February 9, 2015

A DJ Challenge

So I have been thinking about this for quite a while, chit chatting with fellow DJ’s, friends, dancers and promoters.  It stems from the idea of the innate difference between live bands and recorded music. While I understand and appreciate that the two will never be the same, I was looking for a way to bridge the gap.

The Idea

Why couldn’t a DJ be the “band” for an entire night?  Scenes with viable bands will host evenings where the play the whole night, and with a DJ there to play the band breaks. So why couldn’t the DJ be the band?

Where “the band” is Earl Hines, Louis Armstrong or even Lionel Hampton?

The Execution

You would need three things as I see it.

One: A solid band to use. Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman all come to mind.  Two reasons: song quantity and song variety.

Song quantity is simple math. If you take someone like Edgar Hayes, who, let’s say, has 10 dancable tracks, that’s about 30 minutes of dancing.  Given that most venues go from 9-12, we would be way short of time.  In this situation, we would choose to “feature” Edgar Hayes, rather than bill him for the whole night.  That is why Benny, Basie or Duke would work well.

The idea would be 3 sets of music. 3 sets, at 45 minutes per set would be 2 hours 15 minutes, which is 135 minutes, based on an average 3 minute song, would be approximately 45 songs.  If need be, you could cheat a bit and do 40 minute sets.

Song variety can be important, depending on your venue. For the sake of argument, let’s say that we are looking to do this at a venue where they like to dance slow, medium and fast. So an artist whose danceable vocabulary only sits between 190-300bpm would make it hard for those dancers who are looking to chill or slow down their dancing.

Two: We need in this experiment a DJ who knows how to manage a room. It can be difficult to play for a crowd of people who are looking/expecting a variety of song styles and tempos.  Having a DJ who knows the band well, and can construct an evening that works for everyone is critical.

Three: The dancers.  They need to buy in to this idea.  So full advertising is imperative. The dancers need to know what to expect, and not show up anticipating one thing and then experiencing another.

With these three things, I think that you could easily pull this off on a regular basis.  Which is also, in my opinion, important for this to work.  Any venue can do this once, but it can appear to be a novelty. I am looking to expand the dancers musical appreciation, as well as their musical vocabulary. And let us not forget that it would be super cool to be able to “recreate” as closely as we could what the original dancers got to experience regularly.

Can we think of 12 artists where this would work?
  • Count Basie
  • Duke Ellington
  • Benny Goodman
  • Artie Shaw (my collection is seeded with way more uptempo tracks than might be possible)
  • Glenn Miller (Possibly, I would have to grow my mid range stuff a bit more, and the dancers would have to be willing to try out the slower stuff; like Moonlight Serenade)
  • Louis Armstrong (looks like a solid candidate, but my collection isn’t big enough for me to do)
  • Django Reinhardt
  • Earl Hines
  • Harry James
  • Lionel Hamton
  • Chick Webb (this is a toughy, I could cheat and include the Ella AHO stuff, but the tempos can get some people)
  • Jimmie Lunceford ( I would need a bit more in the mid-slow range)

That’s 12!  A full year, where once a month an old timey swing band comes to the venue and the dancers get to enjoy an entire evening of nothing but the old time greats!

So your monthly calendar might look like this:  Jonathan Stout and his Campus Five this week, Count Basie and his Orchestra next week, followed by Tim Peterson and his Fantastic Six, and then DJ Mrs. Awesomesauce.

Of course, the night would work like any other night when there is a live band.  The “band” comes on, plays their first set.  Maybe some general announcements, the DJ plays “dj music” i.e. stuff not from the band they just played.  This makes it feel just like a live band night.  Second set, just the same, rinse and repeat.

But why?

Great question, Bob.

I think that there are plenty of bands who are absolutely amazing. I love hearing them, dancing to them, hanging out with them. But why look down upon the bands that came before them, I think that dancers sometimes forget who they are dancing to, simply because they are not on a stage. This is not to say that all dancers have this attitude or express this idea, but when it comes to recorded music, there is a disparity of appreciation between recorded and live; possibly because of the simple idea that anyone can roll their face on a computer and make music come out, but not everyone can pick up a trombone and make it sound cool.

Benny Goodman is an inspiration to many clarinetists. You can hear the Basie influence on Gordon, the Django influence on Jonathon, etc…

Don’t you do this already when you do “Featured Artist” or play a mini-set of one single band?

Not quite the same as this idea. I want the entire evening, from promotion, to dancing to be about one great band, Duke Ellington.  Dancers come in knowing that they are hearing Duke the entire night, and don’t have to hunt for a mini set, or get short changed from a “featured artist hour.”

Live music and DJ’s will never be the same

I totally agree, and that is not the point.  I understand the inherent differences between the two. While some might see many differences between a live band and a DJ, when it is boiled down, some variables compromised, I see three main, unresolvable differences.

Balderdash! Only three?

First let’s define some ground rules.  One, we will take two of the most popular and successful bands around today, Jonathan Stout and his “insert any name here” and The Gordon Webster “insert any name here”. On the DJ side, let’s assume that we are dealing with an accomplished, well educated, thoughtful DJ who is mindful of all aspects of the DJ role, let’s say someone like Marc D’Olimpio.  We will also confine this to the realm of a local venue, like on a Tuesday night, so that we can throw out competitions, weird breaks in the night, superstars roaming the floor en mass, etc… And we will throw out oddities such as floor stickyness, acoustics, humidity, and any other weird floor/room related mishap.

Now that we have defined the playing field, I see three main differences between the two.

One: A live band will always trump a DJ when it comes to room energy.  There is nothing equitable to a musician on stage blowing his horn. The ability for that musician to capture a dancer and energize them is unmatched.

Two: Fidelity.  Bands are always playing in ultra-hi fidelity. The idea that their instrument has sound projecting out of it, and attached to a mic (or many) filling the room through the speakers and from the stage, is never going to trump a recorded song with it’s clarity and control. Their highs are controlled, the lows are managed, and they can play as “loud” as they want without “blowing the speakers”

Three: A band will never match the variety of song styles, song choices, and overall stamina of a DJ. That is just simple math.

Remind me again as to why?

The simple reason? I think it would be cool.  The more long winded reason?  I think that dancers today have a great selection of new bands who do great things.  And while many dancers can pick out JATW by Basie, or Man From Mars by Artie, not many know who recorded “that jackie robinson” song, or “the one where the horn does that cool thing after that other horn does that other cool thing.”

While I am not one to criticize dancers for their lack of band names, or associated knowledge of a song. I am not asking for dancers to take a music education class every time they show up to dance. But I do think it is important that the dancers know more. Know the name of their favorite band. Know the name of their favorite song. Know the general styles of a band.  Know that Goodman music, generally, features a clarinet. Know that the one with the dark sultry voice is a dude who sings with Count Basie.

I also think it is a great way for modern dancers to experience what it could have been like to dance an entire night to a band who was at the Savoy, or Palomar, or even Sweets Ballroom.

I would love to give this a shot. I think that the dancers would appreciate being able to hear a whole night of the greats.  I don’t think that the variety that they have grown to expect from a DJ will get in the way of their dance happiness. I do think that when the right band is chosen, with the right DJ, the dancers will show tremendous appreciation by dancing the night away.

Looking forward to trying this somewhere soon.

What do you guys think?  Possible? Un-Possible?  Do you do this already? If so, what are your experiences?


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Music and Dance