A successful DJ considers more than the order of the songs they play. There are several instances at any given event or dance where the DJ has to alter their song selection to best enliven the crowd.
These are all examples of various situations I consider when choosing what music to play. And most of the time, they do not occur independently of one another.
Specific to this article, I will focus on how a DJ modifies their play selections based on the following:
A mixed, National event with a featured band. — The Band Break DJ
Before we go on, let’s throw out a few disclaimers.
One, I choose the word “rule” only for ease of use. I do not want to impose “rules” on any DJ, so whenever you see the word “rule” read it as “experiential recommendations”. My experience comes from DJing since 1997 across the globe at events ranging from Balboa to Blues.
Two, the word National simply means that the attendees are from all over the country if not the world; giving us a wide variety of personal tastes. Three, mixed event means that there is not a singular focus at the event in terms of dance style. Rather, it is an event which shares a common idea spread across several dance styles, but I am not including Hip Hop, West Coast Swing, Country etc…
DJing is an organic experience. There are several instances where I can account for exceptions. However, I am not going to account for every exception to every sentence I write. So I ask of you, the reader, to consider that there might be exceptions for everything I write about in this article, and to understand that I may or may not address those exceptions.
The most important rule is to never play a song recorded by the band. This might sound rudimentary, but you would be surprised. Not playing a song by the band on stage extends throughout the entire evening; before the band takes the stage continuing through when the band packing up their equipment and has gone home. Would you rather hear a song recorded by your favorite band, or would you rather hear it played live?
Don’t play a song that the band “might” play that night, or has already played, regardless of who recorded it. One of your primary goals as a band break DJ is to show off the band, not show up the band. Just because you didn’t like the version they played of “Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gives To Me” doesn’t mean you can play the Bechet version to “show them how it’s done.” Sometimes this is easy; you are highly familiar with the band and know their setlist by heart. Other times, it isn’t so easy.
How do you go about doing this if you are unfamiliar with the band or they play a wide variety of music?
Approach the band leader and ask them if there is a set list written out for the night you can copy down or take a picture of. No setlist? Ask if there is a CD for sale you can buy (or look at if you aren’t interested) and see what songs they have recorded. This won’t cover spontaneous changes to the band’s program, but it will give you an idea of what they play.
What if the band is new and has no CD nor set list? Just ask the band leader what songs they play. Just as DJs like to geek out over their music, musicians are just as proud to talk about what they play.
Sometimes, this is all easier said than done. You can’t find the band leader, or there is no time to do so. If this is the case, you are just going to have to wing it.
First, predict what style of music they will play. Do they have a bunch of strings and no horns? Perhaps they are a gypsy band (Mark off Django from your potential song list) Are they a small combo that plays at a local blues bar (Mark off Jimmy Witherspoon and T-Bone Walker) Are they a big band with a band leader who plays clarinet? (Mark off Goodman and Shaw) After the band has started playing a few songs, determine style, era, and genre of artists/songs they might play and try to steer clear of them. Let’s say it’s Jonathon Stout and his Campus 5.
Jonathon has a penchant for 30s and 40s charts and plays as a small combo, typically Guitar, Bass, Piano, and some horns (~5 pieces). Mark off Goodman’s small groups, maybe some John Kirby and definitely Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt. Focus on Henderson, Basie and Ellington. This should keep you out of his way in terms of playing songs he might have in his book (note: I said MIGHT).
Now that we have figured out what NOT to play, what DO you play?
Remember, one of the main priorities of a band break DJ is to showcase the band.
Keep it straight forward. You have to execute some modesty here and influence the dancers to associate their current dance excitement level with the band, NOT the DJ. This doesn’t mean that you have to play a metronome for 3 minutes, but keep your songs straight ahead and on the mellow side (mellow doesn’t mean sleepy and doesn’t mean slow). If the band just finished a rousing jam of Flying Home, come at the dancers with Easy Does It by Basie, or even an Ella vocal. Remember we are showcasing the band.
Just as when they left, we want songs that showcase the band and not us. So keep your song selections straight ahead. However, with this section of a band break we have to consider the 2-3 songs BEFORE the band goes on. Why?
At this point, the DJ is like a warm up act. We want to get the crowd going, but don’t want to tire them out. At at mixed event, chances are the band is going to be sitting somewhere in the 150 – 180 range. So we need to prepare the dancers for this. 2-3 songs before the band goes on, start increasing the energy of the songs (this doesn’t just mean tempo). But be careful, we don’t want to get things going too hard and tire out the dancers right before the band goes back on. If the band has a setlist and you have a copy, see what they are opening with and prepare the dancers for it. Think of it this way:
You have a flow as a DJ, it’s just now, that last song in your flow is going to be played by the band, not you. So if the band is going to open with a high tempo song, how would you work up to that song? You wouldn’t play 3 songs at 290bpm in a row, right?
This is tricky. Typically you have only 2-3 songs in this space to play, so what do you do? The same thing you would do on any other night. Play good music, music you love, and music that works to the room. It’s like a micro set. But don’t fret, any good head DJ will give you plenty of time outside of the band breaks to show off, so just be patient and don’t over play those 3 songs.
Firstly, you might think the band sucks, but there could also be plenty of people in the crowd who absolutely love the band. It is not for you to judge the quality of the band and ‘take charge’ of the evening with what you think is good music. However, there is a rare occasion for some, and, unfortunately, not so rare of others, where the band is just not jiving with the crowd. Ultimately, you still have to stick with the plan and showcase the band. Maybe by your music will inspire the band and the dancers.
If there is a serious problem with the band, trust that the dancers and every attendee at the event is letting the promoter know their feelings, vehemently. At this point, just continue to showcase the band and wait for the head DJ do give you direction.
As this is being written it might sound like I am recommending that the DJ neuter themselves in favor of the band. Absolutely not! I am simply saying that during the band breaks we are not there to show up the musicians. With all due respect to every musician out there, they aren’t Benny Goodman; they aren’t Artie Shaw; they aren’t Count Basie. You know that and they know that. They aren’t even trying to be an historical icon of jazz. So you do not need to attempt to show off and try to upstage the band. Save your “OMG this song will kick the bands ass!” for your headphones.
We are there to compliment the band. If the band is a 4 piece group with piano, drum, bass and clarinet, no one wants to hear more of that during the band break. Give the dancers a complimentary sound. If the band is a 1930s Big Band, play some 40s small groups or late 20s big band sound. Perhaps some of the wonderful new small groups coming out of New Orleans, like the New Orleans Cotton Mouth Kings.
Jonathan Stout and his Campus Five featuring Hillary Alexander
Small combo, classic era band, female vocal
I would play: Basie, Ellington, Ella, Harry James, Select Benny Goodman tracks
Solomon Douglas Swingtet
Small Combo, modern sound, male vocal
I would play: Small group Goodman (perhaps live in Bangcock or Rainbow Grill), Django, Fletcher Henderson, Willie Lewis, Ella Mae Morse, Helen Day, Ella Fitzgerald
Mora’s Modern Rhythmists
1930s Big Band, Female and Male vocalist (higher register)
I would play: Benny Goodman small combo, Django, Glenn Miller (yes, Miller rocks!), Joe Williams, New Orleans Jazz Vipers