly between 190 and 240 bpm and all the dancers were doing Lindy Hop (a couple of Lindy Hoppers from Boston complained (quite rightly I believe) that the music was too fast!).

 

Both clubs were just advertised the same way - as a "Swing Club".

 

So what should you expect when you go to a second room at a Modern Jive event which is advertising "Swing & Blues"?  Do they mean West Coast (slow) or Lindy (Fast)?  Do they mean Blues Music?  Or music that is suitable for Blues Dancing?

 

The Modern Jive room will probably be playing mostly between 120 and 150 bpm, with occasional slightly slower stuff (down to 110 bpm), and some much faster stuff (maybe as high as 190 pm).

 

My assumption has been that when the room description mentions Blues, WCS, Tango, chill-out or similar words, then the music in the second room will be slower than the music in the Modern Jive room.  Sadly not all DJs seem to agree – I have been to numerous events where some of the music has been much too fast and the DJ has cleared the floor – obviously I was not the only person who was expecting slower music!

 

With the growth in West Coast Swing and Blues in the UK, I thought it might be a good idea to check with some of the experts.  I asked them what advice they would give to a DJ who needs to play for such as session.  You will find their ideas below.  I hope you find them useful.

 

You will note that one of the responses does say that he plays the occasional track at 170bpm to 180bpm for a Blues session.  I am not sure that UK Blues dancers are quite ready for that.  The other point to consider is whether there is another room playing fast music anyway – if there is then you may want to stick with the slower stuff.  If you play a track at 180bpm and the floor fills with Lindy Hoppers then obviously you should play for them as well, but if all the Blues and WCS dancers sit down, and the Lindy Hoppers don't materialise, then maybe you should leave the fast music for the other room!

 

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BLUES

 

Nigel Anderson (http://www.jumpnjive.co.uk/)

Blues (musical structure) has a traditional structure that was developed over 100 years ago and has been used as a basis for about 50% of all contemporary music since then. The introduction of the electric guitar in the 1950's made it particularly popular and when you mention Blues to most people they think of TJ Hooker et al which was also known as R&B.

 

However when we come to "Blues" dancing I personally have a very different outlook than this. The standard R&B tracks (used predominantly for West Coast Swing in the USA) are generally too fast and uninspiring to dance our kind of Blues to and I prefer more modern slow swing and character music.

 

I don't think the BPM is important when deciding what is "Blues" dance music, as I think it is the style and not the speed that is important.

 

Generally it tends to be between 80 - 130 bpm although you can go either side of these parameters.

 

For instance Peggy Lee's "Fever" is definitely Blues but is 140bpm; Fleetwood Mac's "Need Your Love So Bad" is around 65 bpm and has a great driving rhythm.

 

Most dancers struggle with anything below 85 however and Jivers with less than a years experience will find music below 110bpm a bit too much (unless of course they've done a Blues workshop and been given some ideas of what to do).

 

Early in the evening I tend to try to stay above 95bpm and pick tracks that are well known on the Jive circuit (no upper limit to speed) and it's not until the last hour of the dance that I play music that is slower.

 

I also try to mix up the styles so there is a mixture of swing / modern / R&B / latin etc so the feel of the room doesn't become too repetitive.

 

Character music, that everyone knows, always goes down well, especially if you have a good arrangement ... e.g. Pink Panther, Hey Big Spender, etc.

 

Modern Chart stuff (RnB), although lending itself to WCS (about 100bpm), has a very dull musical structure and I would always avoid this at a true Blues evening, as there is so much other fantastic music out there. However I would presume that younger dancers would like it (just showing my age).

 

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Charlie Fuller (http://www.stlfusion.com/charlie_fuller.shtml & http://www.blues-dance.com)

My DJing has changed a lot over the years, and has been influenced by our best blues DJs in the States.  Most of us started off a lot farther from the roots than we are now, starting from where groovy jazzy bluesy lindy music left off and going from there to the slower tempos and more "official" styles of blues.

 

The real drawback to that way of approaching it was that

  1. everyone started thinking that blues dance was always slow
  2. you could play anything that was slow and call it blues and call dancing to it blues dance
  3. a lot of people played wacky stuff that they couldn't play for lindyhop, and thought they could for blues (but they really shouldn't have).

 

Personally, the tempos I DJ at have gone up quite a bit when I DJ at a blues event.  I firmly believe that you should keep a crowd awake by not staying in the sub 80bpm range more than one or two songs in a row.  My average (even past 4am) will be from 100-120 bpm, with songs as fast as 170 or 180bpm mixed in.  I have seen far too many blues DJs who play wayyyy to much slow music and turn people off or asleep with the lack of variety.

 

I am trying to learn from the excellent examples of Steven Watkins and Kelly Porter who have both done an amazing job of mixing in a lot of older blues and many different styles and tempos and making a truly personal flavour that pays respects to the roots of the music in so many ways.  The hardest thing for most blues DJs is to find older blues music that is inspiring to dance to, and those two do it without fail.  Some DJs will play old blues because it is old, without any other consideration to sound quality, or rhythm, or arrangement, and ultimately fail to move the crowd.  To be able to mix such a wide variety of genres well and pay respects to so many eras and styles is an amazing thing, and is exactly why I would dance to their sets before anyone else's.

 

The DJs I would say do the blues less well will tend to get stuck in a genre or sound (myself included), and not have the strengths or collection or knowledge to break out of it and end up with a much narrower presentation that doesn't allow the dancers to express as full a range of emotions and styles of dance.  As we have learned and taught more vintage forms of blues dance, this wider range of music being played is critical to my ability to enjoy a night.  If I get music that inspires me to do some savoy ballrooming, some mooche, some grind, some shuffle blues, and other styles of dance, I have so much more fun dancing than if I get modern electric guitar blues all night with the same types of rhythms that inspire me to do the same types of movement.

 

As far as recommendations of certain artists or songs, I'd check out http://www.bluespulse.com http://www.bluesdance.info and http://www.yehoodi.com; http://www.swingdjs.com and search for blues music threads…there are a lot of great suggestions out there.  I check out a lot of music from the library based on random searches and recommendations, and buy the CDs I like.

 

I come across a lot of great stuff just by following the discussions and digging into the artists I like and who they played with.

 

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Daniel Sandars (http://www.bluesdance.org.uk/)

My best resource for a discussion of music for Blues dancing and playlists is

http://www.bluesdance.info - you will need to register to view the music forum.

 

Generally 60-120 Beats per min. The Yanks can go down to half that again.

 

Pick a back bone of slow smooth 'familiar' Modern Jive of 120-140 BPM and then develop that into the slower stuff, probably taking more risks with the slow stuff as the night develops, but be ready to come up to the comfort zone if your audience is very novice with Blues and/or very into the bouncy side of MJ.

 

Generally the music is about a feeling that is almost like flowing treacle, which begs for a sensual, sullen, sleepy or even weary dance.  However, Blues is full of contradictions and the experienced dancers can work far more into it.

 

I think Peter Phillips has often said that you find more Blues dancing music in the record stores under the smooth jazz/ swing headings than under Blues which can blur into Folk and Ethnic.

 

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WEST COAST SWING

 

Robert Cordoba (http://www.robertdeborah.com/)

Always try to play a mix of music, i.e. different styles, Blues, Contemporary, Jazz, R&B, etc.  Try to inspire the dancers not challenge them.  A song that makes you tap your toes or snap your fingers makes you want to dance.  Remember that you will not be able to please everyone so don't try. Try to keep your songs between 3 & 4 minutes.  That way no one gets caught with the dancer from hell for very long.  Also for every 30 seconds you clip from one song means you can add another song about every 6.  That means more songs = more variety in a night.

 

For a WCS social dance evening I would normally play in the 90 bpm – 130bpm range early in the evening.  Later in the evening or what we call "Late night" I would slow it down to 90bpm – 120bpm.

 

What to avoid? Requests where I have never heard the song, like when someone brings you a CD and says it's great.  If you can't listen to it ahead of time it's not worth the risk of killing the energy of the dance floor.  Some requests might be good for listening too but not dancing to.  Also, if you have a packed floor, don't play a request for a tango or a waltz, etc. for only one or two couples to dance to. 

 

Always watch your dance floor see how the people react to certain songs.  Never experiment with too many new songs in one night or, if you want to, then save them for late night near the end of the dance.

 

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Steve Neeren (http://www.exploredance.com/wcs041504.php)

Usually I play within range of 90-116bpm.  I don't play music based on bpm but rather on the feel of the crowd I'm playing for.  I try to create a groove or mood so that the songs played have some relation to each other.  I've been known to actually stop a song less than a minute in when I see people aren't dancing to it.  I'll play music faster or slower (outside my normal range). 

 

Last year at Bognor, most of the Jive people found my music too slow so I had to mix in faster music to satisfy them.

 

When I started WCS about 11 years ago, the median tempo was between 120-126 BPM.  It's slowed down quite a bit which I believe is a result of a lot more contemporary music being played now.  The change started to happen around 1998 as I recall. 

 

I play a wide range of music; I pretty much gauge what I'm playing based on the crowd.  For example, I probably wouldn't play a lot of Hip-Hop/Rap for a 40-60

crowd, etc.  My best advice as to what to play: play what you like to dance to; that's basically what I do.  If you don't like it, chances are most of the people there won't either.   I also play different sets based on the time I'm playing (Late Night as opposed to early in the evening.)  

 

I also try to play music that most other DJ's aren't playing.  I get sick and tired of hearing the same songs all the time. They get played out too quickly (Don't Cha-Pussycat Dolls).  One of the biggest compliments I get as a DJ is for fellow DJs to come up to me at an event asking me what I just played. 

 

There's so much great music out there; spend some time exploring.  You'll come up with some gems. 

 

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Paul Booth (http://www.songscout.net/)

I play 88 to 138 bpm range, but my dancers are advanced WCS dancers. For a crowd that is newer to the dance 100 to 120 is more appropriate. Yep – 110 is the easiest.

 

It is most fun to dance to songs that vary in tempo. Start with a 105, 109, 113, 117 120, then drop to 100. This gives a pulse to the energy in the room. Repeat this cycle throughout the dance.

 

The slowest song I play is "Everyday I Have The Blues" by Pinetop Perkins at 81 bpm. The fastest is "Harder to Breath" by Maroon 5 at 150 bpm.

 

3/4 time is impossible – one must dance waltz to 3/4 time. All swing is 4/4 time.

 

One of the advantages of WCS is that we can dance to so many genres of music. Keep a variety of genres in your playlist. Cut, edit, or cue past long intros. Give the dancers an 8 second fade on the end of every song. Do not have silence between songs. Do not mix songs – end one, then immediately start the next.

 

Advice:

a) For beginners pick songs that have a clear down-up beat on every two beats of music. Some songs only have a down beat on 1 & 5, some only on 1.

 

b) Someone will always complain. Don’t change your DJing till you get multiple comments that lead you to a general conclusion.

 

c) Evaluate songs before playing them. Only play masterpieces – there are lots of them.

 

The Paul Booth 6-way test for a great WCS song:

 

            1) Good bass line on 1,3,5,7

 

            2) Clear backbeat on 2.4.6.8

 

            3) Song should have rhythmic diversity

 

            4) Beat should swing – not straight time

 

            5) Positive message – “My baby’s so fine.”

 

            6) Dance to it – should be fun.

  

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