Lessons in Jazz Appreciation from Lindy Focus

This is the promised follow up to the A Word on Swing episode about the most recent Lindy Focus. It’s very late and I only completed it recently because I was reminded of it after writing a bit about current music in my last post suggesting bands for Frankie100. What follows is probably the least technical illustration of what makes classic jazz great for dancing as well a behind the scenes look at the behind the scenes video about Lindy Focus and A Word on Swing.

Check out the show notes for this episode on “A Word on Swing.”

Lindy Focus was by far the most fun I’ve had listening and dancing to live music. For comparison, I think that in terms of sheer numbers and talent, Frankie95 was a beast I don’t think any event should dare try to emulate ever again. 15 bands in five days including a number of featured musicians was an over the top spectacle that was harder to juggle logistically than necessary. Plus the conflicting styles of some of the bands didn’t always create a happy balance for many of the attendees.

In contrast I think that the approach to the live music at Lindy Focus presented a diversity of sounds and genres that still maintained a unity of vision that made for a more cohesively fun week of music. But you can see and hear more about that in the latest Episode of “A Word on Swing” above.

I listened to all the music I recorded at Lindy Focus on virtual repeat the entire time I edited together the show. I sort of wish I had recorded more, but it was a dance event after all . . .

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There is no spoon.

I did spend a lot of time analyzing almost every frame of every second of these videos. Combined with all the interviews I’ve been doing with musicians, I’ve learned quite a bit. It’s like auditing a graduate level class on music appreciation. I thought that I would share some of the interesting/awesome things I noticed.

All the bands sounded great, but The Swingin Six was probably my favorite out of the whole week. This is the band Lindy Focus Music Director, Ben Polcer, referred to during much of his interview. Hot stuff all night. Check out Meschiya Lake’s vocals in “Lindy Hop” where she takes the lyrics for a ride, showcasing her voice as a musical instrument. Also, I didn’t get video of it, but guitarist Russell Welch broke a string towards the end of the night. He tried to replace it before what ended up to be multiple encores, but had to do without it for at least two songs.

Still killed it.

Still killed it.

Russell Welch was also the centrepiece for Ben’s final band, The Hot Club of Lindy Focus. I only got a few songs of this band, but they’re my favorite videos out of the bunch. You can also catch some of the things that differentiate how musicians interact in a small group setting versus a big band.

What struck me the most in these particular clips is how even though Ben Polcer is technically the leader, he gives a lot of latitude to the other players. In this case, much deference is given to guitarist Russell Welch since hot club bands are modeled after the Django Reinhardt’s guitar centric bands from the 1930’s and 40’s.

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Although many of these musicians have played with each other before, all of Ben’s bands were custom made for Lindy Focus. Even then, there were some adjustments like Paul Cosentino who was asked to sit in on the Hot Club’s last set of the night. Paul once told me that while he enjoys big band work, he prefers the flexibility and dynamic of working in a small group. Even though he had never played with any of those musicians before, he slipped in as if he had been there the whole time.

This has become one of my favorite performances of After You’ve Gone. It features two choruses of two instruments trading off within the chorus (there might be a fancy music name for this, but I don’t know it). The first has the two master clarinetists Dennis Lichtman and Paul Cosentino weaving around each other. The next has Ben Polcer on piano playing counterpoint to lead guitarist Russell Welch. Notice towards the end when both clarinets are playing again, how Dennis Lichtman nods his head to Paul to take the break. Different bands have different ways of communicating across the bandstand. Some established bands have more specific signals for different things. Sometimes they do what bassist Jason Jurzak does at the end and just yell it out.

There’s more beautiful clarinet work in the opening of Louisiana Fairy Tale. This was the last song of the night, and an opportunity for dancer Todd Yannacone to sing. Everyone is loose now after playing for four nights as you can hear midway with the band and dancers sharing a joke. The end is another good example of how anyone in the band can end up taking the lead with everyone stepping out of the way for Russel Welch drawing out the end.

Having bands designed specifically for swing dancing makes a huge difference as you see in this footage of Glenn Crytzer & His Syncopators during a jam for “Undecided.” Notice how the band gets really quiet around the same time a few dancers attempt some soft shoe in the jam. That’s the sign of a band zeroed in on what’s happening on the floor. A lot of bands would not have noticed or not known what to do.  Here, Glenn doesn’t have to issue any instructions for this part. Everyone in the band just knows to do it.  Glenn seizes on this opportunity to arrange on the fly, improvising a few breaks featuring some minimalist Basie like piano licks by Solomon Douglas before bringing the band home for a raucous ending.

Also in there somewhere is crowd surfing. This is what a Swing dance  music crowd looks like.

The end of Bugle Call Rag is also a prime example of a dance band at work. After playing a hot jam, Solomon Douglas immediately gets his band ready for the next, even hotter song. Most other bands would stop to bask in the well deserved glory, but Solomon knows that he’s in the middle of a rare wave of excitement that you only have moments to capitalize on and keep going before it fades away forever.

The turnaround for White Heat is so quick that baritone saxophonist Patrick Breiner barely has enough time to get his instrument, while Paul spends the intro looking for the correct chart. Paul is a veteran dance band leader himself, and afterwards, in a Facebook comment thread, even suggested that he should have been docked some pay for reacting so slowly.

Notice the extra effort Solomon goes through to get a view of the jam. That’s the only way he knows how long to stretch the song. You can’t see it in the video, but he’s not helped by a very tall dancer that deliberately ignored him and Glenn telling him to sit down. Eventually Solomon gets a feel for the flow of the action, and he signals to the band that they’re going to stretch this one out at 1:56. You may wonder why the band didn’t do this for Bugle Call Rag, but some charts are not suitable for an extended number of solos. Some bands are more ready to do it for some songs more than others. It’ll be different for each band.

Considering that 7 out of the 11 people in this picture are bandleaders, the arrangements are helpful in keeping them busy from thoughts of taking over.

Considering that 7 out of the 11 people in this picture are bandleaders, the arrangements are helpful in keeping them busy from staging a coup.

Notice during the first couple of solos, how the brass section plays “underneath” Paul Cosentino on sax, and how the reed section does the same for trumpet player Gordon Au. After Solomon issues the order to go longer, they stop because that’s where the arrangement stops laying it out for them. Different sections riffing underneath instrumental solos subconsciously gives the audience something solid to “grab a hold of;” usually a short riff, as Ben Polcer put it in his interview. This is why casual listeners will get bored with solos in modern jazz performances or collective improvisation in Dixieland style music. People with little knowledge of music get lost under all the notes being thrown at them.

Arrangements also help facilitate communication on the bandstand because it can get very loud up there. Notice how Solomon uses gestures to communicate over the clapping and yelling of the audience and even over the volume of his own band. Trumpeter Ken McGee is so loud, he gets a serious reaction from Patrick right in front of him. While playing for Crytzer’s Blue Rhythm Band the following night, he had to stand several feet more behind the microphone dedicated for soloists because of how much volume he can generate with his instrument. The only time you can see any verbal instructions is when you hear Glenn relay Solomon’s instructions during Jason Jurzak’s bass solo. The rest of the band drops out so you can hear his instrument. Coincidentally, this is why you don’t hear many songs with long bass solos at dances. No one else is keeping time and no one is playing a recognizable melody.

Gordon solves this problem by using Jurzak as a mute.

Gordon reminds Jurzak who gets paid to solo.

See and hear how the volume of a dance event affects the now infamous “Three Headed Clarinet Monster” portion. Solomon signals to the reed section during Ken’s solo, but Evan Arntzen is the only one to catch it, which he relays to Patrick. He assumes Paul gets the instruction because Paul nods his head towards Solomon, but Paul only sees part of the signal, and assumes it’s for Evan to solo when he sees him stand up.  While Evan is playing, Patrick tries to get Paul’s attention, but Paul is looking at the chart.  Fortunately, Paul picks it up when there’s a slight delay after Evan stops.  Remember that musicians pay attention by listening, and as soon as Patrick starts playing, Paul immediately perks up and figures out what’s going on.

Guys, if I start playing both of these, then steal third and blitz the QB.

Guys, if I start playing both of these, then steal third and blitz the QB.

The rest of that sequence is a clinic on improvised jazz playing. All three clarinettists demonstrate very different approaches to their instruments. Patrick Breiner’s modern angularity is a contrast to Evan’s smooth flow and Paul’s powerfully rhythmic melodies. This whole sequence is a thing of beauty from start to finish beginning with the way Evan repeats trumpeter Ken McGee’s last lick to the improvised arranging at the end. This sequence isn’t written down anywhere, all three men are locked in on each other as the dance jam ends and 1600 eyes turn towards the bandstand.

Jurzak stand proudly, beaten but unbowed.

Jurzak stands proudly, beaten but unbowed.

There were 7 bands at Lindy Focus, but I only got footage of six of them, and only one song of Ben & his Slow Dragons. That band was meant to play slower, bluesier numbers, but oddly enough, I recorded one of their only up tempo songs. I had to use this as a surrogate example of New Orleans ensemble playing for the show. I didn’t have an opportunity to record anything by the NOLA Crew on the first night since I was just getting in that evening.

This song features Jason Jurzak on vocals, who played bass or sousaphone for every song of every set for every band that week. He was the only musician to play with all the bands for a total of 19 sets.

Rhythm is key common denominator between the music and the dance. Here are two videos where you can clearly hear it. Right after Evan Arntzen’s solo in Honeysuckle Rose, you can hear all four members of the rhythm section pounding away. In One O’clock Jump, my camera is on the other side of the band and the rhythm section isn’t as clearly heard, but that’s to our advantage because after the 2:30 mark you can hear the rhythm of the dancers on the floor. That steady pulse is probably the best illustration of why classic swing music played in this style best matches Lindy Hop.

I got stupidly lucky when Ben Polcer talked about the difference between New Orleans music and Swing music. He talked about repeated riffs in Swing, and then proceeded to scat along with one from One O’Clock Jump. That was one of the few Solomon Douglas Swingtet songs I recorded the previous night. Even luckier still, that he did it in time with the band. He either has a great memory or it was a happy accident.

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That these are great examples of classic Swing music (with a purposeful capital “S”) is no accident, especially when you consider that they are both based on Count Basie arrangements. I love the way the band cranks it up towards the end in both songs. That’s the other key element of Swing that’s hard to quantify: The “tain’t-what-you-do-it’s-the-way-that-you-do-it” element.  Taking something familiar and doing it differently. I was talking to a musician about that very same One O’Clock Jump riff after that show and he asked rhetorically: Why does no one get tired of it? Why have people done thousands of versions of it? “BECAUSE IT’S FUCKING GOOD!!”

I also caught a break with Diga Diga Doo which features the only three musicians Michael Gamble talked about in detail outside of Ben Polcer: Paul Cosentino, Lucian Cobb, and Benji Bohannon. The reason why we didn’t do more was because the conversation veered into a different direction and the interview wasn’t supposed to be about Lindy Focus in the first place.

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This is another good example of a big band arrangement in action. Notice how Patrick Breiner on baritone saxophone makes way for the rest of the band to riff rather than soloing over them. They do the same for him creating a nice bit of back and forth. It’s not necessarily call and response. They are both moving the song along in their own ways. (Really astute listeners of the show will note my horrific hack job of copying and re-inserting this sequence into the song to accommodate the length of the section it was supporting in the interview) There’s also the end where the brass and reed sections take turns to shine as units in the run to the end.

The ending is where we see the band leader in complete control of the band. I took up position behind Glenn knowing that he likes to milk the ending. In the DCLX performance of this song, he holds the final pause for what seems like an eternity. The camera operator holds for 10 seconds before giving up. You only see the abrupt cut to the end, but I remember that moment being held for a bit of time longer. Glenn only pauses for a beat here in the Lindy Focus performance, but notice how all eyes in the band are on Glenn. In that moment, the arrangement is irrelevant, and everything depends on that one person.

Lastly, I’m a big fan of Paul Cosentino, one of the hardest swinging clarinetists around.  It was great to hear him alongside some other talented reedmen. Listen to him throw down this beautiful solo in this Ellington classic with the Solomon Douglas Swingtet. I love the sound of his clarinet, but here he showcases his driving tenor sax skills. The reaction of his band mates tells you that you’re listening to something special.

Other Notes on A Word on Swing

Lindy Focus marked the unofficial anniversary of A Word on Swing since that’s the place where Bobby White and I planned, but failed to do our first episode. A lot happens at Lindy Focus, so we couldn’t sync our schedules together. However, Bobby did end up snagging an interview with drummer Josh Collazo there, so I think it’s appropriate that this episode returns our attention to music at this event.

In this interview, you can hear Josh talk and play the difference between the various styles of swing drumming. He was there playing for Jonathan Stout who headlined two nights at Lindy Focus X. One leading his Campus Five and the other with his full orchestra along with The Boilermaker Jazz Band. Michael told me that he was inspired/intimidated by DCLX’s monster lineup from 2011 which pitted Jonathan’s bands against Glenn Crytzer’s Syncopators and Blue Ryhthm Band. In an effort to top themselves, they conceived of this year’s star studded line up. I could tell you more, but that is what the show is for.

A playlist of the songs I recorded during the week for your repeated listening pleasure.

We didn’t plan on doing this show specifically.  However, I was having a conversation with Michael Seguin at one point during the event, talking about how hot the music was that week. We’ve both been around for awhile, and I don’t think either of us have danced to as hot a line up as we did at Lindy Focus. Seguin wondered how many people there truly understood how historic this line up was. I sort of feel bad for new people who experience Lindy Focus as their first event because this is not a typical for any event, even Lindy Focus. That planted the seed in my head.

Bobby and I decided early on that we didn’t want a set format for the show.  There’s a lot of interesting stories in the dance scene, and video opens up a lot of different ways to tell them. In addition to the talented people behind the instruments, we’re both interested in this growing relationship between dancers and musicians and how that affects the way they play the music and the way we do the dance.  While at Lindy Focus, I got to do interviews about those subjects with a number of people including Michael Gamble and Ben Polcer.  As one of the co-directors of Lindy Focus, Michael naturally segued into all the work that had gone in to the music line up that year. Before we ended, I asked him what questions I should ask band leader and Lindy Focus musical director, Ben Polcer who provided some fascinating insight later that day and ultimately inspired this episode.

My discussions with both men actually got more technical than what ended up in the show. I thought it was a little too far “into the weeds” of what exactly are the differences between a “New Orleans” sounding band and a “Swing” band.  However, it’s also a subject I hope to devote an entire show to in the future . . .

Many thanks to the crew of Lindy Focus for letting us do this show. Registration for this year’s event opens June 12. Check it out.


  1. superheidi said,

    June 4, 2013 at 7:46 am

    thank you thank you thank you

  2. AW said,

    July 19, 2013 at 6:47 am

    For the call and response in “After You’re Gone” the musician’s term is “trading fours”.


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