KissME in Ann Arbor, July 19-21, 2019

I’m going to wax poetic about this event for a brief moment, because Ann Arbor has my heart. When I was a baby dancer and a baby queer person, shy and mostly closeted at my tiny conservative college, Ann Arbor saved me. It was in Ann Arbor that I first learned to wear androgynous clothes to go dancing, to confidently ask women (and femme-presenting people; I see you, non-binary friends!) to dance with me, to surround myself with dance friends who also became connections to the larger queer community. Ann Arbor is the reason I am the happy gay dancer in California that I am now. Coming to KissME this year was a homecoming, a “thank you” to the city that led me towards the life I wanted, but didn’t know how to build for myself. 

The last time I went to KissME in Ann Arbor was in 2017 – I had to miss it last year because I had just moved to California and was settling into a demanding new job (and, to be real, was also waiting for the balance in my bank account to surpass $500 again). This year, I DJed all three days – band breaks on Friday night, half of the Saturday afternoon dance, and band breaks on Sunday at the river. Sadly, I was not the DJ who got to blast blues music out over the river – you’ll have to tip your hat to Dan Miles, also known as #MilesOfBeard, for that one – but all of my sets were fun and I’m excited to tell you about each one!

For Friday night, I provided the between-sets accompaniment for the Rhythm Society Orchestra, a big band so big that they actually couldn’t fit all of their band members on stage – the pianist, bassist, and drummer were all resigned to the carpeted floor just to the right of the stage, and just to the left of me. (Which, for the record, was fine with me; I grew up watching my dad play piano and have retained my affinity for obsessively watching pianists do their thing.) I focused my breaks around energetic, hard-swinging songs, like the Boilermaker Jazz Band’s rendition of “Esquire Bounce” and Duke Ellington’s brassy composition “A Flat Minor.” (Show me a piano falling down a mine shaft…) I received a few enthusiastic comments from dancers and band members about “Wynonie’s Blues,” a pick-me-up tune featuring Illinois Jacquet on saxophone and Wynonie Harris on vocals.

On Saturday afternoon, I remembered a piece of DJing advice I ran across a long time ago – you can make your set sound more like a band by playing the same artist repeatedly. I experimented with this by playing two pieces by the same artist in a row – two Artie Shaw tunes, two Count Basie tunes – and emphasizing Ella Fitzgerald and Johnny Hodges throughout my set. (Although, if I’m being honest, when do I ever not do that?) In the future, I would like to play with playing three or more songs by the same artist in a row – if the floor is feeling it, I think it could be a fun way to create continuity in the set and give people more time to notice the unique sounds and patterns of a particular composer or performer. 

Sunday afternoon was a teeny tiny set, just one band break between two sets from the Royal Garden Trio under the pavilion at Island Park. The pavilion dance is a beloved part of KissME, both for the cookout-style grilled burgers (and veggie burgers!) and ice cream in giant styrofoam coolers from a local creamery, and for the challenge of outdoor dancing on a block of cement. To save ankles and knees, I kept the tempos in this set pretty mild, throwing in one song at 195 BPM for balboa, and ending my break with an uptempo piece to rev up the floor for the band. 

After the pavilion dance, everyone wades into the waters of the Huron River, and we groove (gently! the bottom of the river is covered with rocks) to sweet and often water-themed blues music. This is the most iconic moment of KissME in Ann Arbor, and we were blessed with good weather – though thunderstorms threatened all weekend and sometimes broke, Sunday afternoon was warm and sunny, and many people got all the way into the water and enjoyed wading upstream so they could float back down. 

I got to spend time with precious friends on this trip, both old and new – Val, Naomi, Doug, Sarah, Sean,  Amber, Olivia, Sally, Deborah, Jess, and Arielle. I had a wonderful time. And I might even come back next year!

Why You Should Listen to the Following Teacher (Even If You’re Leading)

In May at Salt City Stomp, I had the privilege of taking classes with Anthony Chen and Irina Amzashvili, a pair of talented and hardworking dancers with a penchant for relentlessly musical choreography. (Watch this.) They are also kind, thoughtful people who care about their students, and I instantly felt comfortable in their classes. 

However, something happened over the weekend that I found concerning. I had the opportunity to take four different classes with them, and in every class, there was at least one moment – sometimes more – where Irina would start to say something, and then pause and look sad because the class was talking over her. “I just don’t have a very powerful voice,” she would say, as if trying to make a joke out of it – but it wasn’t funny. 

Anthony doesn’t have a very “powerful voice” either. Both he and Irina are gentle and soft-spoken. But the class paid attention to Anthony when he started talking, and ignored Irina. Anthony usually noticed when this was happening and reminded the class to respect Irina and listen to her – but I wondered why he needed to do that in the first place. 

Since my very first swing dance class, I have been aware of this pattern among students of swing dancing and leaders in particular. It is pervasive and habitual. When the leading teacher is talking, we tune in, and when the following teacher is talking, we tune out. Sometimes leaders will even talk to our followers while the following teacher is talking. We seem to think that we can give them more valuable feedback than the teacher can. (What?!) 

As leaders, our disrespect toward the followers who work so hard to teach us is based on a faulty appraisal of what they have to offer. Many leaders do not realize that the following teacher can give us an invaluable glimpse of the follower’s perspective. Cultivating an awareness of the follower’s perspective is an important way we can develop as dancers. It enables us to offer a more clear, comfortable, and interesting dance experience to our partners on the floor. 

What are other reasons why leaders might find it useful and important to listen to the following teacher in class? 

  • They are talking about following, which may be something you also do sometimes, and you should listen to what they are saying so you can apply it to your own following later. 
  • They are explaining the follower’s footwork in the pattern they are teaching. This information will help you to get out of your follower’s way and support them as they are executing a complex movement. 
  • They are talking about the levels of tension or stretch that the follower contributes to the connection at different points throughout a movement. You should listen carefully and make sure you are prepared to match those levels with tension or stretch of your own. 
  • They are talking about what they are feeling from their leader during a movement. If you tune into this, you can start learning how to offer leads and cues that are easily readable for your follower. 
  • They are discussing a certain lead or movement from their leader that they don’t like or that feels uncomfortable. Learn what these are, and avoid them! 
  • They are talking about a technical dance concept, like using core engagement to add tension to the connection. Challenge yourself to see where in your own dancing this could be useful. 
  • They are sharing what they like and don’t like from their leader during a particular type of movement or pattern. Use this to help build yourself into a dancer who is fun to dance with! 

I asked one of my dance friends who follows primarily for additional reasons why leaders should listen up when the following teacher is talking. Here is what she said: 

  • There’s always something to be learned, and usually what follows are taught (keep your feet underneath you, keep the flow, listen, adapt) is also applicable to leads.
  • It helps you understand what your partner is trying to do and helps you respect that it’s not easy.
  • It’s polite??
  • If you want to try following (which everyone should, in my opinion) you might pick up some tips!! 

I particularly like my friend’s point that when we as leads listen to the following teacher, we are making an admission that requires humility: following is not easy! Following in a dance means making things work when ideas get lost in translation, filling out moments where leaders leave you hanging, and finding your creative voice in ways that contribute to the flow rather than interrupting it. Following is complicated, and it is extremely challenging to do well.

We found out towards the end of the event that Irina had actually become sick and lost her voice. If she had not had to strain herself repeatedly to be heard, that might not have happened. It’s an extreme example of an unfortunate pattern, in which leaders think it’s okay to disregard the following teacher because they are doing something different from themselves. When we listen to the following teacher, we learn never to assume that following is easy, and we gain the ability to evaluate our own dancing from the follower’s perspective. Which, considering it’s a partnered dance that we’re doing here, is really the perspective that matters the most. 

I’m in Michigan this weekend for KissME in Ann Arbor and am writing from my host’s couch, recovering from an overnight plane ride. I’ll be back sometime next week with an update on all my music from the weekend – there’s going to be a lot of it! 

P.S. If you start this video at 9:05, you can catch Anthony calmly doing a backflip.

Wednesday Night Hop, July 3, 2019

I like my bike. Since I moved to California a year ago, my bike has been my car, and I use it for everything, from commuting to grocery shopping to going swing dancing. I often use Google Maps to navigate and estimate the length of various rides around Sacramento. And so, when Google Maps assured me that it would only take an hour and twelve minutes to bike from the Amtrak station in Santa Clara to the venue for Wednesday Night Hop in Palo Alto, I assumed that it was, you know, not lying to me.

I was wrong.

Pushing my pedals along the San Francisco Bay Trail, I encountered a headwind coming out of the west that was so strong, it slowed my usual rapid pace to what felt like two miles an hour. The predicted hour and twelve minutes stretched out into nearly two hours, mostly on unpaved gravel and dirt. My mouth was parched from the salty air. My quads ached. I had no idea how I was going to dance a single song once I finally arrived at the venue. But I had a lovely view of the Bay, bathed in the golden light of the sunset, and I saw all kinds of seagulls and ducks and flowers and even a rabbit that ran along the trail ahead of me…so I guess it wasn’t totally miserable.

The band, the Oakland Strutters, sounded great and especially excelled a maintaining a peppy energy in the room, which I tried to match with a few of my favorite pick-me-up tunes. These included “Blue Rhythm Be-Bop” by Van Alexander, “Crazy About Lester,” a Michael Gamble tune where the sax section carries an addictive melody, and “The Right Idea” by Charlie Barnet, which has both a driving rhythm and some epic solos – a winning combination in my book.

I did somehow find the energy to dance all night, and I had a blast. The people at Wednesday Night Hop are welcoming, joyful, and always ask if I would like to lead or follow, which is a testament to Doug and Lori’s good work there. It makes me excited to come back and visit soon!

Midtown Stomp, June 7, 2019

I don’t have much to say about this set, except that when one of the most experienced dancers in your scene comes over to the DJ booth and complains that they’ve been trying to leave for the past half hour and can’t because your songs are keeping them on the floor, you’re probably doing something right.

A special favorite of mine from this set was “Ruint” by Johnny Hodges (of course; and by the way, in case anyone asks, I do not get “turnt,” I get “ruint”). The last three songs flowed together into a slow jam circle in the middle of the floor with most of the people who stuck it out until midnight.

Once midnight rolled around and we were ready to put away triple steps for the night, I put on a few extra songs I’ve been grooving to recently. They are not swing songs but do not fret; you can still dance to them.

Salt City Stomp, May 3-5, 2019

At the beginning of this month I trekked out to Salt Lake City on my first-ever visit to Utah for Salt City Stomp! If you’ve never been, here are some things to know about Salt Lake City: it is surrounded by beautiful mountains, it is full of wonderful dancers, and it has at least one really good banh mi place.

I had signed up for classes, and then discovered that I was scheduled to DJ Lindy late nights on both Friday and Saturday nights, so I decided to pretend I was in college again and do all the things! This made my weekend a whirlwind of dance, sleep, eat, repeat, and although I was exhausted, I had a blast. 

This was my Friday late night set – I tried to keep tempos up to contrast with the blues/soul room upstairs, and had fun with songs I usually wouldn’t play during main dances – “Mutiny In The Nursery” by the King Cole Trio and “Robbin’s Nest” by Illinois Jacquet (which honestly has such a sweet saxophone melody I think I’m going to bring it into my regular rotation).

Saturday night ran out of the people pretty soon after my set started at 2am, so my set was shorter and focused on a slower tempo range with punchy melodies. I included “Salty Papa Blues,” a great track with both Dinah Washington and Lionel Hampton, as well as “Bend One,” an easy, funky Johnny Hodges tune that always makes me want to dance.

I’m grateful to Salt City Stomp for having me, and to the various lovely folks who hosted me, fed me, and drove me all over Salt Lake City. Looking forward to visiting again next year!

Wednesday Night Hop, April 24, 2019

My DJ debut in Palo Alto had been in the works since I DJed at The Switch in San Francisco in July last year, where Lori Taniguchi was the emcee who announced me and we immediately became best friends. (If you’ve met Lori, you can understand why this would be the case. If you haven’t met Lori, suffice it to say that you need to meet her ASAP.) 

The first half of my set focused on warming up the floor and offering a variety of tempos for folks to play with.  

This particular Wednesday Night Hop had a good contingent of folks who enjoyed fast Lindy, so I played with some songs in the 170-200 range, including “Neal’s Deal” by the Boilermaker Jazz Band (of course! I love them!), “Basie Boogie” by Count Basie and His Orchestra, “Early Morning Rock” by Johnny Hodges, and “AC-DC Current” by the Benny Goodman Sextet (a piece I don’t hear often enough on the dance floor, considering its amazing Charlie Christian solos). 

Just before the announcements break and jam circle, I played “Snatch and Grab It” by Julia Lee, a tongue-in-cheek piece that is definitely about opportunity (really, trust me, it’s definitely not about butts at all). I was introduced to the song through this routine by the St. Louis Live Wires, which speaks for itself:

I need to tell you about Wednesday Night Hop’s amazing jam circle! During the first part of my set, they left a piece of paper on the DJ table with three columns: Name, Celebration, and Role. People kept walking up and writing things down, and I was so curious what it was all about – what would they do?

Before the jam (what would normally be a birthday jam in other scenes), the announcer went out in the middle of the circle with this magic piece of paper, and started reading off people’s celebrations.

It sounded like this: “Jamie is celebrating that they just sent their first novel to the publisher! Jamie is both leading and following tonight!” or “Kay is celebrating that she got accepted into a masters program! Kay would like to lead tonight!” 

Y’all, I loved it. It was such a good way to build community by getting to know what different people in the scene were up to, and it helped to clearly state and respect people’s role preferences. They were even nice enough to stick me in the jam since I was there for the first time! (Thanks to everyone who danced with me!)

After the jam, I continued my set with some more favorites from Johnny Hodges, including a light but peppy version of “I’m Beginning to See the Light” that features Earl “Fatha” Hines on piano, and “Duke’s In Bed,” an energetic song with a driving call-response between Hodges’ saxophone and the rest of the brass section.

I ended my set with a new-to-me version of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” with Joe Williams and Count Basie. I’m normally not a huge synth fan, but this track has the perfect amount of light, ethereal synth. It perfectly complements Joe Williams’ warm, syncopated vocals. I can’t get enough!

DJing at Wednesday Night Hop was a rad time. Their jam circle was an outstanding example of using an existing dance tradition, the birthday jam, to build a sense of community and inclusivity. Thanks for having me, Palo Alto, and I hope I get to come back soon! 

How to Tell Your Lindy Hop Partner That Something Doesn’t Feel Right

Hypothetically, it shouldn’t be that hard to tell someone you’re in pain.

Operative word: shouldn’t.

In reality, swing dancers (especially women and femme-identified ones) wrestle all the time with questions like…

“Should I tell him that his grip is really hurting my wrist?”

“How do I explain to her that she’s holding onto my shoulder too tightly?”

“My partner goes into closed position a lot, and they are holding me much closer than I want to be held right now. Should I say something?” 

There are many reasons why this is hard. A big one is that power imbalances related to gender, race, dance experience, and other social factors often make it difficult to speak up. If you feel less valuable or experienced than your dance partner, you might be hesitant to say something.

Another reason, specific to followers, is that many classes don’t offer opportunities for followers to give leaders vocal feedback about how the connection feels. Communication takes practice, and without opportunities to practice, followers are at a disadvantage when it comes to saying something about dance floor discomfort.

Yet another reason – the one that most often stops me from speaking up – is that overwhelming thought, powerful and persistent…

“This person won’t want to dance with me anymore if I tell them I’m in pain!” 

But that thought is a lie.

Dancing should not be painful. Any dance partner who cares about the dance and cares about me as a person should be motivated to make sure I’m not in pain. And if I am, they should be willing to hear me when I say so, and willing to try various options to fix it. 

What to say and how to say it

Knowing that it’s okay to say something helps. Knowing just what to say, of course, is another matter entirely.

For me, there are specific characteristics that comfort-based feedback should have: 

  • It must be brief enough to say on the dance floor, in the middle of a dance.
  • It must point to and explain the specific sensation I am feeling in my body. 
  • It must center my experience and make it clear that I am prioritizing my own comfort and safety.
  • It must give a specific suggestion for something my partner could do to alleviate the issue. 
  • It must be clear that I am not giving my partner a critique of their style or technique.
  • It must be assertive enough to overcome any power imbalances in the dance partnership, but mild enough that I will feel comfortable actually saying it on the dance floor.

Here are some comfort-based feedback statements that meet these requirements for me. They cover some of the most common issues I’ve experienced while dancing. 

  • “I’m feeling my hands getting squeezed because of how tightly you’re holding them. Could you try relaxing your grip?” 
  • “I can feel some poking from your fingertips on my lower back. Could you try flattening out your hand?”
  • “I need more space to move. Could you loosen your arm when we’re in closed position?”
  • “I tend to prefer less tension in our arm connection. Could we try lightening it up and see how that feels?”

All of these statements start with my feelings and experiences, rather than those of my partner. This helps to prepare my partner for the suggestion I’m about to offer, and makes it clear that this suggestion is coming out of an experience I’m having. 

For comparison, imagine if I were experiencing something uncomfortable, and I said this: 

“Hey, could you not dig your fingertips into my back? You’re really hurting me!”

While this is a legitimate approach, and warranted in some cases, it focuses heavily on what my partner is doing, rather than what I am feeling. It has the potential to come off as more critical, and could leave my partner with some anxiety that I am really not enjoying the dance with them. 

After I offer someone a suggestion on how to alleviate pain or discomfort for me, I like to follow up and say “Thank you, that feels really comfortable!” or something similar. That way, they know that I am still enjoying the dance, and that the adjustment they made helped fix the issue.

It might not be a one-time thing

Sometimes, though, it doesn’t take just one suggestion. All dancers have bad habits, and if your dance partner has a bad habit that is causing you pain, they might adjust it beautifully…and then slip right back into it three swingouts later! 

When this happens, I often try using nonverbal cues, like gently tapping their hand (or whatever body part) to remind them to make the adjustment again. Often, this is all it takes! 

If that’s not working, speak up again, and this time make it their job to fix the problem. Say, “I’m still feeling a lot of gripping on my shoulder. What else could we adjust to make that feel better?” If it’s a deeply ingrained habit, having to think and talk about it (while dancing!) might help them overcome it.

Why this is different from “Don’t give feedback on the dance floor”

We can get this out of the way right now – yes, I absolutely am recommending that you give your partner feedback on the dance floor. But only if you’re in pain or discomfort or don’t like what’s happening. 

“Don’t give feedback on the dance floor” is a general rule designed to keep people from correcting each other’s style and technique while social dancing. It’s intended to keep the mood of the social dance floor light and fun, rather than intently practicing what everyone learned in class that evening. 

The comfort-based feedback I’m recommending, however, is also intended to keep the mood of the social dance floor light and fun. And it has nothing to do with style or technique – we’re talking about a minimum basic requirement of social dancing, which is that it feel good! Talking to your partner about how to make the dance feel better is always appropriate and warranted. 

How to teach in a way that encourages comfort-based feedback

Dear Lindy Hop instructors,

Please set aside time during class for your students to talk to each other and offer one another feedback based on how things feel. 

To get that started, tell your students to use the sentence, “I am feeling _____ and I think it’s from you doing ______. Could we try _____ to adjust it?” 


A leader who wants her followers to feel good when she’s leading them!

If you are dealing with something more than discomfort

Here, I’ve been writing mostly about situations where something feels physically uncomfortable. However, and very unfortunately, it is possible that you might experience sexual harassment as a Lindy Hopper. I want to talk about this and offer a clear suggestion for what to do. 

You should know that it is NEVER your responsibility to make someone stop harassing you. You can throw everything I just said about comfort-based feedback out the window. If your dance partner is behaving in a sexual way that makes you uncomfortable (or just makes you feel weird!), you have the right to do the following: 

  1. Stop dancing. Stand on your feet.
  2. Look them directly in the eyes.
  3. Say, “I don’t like this, and I am done with this dance.”
  4. Drop the connection and walk off the dance floor. Preferably towards the nearest group of supportive dance friends. 

You do not have to explain what happened. You are not obligated to talk to that person again. You can talk to your friends, or your scene leaders and safety coordinators, and explain what your dance partner did and how it made you feel. You have the right to be heard and believed. 

People get thrown out of dance scenes for harassment, and rightfully so. If you are able to share your experience, it might help protect others. It’s always up to you, of course, but that’s something you should know. 

Dancing should feel good!

We all love Lindy Hop, and I think we mostly love it for the way it feels. There’s an adrenaline rush to swinging out to a hard-hitting saxophone solo, and a lush feeling about doing down-tempo sugar pushes to a gentle piano melody. There’s something magical about your body in concert with someone else’s – and something profoundly un-magical about feeling pain when you should be feeling connected to your partner and the music.

I hope the ideas here empower you to communicate more clearly with your partners about discomfort on the dance floor. Remember that it’s okay to prioritize yourself! You and your continued presence on the dance floor are definitely worth it. 

Midtown Stomp, February 1, 2019

Happy February! DJing for a swing dance on the first day of African American History Month is a real treat. I DJed band breaks for the fabulous Harley White Jr. Orchestra, and a friend and I couldn’t stop geeking out all night over how good their music was, and how good they were at interspersing fast songs with really lovely slow ones (my friend and I both love slow Lindy). Let’s take a look at some great black artists featured in my band breaks last night!

I’ve been getting more into Johnny Hodges in the new year, and I loved playing his song “Early Morning Rock.” It has a clearly defined melody and a driving beat, and Johnny Hodges on the alto saxophone makes everyone want to dance. 

Image result for johnny hodges

With the exception of a few independent forays in the 1950s, Johnny Hodges played with the Duke Ellington Orchestra from May 1928 until he died in May 1970 – a musical collaboration of 32 years. That’s a long time!

When Duke Ellington found out that Hodges had died of a heart attack at the dentist’s office in 1970, he wrote a eulogy for him the same night. As such a great musician in his own right, I think Ellington was in a unique position to comment on Hodges’ legacy in jazz.

Never the world’s most highly animated showman or greatest stage personality, but a tone so beautiful it sometimes brought tears to the eyes – this was Johnny Hodges. This is Johnny Hodges.

Because of this great loss, our band will never sound the same.

Johnny Hodges and his unique tonal personality have gone to join the ever so few inimitables – those whose sounds stand unimitated, to say the least – Art Tatum, Sydney Bechet, Django Reinhardt, Billy Strayhorn…..

Johnny Hodges sometimes sounded beautiful, sometimes romantic, and sometimes people spoke of his tone as being sensuous. I’ve heard women say his tone was so compelling.

He played numbers like ‘Jeep’s Blues’, ‘Things Ain’t What They Used To Be’, ‘I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart’, ‘All Of Me’, ‘On The Sunny Side Of The Street’, Billy Strayhorn’s ‘Passion Flower’, and ‘Day Dream’ and many more.

With the exception of a year or so, almost his entire career was with us. Many came and left, sometimes to return. So far as our wonderful listening audience was concerned, there was a great feeling of expectancy when they looked up and saw Johnny Hodges sitting in the middle of the saxophone section, in the front row.

I am glad and thankful that I had the privilege of presenting Johnny Hodges for forty years, night after night. I imagine I have been much envied, but thanks to God….

May God bless this beautiful giant in his own identity. God Bless Johnny Hodges.

A song that drew some unexpected attention was “Fiddle-Dee-Dee” by Lionel Hampton and His Sextette, featuring a little-known jazz violinist named Ray Perry. I learned today from a YouTube video description that Ray Perry used to sing while soloing on violin, and inspired Slam Stewart to continue the practice on bass!

Image result for ray perry jazz violin

I ended the first band break with “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” performed live by Sarah Vaughan at Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, Denmark in 1963. Kirk Stuart on piano and Charles “Buster” Williams on double bass provide an infectious rhythm, and Sarah Vaughan delivers personality-filled vocals and dope scatting. I love it!

Image result for sarah vaughan tivoli garden

My second band break was short – a birthday jam and the Shim Sham, and then time for just two songs before the band came back. A friend of mine in Milwaukee recently turned me on to the song “Moonglow” by the Benny Goodman Quartet, which has a shimmering, dreamy feel. The Benny Goodman Quartet was one of the first racially integrated jazz groups to arise in the 1930s, so this song felt very appropriate.

I love the below photo of the quartet in their younger days – from left, it’s Lionel Hampton on the vibraphone, Teddy Wilson on piano, Benny Goodman on clarinet, and Gene Krupa on drums. Benny Goodman used to say, “If a guy’s got it, let him give it. I’m selling music, not prejudice.”

Image result for benny goodman quartet moonglow

I concluded my second band break with “Summit Ridge Drive” by Cootie Williams, which I’ve loved forever for Cootie’s trumpet solos. (Fun fact: one of the trumpet players in the band came over and wanted to know what I was playing, and then soloed along on his own trumpet!)

Image result for cootie williams

I’ll be DJing again at Midtown Stomp in a few weeks, on February 15th. If you’re in the area, I hope I see you there!

The year of 300 songs

I recently invested in an upgraded laptop, and in the process of transferring my DJ library, I trimmed it down to the songs that I really like to play.

Looking through my newly pared-down library, I noticed that I tend to stick with certain artists that I know I like, and I want to expand my musical comfort zone. This year I am setting myself the challenge of adding 300 new songs to my DJ library!

While I often consult for free music, I am privileged to be able to buy music from iTunes when I want a particular version of a song, and to buy modern music from Bandcamp or directly from artists at events to put more proceeds towards supporting their music.

My plan for collecting music this year is to spend more time listening to swing jazz on Spotify while I’m at work – I spent the last three or four months slowly acclimating my colleagues to music in the lab, so I don’t have to wear my DJ headphones all day. They have great sound quality, but the huge ear cushions can hurt my ears after a few hours. I’ll collect songs I like into a Spotify playlist, and then hunt down or purchase 5-7 songs from that playlist every weekend.

The artists I want to explore more this year include Johnny Hodges, Duke Ellington, LaVern Baker, Cootie Williams, Mildred Bailey, and Jimmie Lunceford. Watch for them in my sets!

Album review: I Love The Rhythm In A Riff by the Boilermaker Jazz Band

I Love the Rhythm in a Riff

The Boilermaker Jazz Band recently released their newest album, I Love The Rhythm In A Riff, to celebrate 30 years together as a band! Can you believe it? I can’t. Paul Cosentino, the band’s tenor and alto saxophonist, clarinetist, and bandleader, offered to send a copy of the new album to any swing DJ who told him they wanted one, and I couldn’t write my email fast enough!

Paul Cosentino explains the album’s dual theme in the liner notes:

During the wonderful but all too short time known as the Swing Era, band leaders, jazz musicians, and singers were superstars…All of the bands had a book of great tunes for people to dance and listen to. Often filling the book was a collection of catchy riffs – songs with snippets of repeated melody that get stuck in your head and are great vehicles for jazz improvisation. Another requirement was wonderful vocal numbers – usually about love…This recording brings to life those two seminal categories of swing music.

The album overall has a bright, energetic feel, with a number of songs fast enough for balboa and competition-level Lindy Hop. Special guest Gordon Webster joined the usual suspects in the studio, and his piano solos shine on every track. I’ll go through the songs individually and note what I like about each.

920 Special, 4:13, 190 BPM

This cover of the popular jazz standard “9:20 Special” has marvelous solos from several band members, including Tony DePaolis on bass and guest Gordon Webster on piano. It chugs along just like the train it’s named after!

They Say It’s Wonderful, 4:26, 130 BPM

Paul Cosentino leads the way with vocals on this sweet track. Its gentle movement is accessible for beginners, but there’s some expressive piano in there from Gordon Webster for more advanced dancers to play with.

Squatty Roo, 3:59, 204 BPM

I love every version of this Johnny Hodges tune I’ve ever heard, and this one is no exception! The melody is just so bright and engaging – it was hard not to get up and dance when this came through my headphones. Gordon Webster does some mindblowing solo work on this track – especially admirable at this tempo.

I Had The Craziest Dream, 4:09, 108 BPM

This song feels like walking through a garden in the sunshine on a day when you have nothing else to do. It’s very slow, and that only adds to its loveliness – Jennifer McNulty on vocals doesn’t hurt, either.

Esquire Bounce, 3:47, 180 BPM

This happy little riff has a more intimate feel than the cover recently released by the Brooks Prumo Orchestra on their own album, Pass the Bounce, since it opens with just Paul Cosentino and Jeff Bush leading on saxophone and trombone (as opposed to the Brooks Prumo Orchestra’s, well, orchestra).

Sweet and Slow, 4:10, 101 BPM

Normally, I’d rather dance to something faster – but if anyone could change my mind, it would be the Boilermaker Jazz Band. Artful piano notes from Gordon Webster sparkle over a rumbly rhythm, held down by Tony DePaolis on bass and vocals, and Thomas Wendt on drums.

Oh! Look At Me Now, 4:39, 124 BPM

Jennifer McNulty and Paul Cosentino share the mic on this tune, made famous by Tommy Dorsey and Frank Sinatra, according to the album liner. I enjoy Jeff Bush’s trombone solo, as well as the smooth and easy pace.

Main Stem, 4:20, 192 BPM

This Duke Ellington instrumental features a driving beat, helped along by Paul Cosentino nailing his saxophone solos, and develops into a foot-tapping swinger by the end. I’d love to DJ this song for balboa!

Any Old Time, 3:15, 126 BPM

The word “pleasant” may feel a bit bland, but it truly captures the vibe of this song – chill, but kind and sweet. Jeff Bush has a lovely trombone solo, and Gordon Webster’s piano is understated but perfectly fits the mood.

Dickie’s Dream, 3:34, 192 BPM

I love Gordon Webster’s piano opening for this tune – it sounds silky and sneaky, and makes you want to get up and start bouncing along in time. The riff develops with Paul Cosentino’s clarinet whistling along and Jeff Bush doing some dope mute work on the trombone.

You Oughta Be In Pictures, 3:25, 127 BPM

As soon as I heard this song, I knew I would be humming the melody and mumbling the words for weeks – and I was right! It’s catchy as all get out, and the lyrics are beautiful to boot. Jeff Bush’s vocals fit right in with the easy beat from Thomas Wendt on drums and Paul Cosentino on saxophone. Tony DePaolis’ bass solo on this track is not to be missed.

Neal’s Deal, 3:27, 200 BPM

This song opens with a relatively quiet riff that belies its tempo. It takes its time, working first into a light melody with Paul Cosentino on clarinet, and then developing into a full-blown swinger with an energetic trombone solo from Jeff Bush. Gordon Webster plays supportive background piano that helps fill out the sound.

There Are Such Things, 4:10, 120 BPM

Jeff Bush opens on trombone, followed by Jennifer McNulty’s soaring vocals, supported by Paul Cosentino whistling along on saxophone. This song’s length would make it perfect for playing in a lesson context and having dancer switch partners every minute or so.

Tippin’ In, 4:27, 137 BPM

I’ve been a big fan of Erskine Hawkins’ version of “Tippin’ In” for some time, so it was refreshing to hear this new take on it. The main melody happens on Paul Cosentino’s saxophone, and boy does he have fun improvising! Jeff Bush on trombone, Gordon Webster on piano, and Tony DePaolis on bass all contribute engaging solos.

It Could Happen To You, 3:50, 165 BPM

Jennifer McNulty leads with vocals on this track, while Paul Cosentino pipes along on clarinet and Jeff Bush adds in some delightful trombone. This is the only track on the album that falls in the 140-170 BPM range, so I anticipate I’ll end up playing this one a lot!

I Love The Rhythm In A Riff, 2:42, 205 BPM

This track is worth listening to, if only to hear Paul Cosentino and Tony DePaolis scatting together! Jeff Bush and Gordon Webster bring the heat with racing trombone and piano solos, and Thomas Wendt has a dope little drum solo midway through. The energetic instrumentation brings it together as a perfect finale for the album.

I noticed as I was writing this up that one of the strengths of the Boilermaker Jazz Band is that, in spite of having a small group – only five members, plus Gordon Webster – they make excellent use of every musician – they all get frequent solos, even while keeping their songs down to danceable lengths, and they play off each other incredibly well. I hope you check out I Love The Rhythm In A Riff, and enjoy the music as much as I did!