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By Abbey Berkebile on Jul 14, 2019 06:40 pm

During my 4 years on the exec board of the University of Iowa Swing Dance Club, I helped run about 3 campus-wide dances each year. For three of those years, we attempted to have live bands at each of those events. Being in the middle of Iowa, it was sometimes challenging to find bands that: 1) We actually wanted to dance to and 2) That a college scene could afford. Sometimes the band we found was fantastic and had the floor filled the entire night. Other times… not so much. So here is some of the hard-won wisdom I gained during 3 years of hunting for just the right bands to play for our scene’s events.

Where to Look

The first place you can turn to when trying to find bands for your events is Google. Go ahead and google “Jazz Bands-[your state]”, “Big band-[your state]”, “New Orleans Jazz group- [your state]”, and whatever other search terms you can think of. Consider also searching for “jump blues” groups since jump blues can also be really fun to dance to. Once you find a band or two, check out their website to see if they have Youtube Videos or sound bytes of their performances so you can start to determine if they are a danceable jazz band.

Other great places to look include regional jazz festivals and local jazz bars. Those events are great because you can hear the band in person and even test the danceability of their music. If you like their sound but they don’t play any danceable songs during their performance, you can again turn to Google and/or Youtube to see if they have a wider range of music than what you heard.

What to look for in a danceable jazz band

So you’ve started to find some jazz groups in your area. What exactly makes a good band for dancing? This is highly subjective, but here are some things I look for in hopes of keeping both the beginner and experienced dancers dancing all night long.

            They play songs from the swing era

            Jazz is an extremely broad category of music that has undergone enormous transformations and branched into countless subgenres since it was first born in New Orleans during the early 20th century1. It includes toe-tapping New Orleans Jazz and Big Band music, the cool jazz of Miles Davis, the smooth jazz of Kenny G, and many, many other styles. Not all jazz music is music you want to Lindy Hop to. So please make sure the band you’re scouting out plays a style that will have people on the dance floor. Some standards to watch out for from the 1930s/1940s include “Blue Heaven”, “A Tisket, a Tasket”, “Bei Mir Bist Du Shön”, “In the Mood”, or other tunes you have heard DJ’d during swing dance lessons or social dances.

            Variety of Tempos

            A band that plays a variety of tempos is not only more accessible to beginner dancers, but will also keep things interesting for your advanced dancers. You don’t want only fast 200-250 bpm songs or slow 100 bpm songs. Both can prove challenging for beginner dancers, which can be a good thing in moderation to show them the range of Lindy Hop. However, you don’t want a band that only plays 120-160bpm songs since those won’t give advanced dancers the chance to exercise their fast dancing or slow dancing skills. Here are some examples of songs at various tempos that are perfectly danceable:

~105 bpm:

On the Sunny Side of the Street by Ella Fitzgerald

~140 bpm:

Shout Sister Shout by Rosetta Tharpe/Lucky Millinder

~180 bpm:

Jive at Five by Count Basie

~235 bpm:

Go Harlem by Chick Webb
            Length of songs:

            In addition to a variety of tempos, you also want to find a band with a range of song lengths. A lot of dancers are used to dancing to 3-4 minute songs. A band that only plays 7-10 minute songs does not give dancers as many chances to dance with a variety of dancers at the event.

            Pay Extra Attention to Rhythm Section

            A rhythm section can make or break a jazz band’s dance-ability. The beat of the music should be clear. However, a drummer who is always at an energy-level of 100 and plays with non-stop crashing cymbals can lead to an otherwise excellent song having a very “flat” feel. The rhythm section should also add to the “groove” of the music, not overpower it. How adrummer place the beat’s emphasis can also wreak havoc with a dancer’s swing-outs and phrasing.       

What to Ask When Hiring a Band

So maybe you have now found a band you are interested in hiring. Here are some less obvious things to ask a band when you make initial contact:

            If they will play songs similar to a sample Spotify playlist?

            For a few bands I hadn’t heard live, I included a link to a short Spotify Playlist with a variety of songs I personally enjoy dancing to in my initial email. I explicitly asked bands if they had songs in their repertoire that were similar in style to the ones in the Spotify playlist. This keeps the band and event organizer be on the same page for the type of music we want to be played. Remember, if this is a band’s first time performing for swing dancers, they might need a little coaching on how to play for dancers.

            Do they have their own sound equipment?

            Unless you are fortunately enough to have sound equipment at your disposal, I highly recommend hiring bands who have their own sound equipment to save yourself the headache of renting equipment. That said, if you’re planning to do a multi-day event with multiple bands then I highly recommend spending the money on a sound engineer who can bring their own equipment and has the skills to work with a variety of bands.

            If coming from out of town, how do they want lodging handled?

            If the band is coming from out of town, especially if they’re from more than 2 hours away, find out if they will need lodging booked. Sometimes band leaders will include lodging costs in their quote and will handle arrangements themselves.

            What are their quoted prices?

            This is an obvious question, but your first communication with a band is also the time to ask them about their quoted prices. Some bands have a flat amount they charge. Others will change their price depending on whether you’re a college group, non-profit charity event, or a community organization. Some bands will even give you a range of prices and then determine how many band members would be brought along based on that price. If the band is outside of your price range you will either need to find a way to make up the difference or let them know you’ll keep them in mind for a future event.

Those are just a few of my thoughts and tips for finding bands so your dancers have live music to dance to. Occasionally you will hire a band who plays more ballads and smooth jazz than you were anticipating. Never fear. Your scene will forgive you and you will have a better idea of the type of band you’re looking for next time. However, if you’re hosting an event that is drawing lots of out-of-town dancers, go with a band that has experience playing specifically for swing dancers. Your local scene will understand the occasional mishap, but when hosting dancers from out of town you will want to pull out all the stops and give them an event to remember.

The post Finding and Hiring Jazz Bands for Swing Dancing Events appeared first on Roaming Lindy Hopper.

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