AIR Pt. 5: Music makes the people come together . . .

This is part of a paper I wrote entitled “Artistry In Rhythm: Dialogue Through Dance in the Lindy Hop community.”  Previous and future posts can be found by searching my blog for the category “Artistry In Rhythm”

As noted previously, the choice of the song “Love Me or Leave Me” by the Moochers was a drastic departure from the kind of music that was typically used for routines and social dancing at the time.   In the three years after the Minnie’s Moochers’ routine, the community (with some exceptions) embraced slower, post WWII swinging jazz.  Posting on a thread on SwingTalk.com noted Lindy Hop DJ Jessie Miner, described it in this manner:

“As for what might be lumped under this “groove” blanket, the recordings are usually from the 1950s and beyond, the rhythms tend to often feel laid-back/behind the beat, lacking the prominent and driving 4/4 bass drum of earlier Swing music and often favoring the cymbals and snare, the tempos on average are in the slower range (120-160 BPM), the styles are usually quite rooted in jazz and/or blues. Beyond that, some of the more [recognizable] artists would be Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Oscar Peterson, Gene Harris, Ella Fitzgerald, Joe Williams, Ernestine Anderson, Barbara Morrison, Jimmy Witherspoon, Lou Rawls, Ray Bryant, Junior Mance, Buster Smith, etc… .”[1]

To understand the significance of the spread of this music, I’ll describe briefly how the music has affected the dance historically, and what the implications were of music choices in the modern era.

Pre-swing era jazz typically has a tuba as part of the rhythm section in most bands of the era.  The tuba, in counter point to the banjo, helps to give the music that “ONE, two, THREE, four” punch, which makes it great for Charleston as the emphasis of the beat coincides with the kicks in the Charleston basic.

The first recorded instance of Lindy Hop in the 1929 film “After Seben.”

The key development that rocketed jazz into popularity was the move from the two beat rhythm to the four beat rhythm, otherwise known as the “four to the floor” sound. The tuba is replaced by an upright bass and the rest of the rhythm section, consisting typically of drums, a guitar (replacing the banjo), and a piano, are all placing equal emphasis on all the beats.  “ONE, TWO, THREE, FOUR.”  It’s a steady pulse that induces a bounce in your step, much smoother than the choppier two beat sound.  This rhythm shaped many dances like Lindy Hop, Balboa, Collegiate Shag, etc where dancers would be bouncing/pulsing in time to the 4/4 rhythm.

Shaorty George and Big Bea about eight years after the last clip.

Count Basie’s drummer, Jo Jones, is often credited for shifting the way drummers kept time in the 1930’s.  Before, they used to rely primarily on the bass drum to keep rhythm, producing a “BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM.”  Jones changed that by using the hi-hat cymbal instead, producing a lighter sound.   Frankie Manning liked to talk about how this new sound blew the dancers away.  It blew musicians away too, and many drummers started to follow suit.

You can hear a sample of his style in the second half of this clip.

In the first part of this clip, you can hear Jones’ legacy combined with other musical developments with the emergence of bop in the 40’s in post World War II jazz.  Rather than the whole rhythm section working together to produce that “four to the floor” sound, everyone started doing their own thing, making the rhythm less pronounced.  The result was the softly, lilting “one, TWO, three, FOUR” rhythm.

Charleston doesn’t feel quite right because now you’re kicking at nothing, regardless of the tempo.  It sort of feels like shooting an air ball or whiffing at that change up that drops off the table at the last second.  With the rhythm section becoming much more subtle, the instruments playing the melody become that much more prominent.

The other development in the forties is that everyone in the band, including the members of the rhythm section, now wanted to take extended solos and when even they were not soloing, they would to add their own embellishments to the rhythm as well as the melody.  That’s not to say that members of the rhythm section never did that sort of thing before the mid-40’s, but with the rhythm being much more subtle, the listener is able to focus more on such little flourishes.

Historically, around this time, Lindy Hop and other forms of partner dancing went into decline.  Although there were a number of social and economic factors, the change in music had a significant influence.

So went the direction of jazz, but popular music on the other hand continued to emphasize a stronger beat that became identified with Rhythm and Blues music and eventually Rock and Roll.

Jumping ahead, this is where the so called Neo-Swing bands in the 1990’s got their inspirations.  Many new Lindy Hoppers in the late 90’s danced to a mixture of this hit-you-over-the-head rock disguised as swing music, Frank Sinatra-esque, rat-pack crooner music, and some classic swing music.  The dancing was usually as big as the music if only to match the enthusiasm of the people re-discovering the dance, if not with the actual music itself.

The Flying Lindy Hoppers from California circa 1997

A jam at the 1998 American Lindy Hop Championships

Skipping again to the post 1999 ALHC period, with the increased popularity of this later jazz dancers were expanding their abilities in terms of listening and responding to different parts of the music other than the rhythm, but they were also regressing in others.

The the more modern music emphasized the melody over the rhythm which was also something that came over from West Coast Swing performances.  Lindy Hoppers changed their dancing to match the melody line at the expense of the rhythm.

Here’s an early peak at rising West Coast Swing stars around 2000, Jordan Frisbee and Tatiana Mollman.  They would go onto become the most influential dancers in that scene.

It’s also probable that the growing use of post WWII jazz also encouraged slower dancing because the laid back rhythm caused dancers to become more rooted to the ground whereas classic Swing era music with its 4/4 rhythm induced a steady bouncing pulse which is easier to maintain at higher tempos.  Regardless, since dancers favored slower songs of this later genre of jazz, dancers were losing the ability to dance comfortably at even mildly up tempo songs.  It was getting to the point where Charleston movements were dropping out of people’s dance vocabulary almost completely because the tempo and style of the music did not encourage it.


[1] “Groove Bashing”, discussion thread on SwingTalk.com posted by “Jesse” aka Jesse Miner on 3/25/03 at http://www.swingtalk.com/forums/index.php?showtopic=1671 last accessed July, 2007

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1 Comment

  1. David Truong said,

    July 25, 2010 at 10:05 pm

    Something I didn’t notice until reading your post is the similarity in which Shorty George (in clip 2) dances in comparison to Dean Collins. There are two reasons why this makes sense. First, as Big Bea is much larger than Shorty, Shorty must significantly pike his body to counter her momentum. Incidentally this causes the slotted swings outs. As Dean was of shorter stature, this would make the most sense for him as well. Secondly, Shorty was the most popular dancer at the time, who Dean would no doubt have imitated.


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