Editorial

Early Jazz and Swing in Durham, NC

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Photograph from Open Durham of the Durham Armory in 1950 – the site of the Bull City Swingout’s Saturday night main dance and many, many swing era performances.

In anticipation of the Bull City Swingout coming up the second weekend in July, 2019, I sought out information about early jazz and swing in Durham, North Carolina – I found that there was no anthology I could direct people to and the information I could find seemed to be incomplete snippets I had discovered over the years across the internet.  This blog post is an attempt to compile some of this information, with a focus on jazz dance music, and I hope that I can add to this post as I find new information about Durham’s earlier jazz history and about its later jazz history that may be tied to the jazz age and swing era.  Also, here’s a map I’ve compiled with the locations mentioned herein and brief notes on the significance of each pin.

A million thanks to Open Durham for being the consummate historian and source for a lot of this information (either directly or helping to make connections) and many of the Durham photographs.  Thanks also to my fellow RDU swing DJs Sarah Ovenall, Ken Hanson, and Kirk Eisenbeis for your assistance and additions to the spreadsheet that launched this post.

I’m also going to give a content warning for racism – while Durham was a vibrant hub for music and dancing during the swing era, racism and segregation were a prevalent part of the lives of locals and touring musicians.  During my research into this topic I came across multiple sources that reference and/or illustrate the overt racism that existed in Durham during the jazz age and swing era.  Some of this racism is referenced in this post and some of it appears in the linked source material.

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Photograph from Open Durham

RAGTIME ERA/PRE-JAZZ

Because jazz didn’t come to us in a vacuum, I can see evidence that brass band music was present in this tobacco town early on.  We can see that the Durham Hosiery Mill (803 Angier Ave.) had a brass band, take note of the instrumentation, and make some assumptions about the music in 1910.

There’s also evidence of dance orchestras in existence and/or playing in Durham during the pre-jazz era.  From 1902 to 1932, Durham was home to the Lakewood Amusement Park (2000 Chapel Hill Road), which held many attractions including a dance pavilion.  From Open Durham: “Across from the skating rink was the pavilion, another large building, which called the Dance Hall by some. The sides were open, and typically an orchestra or band was playing; orchestras came from all over to perform while the crowds danced the night away. Joe King’s orchestra was a popular act. Other people would sit around on benches and just listen to music.”

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Lakewood Amusement Park’s gazebo (left) and dance pavilion (right) – photograph from Open Durham

PIEDMONT BLUES

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A studio portrait of Blind Boy Fuller, from Wikipedia

I would be remiss if I did not touch on Piedmont Blues as an essential part of the music and dance history of this area, with the style roughly originating in the 1920’s.  Piedmont Blues is usually distinguished from Delta Blues by its ragtime based rhythms.  Durham became an important center of blues culture, with the tobacco industry drawing rural blacks to the city with higher wage jobs and with Durham already established as an African-American business and financial center.  Durham drew Blind Gary Davis in the mid-1920’s and Blind Boy Fuller in 1929 (two of the most famous Piedmont blues musicians, who incidentally made it onto the state historic plaque here in town), who would play house parties and on Pettigrew Street near the tobacco warehouses, along with Alden “Tarheel Slim” Bunn, Richard and William Trice, Floyd Council and other musicians who would contribute to the development of this art form.  By the mid-1930’s the best of these musicians were playing clubs and making records.  Durham had a thriving Piedmont Blues scene throughout the 1930’s until it started to see a decline in the 1940’s.  Piedmont blues remains a tradition in this area and Durham is host to a blues festival, the Hayti Blues and Roots Celebration (formerly the Bull Durham Blues Festival).

Of course dancing is also part of the Piedmont Blues tradition, with a percussive dance people call flat-footing or buck dancing.  The videos I keep coming back to to watch are from 1983, filmed on Algia Mae Hinton‘s porch at her home in Johnston County, which feature Hinton (one of the wonderful bridges to the past who is, unfortunately, no longer with us) dancing, John Dee Holeman (another luminary, who will turn 90 on April 4, 2019) dancing and playing guitar.  There are a bunch of these videos on Hinton’s porch in the Alan Lomax Archive on YouTube.  They are so great, we are lucky to have them as source material.

EARLY JAZZ AND SWING AT DUKE

From 1926 to 1932, George “Jelly” Leftwich was the band director of Duke University, but his most popular ensemble was the jazz orchestra he formed, which I’ve seen referenced as the Duke University Club Orchestra, George Leftwich and his Blue Devils, and the Duke University Blue Devils.  At a community performance at Durham High School (now Durham School of the Arts, 400 N. Duke Street), the Duke Chronicle reported that the band played “Who,” “Tiger Rag,” and “Stumbling.”

1926, the year Leftwich started working at Duke as its first director of music, was a notable year, as the student population demanded more dancing and dance music – the student body voted 704 to 6 in favor of on-campus dancing, in an attempt to sway the Methodist-affiliated university’s administration concerning the no dancing on campus policy.  Perhaps the timing of this vote and the hiring of Leftwich/formation of the jazz orchestra were intentional, coincidental, or perhaps one bolstered the other.  Ultimately, the student body won out and dancing to both recorded and live music became an on-campus activity.

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My sources say this photograph of George Leftwich and his Blue Devils was probably taken in the East Duke building – from the Duke University Archives.

On Duke’s campus during the Great Depression, student financial constraints meant that they couldn’t always make it to whatever entertainment was available downtown, so they made their own.  A gymnasium built in 1898 (nicknamed “The Ark“) was converted to more multipurpose dancing space by the Social Standards Committee of the Woman’s Student Government, who paid to have the floor refinished, purchased a radio/Victrola, and hosted bands every Saturday night and one Wednesday night per month.  In 1931, Duke University constructed the West Campus Union building, which also housed a popular ballroom where bands performed.

While Jelly Leftwich was successful at directing bands for Duke, his success also inspired students to start their own bands, such as the Duke Collegians (founded in 1931), Nick “the Crooning Half-back” Laney and his Blue Devil Orchestra (founded in 1932), Sonny Burke and The Duke Ambassadors (founded in 1934), and other swing bands such as the Swing Kings, Blue Dukes, Blue Imps, Grand Dukes, and the D-Men.  Laney’s band went on a summer tour of the northeast in 1932 and while on the road met an up-and-coming saxophone player named Les Brown and convinced him to come to Duke instead of the University of Pennsylvania.

In 1933, Brown took over leadership of the Blue Devils after Laney graduated.  Under Brown’s direction (while still a student), the Blue Devils performed regularly on campus and toured throughout the east coast, with their tour in 1936 being particularly successful.  They were signed by Decca Records and recorded in the fall of 1936, but disbanded the following year.  Brown moved to New York (with some of the Blue Devils coming with him to form the Band of Renown) and the rest is history.

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Photograph from the Duke University Archives

A final swing era note that occurred later in Duke’s history, from 1977 until her death in 1981, jazz pianist, composer, arranger, and all around badass Mary Lou Williams was a professor at Duke and led the Duke Jazz Ensemble (this was not Williams’ first experience in Durham, however – we’ll return to this later).  In 1983, Duke established the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture (404 Chapel Drive) which (among many other things) continues to host jazz performance series Jazz @ The Mary Lou.

SWING ERA – TOURING ACTIVITY

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Was “In a Sentimental Mood” composed here? Photograph from Open Durham

Duke Ellington has a history of performing in Durham, with the earliest show I could find on record occurring on July 22, 1934 with his orchestra at Banner Warehouse (216-220 W. Morgan St.), roughly where the YMCA and Mr. Tire are located today.  He returned on March 13, 1935, to play a show at the Roycroft Warehouse (401 Rigsbee Ave.) from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. (according to the Norfolk Journal and Guide published on March 9, 1935).  As the legend goes, in 1935 Ellington composed “In a Sentimental Mood” at a performance at a party hosted by the NC Mutual Life Insurance Company, composed spontaneously to calm the mood after one of his friends got in a quarrel with two women at the party.  The only record I can find of him performing in Durham in 1935 is this March 13, 1935 date, so it may be that this jazz standard was written in a Durham tobacco warehouse.  The Durham Armory (212 Foster St.) opened in 1937 and Ellington came back to Durham on September 24, 1938 to perform there.  He would return to Durham for later performances, but we are focusing on pre-war and WWII performances for the purposes of this post.

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Ad image from the Hi De Ho blog

Cab Calloway was a frequent performer not only in Durham, but in other places in North Carolina during the swing era.   Calloway’s autobiography says Irving Mills and a “Mrs. Knowles” put together his first southern tour in 1931. “In Durham, NC, we played in a tobacco warehouse that was as big as Madison Square Garden, and they put a rope down the middle of the warehouse and the whites danced on one side and the Negroes on the other.” Calloway’s biography goes on to mention other Durham performances, including a March 1933 performance that was “stopped by a riot.”  On August 6, 1938, he made a stop at the newly opened Durham Armory, with the Carolina Times ad touting the Armory’s air conditioning and noting that admission for “white spectators” was $0.65 (sidebar to explain: dances and venues in Durham were segregated and there were promoters who would set up performances at the Durham Armory where blacks would pay for general admission – i.e. for dancing on the ground floor – and whites would pay to sit in the balcony and watch).  He returned to Durham on March 25, 1940 for a performance at City Auditorium (now The Carolina Theater 309 W. Morgan St.) for a performance the Monday after Easter.  He also notes in his biography that the band needed a white bus driver to get them hamburgers somewhere between Raleigh and Durham on Easter morning.  Calloway’s last swing era performance in Durham (that I can find) appears to have been on October 6, 1945 at the Durham Armory.

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On November 26, 1937, Andy Kirk and his Clouds of Joy performed at the Durham Armory (heated), but check out whose loveliness graces the ad, even if she’s not given top billing?  As mentioned before, Mary Lou Williams would return to Durham on a more permanent basis in the 1970’s and this ad illustrates that she, even in 1937, was a respected jazz woman and a draw to audiences.  Dancing from 9:30 p.m to 1:30 a.m. – basically my perfect evening dance time frame!  Andy Kirk and his Clouds of Joy would return to the Durham Armory on February 26, 1943 and on June 23, 1943 to perform, boths times featuring June Richmond on vocals.

In March of 1938, Lucky Millinder‘s orchestra made an appearance at the Durham Armory – unfortunately, the only report available is through the lens of a white Duke student, The Duke Chronicle’s music columnist Hal Rees: “Did you notice that fine trombone soloist and section of Lucky Millinder’s at the Armory? Far above the average for a Negro band as was the alto sax who gave out quite a few boots on his horn…” (you’ll see earlier in the column where he has received complaints about said column, I’d say deservedly so).  Millinder would return at least twice more time to perform at the Durham Armory on December 25, 1942 and on June 14, 1943 (which I’ll come back to below).

In spite of Mr. Rees’ column, Duke University welcomed Earl Hines’ orchestra, featuring Ida James on vocals, also in March of 1938.

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A 1939 ad from The Carolina Times, courtesy of Ken Hanson

On May 9, 1938, the Count Basie Orchestra – “America’s Newest Swing Sensation” – featuring Helen Humes and Jimmy Rushing appeared at the Durham Armory, which was their last stop before heading to New York for a week-long residency at the Apollo Theater.  Basie would return to the Durham Armory again on April 28, 1939, as shown in the The Carolina Times ad pictured here  (thanks to local dancer Ken Hanson for digging through this newspaper source material and adjusting the resolution on these already fuzzy resolution ads).  In some cases, we’ve resorted to looking at ads on buildings in photographs, such as this instances on the Open Durham blog – a photo of The Regal Theater taken in 1946 (324-328 E. Pettigrew St.) (though on the Regal Theater’s blog entry, the photo is a date range of late 30’s-early 40’s), we can see posters for Count Basie pasted to the side of this building, which I hope we can presume that Basie was actually performing at this venue – the Open Durham blog notes that Basie was among other luminaries performing at this venue, though it was predominantly a movie theater by the 1930’s.

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The Regal Theater at night, 1947 – photograph from Open Durham.  The Regal Theater was owned by George and Maude Logan and was part of Hayti, Durham’s African-American community/district.

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A 1943 ad from The Carolina Times, courtesy of Ken Hanson

Incidentally, internet searches for Count Basie and Durham, NC are a bit stymied by Basie sideman, composer, and arranger Eddie Durham, but then I find that Eddie Durham came to play at the Durham Armory on July 1, 1943 with “his All-Star Girls Band” (also known as Eddie Durham’s All-Star Girls Orchestra).  Due to the proximity of Camp Butner, established in 1942 as a result of World War II, and promoters such as Lin Holloway and Lathrop Warren Alston (more on him below) advertising to draw black servicemen to shows in Durham, the service-focused All-Stars were a perfect fit for this time and place.  The All-Stars “dedicated at least one night per week on the war effort and their activities included raising war bonds, uplifting morale, and performing at military camps and USO centers.”

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Carolina Times ad, courtesy of Ken Hanson

Speaking of all-girl bands of the 1940’s, the International Sweethearts of Rhythm graced the Durham Armory stage on June 4, 1943 just a few weeks before the All-Stars came into town – I can’t tell you how excited I am to know this, I only wish I could find more details!  Just a few days before the Sweethearts were in town, Valaida Snow and the Sunset Royal Orchestra performed at the Durham Armory on May 28, 1943 – yes, ladies!

Backtracking a bit, on May 15, 1940, Glenn Miller‘s orchestra performed at Duke University’s Cameron Indoor Stadium (115 Whitford Dr., built in 1939) and broadcast the performance live as part of the CBS Chesterfield “Moonlight Serenade” program.  I can’t imagine Cameron Indoor Stadium being a great acoustic space for a broadcast, but I can imagine that this was selected as the venue (over one of Duke’s ballroom spaces) due to its capacity – an estimated 12,000 people were in attendance.  To give you perspective on the attendance, the seating capacity of Cameron today is 9,314, so imagine every seat full and the dance floor (i.e. the basketball court) packed!  Of course this may have been an over-estimation, but the point is made.  As a souvenir, we have an air check of the band playing St. Louis Blues.  However, it was another recording that made me realize that Miller had performed at Duke – as I was going through uptempo tunes for competition music ideas, I came across a live recording of Miller’s orchestra playing Down South Camp Meeting, where the announcer at the beginning mentions Duke University and apologizes for something – I have no idea what the apology is for, but I’m definitely curious as to what happened!

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Duke University commencement in Cameron Indoor Stadium, 1940 – perhaps just days/weeks from the Miller concert?  Photograph from Open Durham.

On April 4 and 5, 1941, the Benny Goodman Orchestra, featuring Helen Forrest, Cootie Williams, and Charlie Christian, performed at Duke University’s Page Auditorium (402 Chapel Drive), but also appears to have played a dance or two somewhere on campus during this time frame, as well.  The ad from The Carolina Times (courtesy of Ken Hanson) only references shows at Page Auditorium, with two matinees at 3:15 p.m. and evening shows at 8:00 p.m., featuring Bob Van Camp on organ (perhaps a Duke University senior at this time?) and “Kajar, Master of Magic” (maybe this guy?).  The Page Auditorium shows were sponsored by Quadrangle Pictures, which formed in 1928 to screen motion pictures on Duke’s campus and was celebrating its 13th birthday party with this concert series.  However, we also know from The Duke Chronicle that the Pan-Hellenic council was hosting their second dance of the year during this stop in Durham with the Goodman orchestra – if Goodman’s in town, it’s gotta be dance or bust, who wants to sit in an auditorium listening to this toe-tapping music when there are rugs to be cut?  There’s also a photo of Goodman at this dance in the university archives (included below), perhaps snapped by a student or amateur photographer, which is clearly a dance (streamers, people standing around in tuxes/formalwear in front, and people facing each other dancing in the background).  Perhaps the best thing about this photograph is Benny Goodman’s expression – did the photographer catch him off-guard or is the photographer the recipient of “The Ray,” Goodman’s infamous withering gaze?

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CarolinaTimes ad from Ken Hanson

Another aside, my Duke University searches keep getting stymied by Duke Ellington…but I digress, there are worse things… 😉

The Ink Spots were frequent performers at the Durham Armory in the 1940’s – swing dancers today don’t often dance to their music, but they were super stars, with a #1 hit with their recording of “If I Didn’t Care” in 1939, which remains one of the best selling singles of all time (9th, according to Wikipedia at the time of this post).  Fresh off their hit single, the Ink Spots first performed at the Durham Armory on March 8, 1940 and returned on June 20, 1941.

On June 14, 1943, the Ink Spots were slated to play a double bill with Lucky Millinder, featuring Sister Rosetta Tharp, at the Durham Armory.  All the musicians were staying at the Biltmore Hotel (330-332 E. Pettigrew St., one of the preeminent hotels catering to African-Americans in the southeast during the swing era, so the likely place for traveling big name bands and musicians to stay) and it was here that things started to go horribly wrong for Lucky Millinder before the show even started.

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The Carolina Times headlines, courtesy of Kirk Eisenbeis

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Ad from The Carolina Times, courtesy of Kirk Eisenbeis

From The Carolina Times, dated June 19, 1943: “Orchestra Head Gets Cut in Argument Over Room, by Joseph Hopson.  In a fracas staged in front of the entrance of the Biltmore Hotel, Lucky Millinder was seriously stabbed in the right hip by a woman companion of one of the Four Inkspots here Monday afternoon.  The brawl is said to have arisen by Millinder arguing with the woman over his having rented the best rooms in the hotel for his bandsmen.  The woman hailed a passing taxi-cab and went to the uptown section of Durham where she purchased a knife and returned and proceeded to cut Millinder without warning.  By-standers finally succeeded in wresting the knife from her hands, but not before she had seriously cut Millinder in the right leg, severing an artery.  Millinder was unable to appear with his band in the Durham engagement.  The Inkspots left the show crew in Durham after the engagement at the Armory, but appeared with them in Raleigh on the following night.  According to bandsmen, Millinder is doing “fair” at present.”

I have so many questions about this incident that will never get answered.  We know Millinder made a recovery and remained active in music until the 1950’s, so that’s good, but who is this mysterious companion of the Inkspots?  What the heck did Millinder say to her?  Were the hotel rooms really worth it or was this about something else?  Did Millinder’s band do the show without him?  If so, can you imagine the tension on stage?  Just…wow.

From May 3 through June 29, 1944, the Ink Spots went on tour with Ella Fitzgerald and Cootie Williams and his Orchestra, stopping at the Durham Armory on June 8.  Sharing the bill with them at the Armory were Moke & Poke (some sort of act from New York?), Eddie Vinson, and Ralph Brown (maybe the tap dancer?) – this must have been a big show!

The last performance for the Ink Spots at the Durham Armory that I can find is February 1, 1947, appearing with Johnny Otis and his Orchestra.

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On April 6, 1942, Claude Hopkins and his Orchestra performed on Easter Monday (was this a local tradition? See above, Cab Calloway performed on Easter Monday in 1940) at the Durham Armory, featuring Belle Powell.  It looks like the promoter for this concert was the Auspices Junior Auxiliary of Lincoln Hospital, which means this show may have been a fundraiser or benefitted the hospital in some other way. Founded in 1901, Lincoln Hospital was the first hospital in Durham to provide care to African-Americans and a nursing school was established there in 1905.  The Junior Auxiliary, at least in 1938, was focused on the children’s ward of the hospital, purchasing equipment and supplies, acting as hostesses at events, and decorating and providing children at the hospital presents at Christmas.

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The Carolina Times ad, courtesy of Ken Hanson

Erskine Hawkins, “creator of Tuxedo Junction” / “the 20th Century Gabriel” and his Orchestra  performed at the Durham Armory on April 10, 1942, along with Jimmie Mitchell, Avery Parrish, and vocalist Ida James.  Note at the top of The Carolina Times ad to the left the “Gale Inc. Presents,” designating that this is a Moe Gale talent booking – this is not the only Moe Gale reference I’ve seen in my research, so it appears there is a direct link between this co-founder of the Savoy Ballroom (and the bands performing there) and the shows and bands being booked at the Durham Armory.  Also, note that the time is listed as “7:30 P.M. – until?”  I wonder if they also stayed up dancing until 4:00 a.m. like today’s swing dancers…

Hawkins would return to the Durham Armory for another show on April 16, 1943 and made a radio appearance on WDNC prior to the show.  WDNC was Durham’s first radio station, going on the air in 1934.  At the time of Hawkins’ appearance, he would have only had to go around the corner from the Armory to 138 E. Chapel Hill Street to get to the radio station.

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Just a few days later on April 19, 1943, Earl Hines and his Orchestra featuring Billy Eckstine and Sonia Vaughn would appear at the Durham Armory, also with a radio appearance on WDNC prior to the show.  There was no Sonia, this was a terrible typo – it was actually Sarah Vaughan, who had been “discovered” in the fall of 1942 at the Apollo Theater’s famous amateur night and had just replaced Earl Hines’ previous female vocalist on April 4, 1943.  Vaughan was initially hired as a pianist for the band (though she also sang) so that she could be under the jurisdiction of the musicians union rather than the singers union, so the Armory crowd may have heard Vaughan on piano and vocals.  The Carolina Times ad for this performance leads with “Jitterbug Contest!” – this is the only reference to a swing dance contest I’ve come across in these Carolina Times ads and I, of course, would love to know the format, what song was/songs were played for the contest, the tempos, all these things lost to time that I will never glean from these two magic words in a newspaper ad.  One thing we do know is that this show would have been awesome and a dance contest with live music by Earl Hines’ Orchestra would have been a dream!

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One of my favorite bandleaders, Jimmie Lunceford, and his orchestra performed at the Durham Armory on November 27, 1942 and again just a few months later on March 11, 1943.  On January 13, 1942, “King of the Vibraphones Master of the Drums” Lionel Hampton performed at the Durham Armory.  On November 19, 1943, Oran “Hot Lips” Page performed in Durham at an unknown venue.  On December 27, 1943, Buddy Johnson made an appearance at the Durham Armory, presented by Latha Alston. I also found a source that says Louis Jordan performed at the Durham Armory in the 1940’s, but doesn’t provide a date.  Sadly, I can’t find any other information about these performances in Durham, but it looks like the early 1940’s were great years for live music in Durham!

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Royal Knights of King David Hall in 1922, from Open Durham

One of the most prolific promoters I’ve seen in these source materials is Lathrop Warren Alston (also seen in sources as Latha, Lath, and Lathe, as well as with the last name Austin, however this is probably a typo since Alston is an old Durham family name).  Alston got his start promoting dances in the 1920’s at the Royal Knights of King David Hall (702-704 Fayetteville St.). It is clear that Alston was great at this work, moving on to larger venues and big name acts, having a hand in some of the tobacco warehouse concerts (given the Royal Knights’ connection to NC Mutual Life Insurance, I’m curious to know if he promoted that famous “In a Sentimental Mood” concert).  His success is apparent in the sheer number of concerts where his name is associated, particularly at the Durham Armory, given the limited resources I’ve been able to locate online – he is credited here (and elsewhere) for concerts with Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Earl Hines, Guy Lombardo, Fats Domino, and Les Brown.  Alston went on to become the manager of the Biltmore Hotel (330-332 E. Pettigrew St.), where he continued to feature live music, such as concerts with Ella Fitzgerald, Nat “King” Cole, and the Ink Spots.  I see that William A. Marsh, III (who I know as Judge Marsh, former Durham County District Court Judge) is credited as the source material on Alston, so I’ll have to ask him about it at some future Durham Bar function.

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The Biltmore Hotel and Regal Theater in 1946, with the Count Basie posters pasted on the wall to the right, photograph from Open Durham.

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Photograph from Open Durham

DIXIELAND REVIVAL

I wasn’t going to go past WWII, but I couldn’t resist posting about Turnage’s BBQ Restaurant (608 Morrene Road), where after WWII you could catch “Jazz at Turnage’s” – trad jazz/Dixieland jam sessions, performances, and dancing, in addition to some classic North Carolina BBQ.  The photograph below (the real reason I’m posting about this – dance evidence!) is from 1952, quoting Open Durham: “It was evidently popular with Duke students as well – the picture is from the Duke Chanticleer, captioned “JAM SESSIONS, featuring Dixieland Jazz Combo and some fast jitterbugging, shook the rafters on Saturday afternoons of spring semester.”

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Durham jitterbugs in 1951 – photograph from Open Durham

I am certain there is much more information about swing bands, dancing, and related local culture that I have not found in my online searches, but I feel like this is a solid start.  Perhaps the most glaring omission are Durham-based hot jazz and swing bands (that perhaps did not reach the level of fame as those touring bands herein) outside of those formed by students at Duke University – if you have any leads or other sources of information, please feel free to leave them in the comments below!  I’ll leave you with an ad relevant to my recent musical performance interests (but after the time frame of this post) and some more ads I couldn’t fit into the text of this post (all courtesy of Ken Hanson).

 

 

 

 

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Why Do Bands Charge More for Weddings?

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Photos are from my own wedding, thanks to the wonderful Katie Garcia Photography

You’re floating high on the dreams of planning the perfect wedding and reception, which is essentially a big party to celebrate the union of you and your significant other.  People who do not normally engage in event planning are suddenly thrown into the position of entering into contracts with a bunch of different event service providers – a baker, a caterer, venue managers, a florist, and maybe even a band to provide live music for the event.  This can all get very expensive very quickly and most couples are trying to get the most out of their wedding budget.

But you think you can swing getting a band, because your friend’s garage band made like $126 in tips at their last gig, this should be completely affordable, maybe even cheaper than a big name wedding DJ, right?

You start sending out inquiries to bands that look like they might be a good fit for your wedding reception and are blown away at the responses.  How dare they?  Your friend’s band was grateful for that $126 in tips, why can’t these bands play your wedding for something comparable?

This example is an exaggeration, of course, but I do find that some responses to my quotes for wedding receptions have an air of indignation.

Charging more for a wedding just because it’s a wedding is something I hear people say about wedding vendors.  While I can’t speak for the other service providers, I can give you some insight into why bands charge more for weddings and it’s not just because the event is labeled “wedding” – there are a number of factors that go into a band’s decision about what to charge for a couple’s special day.

HIRING PROFESSIONALS

The odds are fairly good that if you are researching bands and finding them in your searches or on wedding planning websites that these bands are made up of professional musicians whose base non-wedding pay is already more than the tips at your friend’s garage band gig.  You hire professionals because you don’t want to worry about the music – you want it to sound good, you want the musicians to be experienced, you want them to conduct themselves professionally and be able to roll with all the unexpected punches that go along with any wedding reception.  You don’t want to look up mid-reception and think, “Why is there no music right now?” or “Why is this drummer so loud?” or “What the hell is this song with depressing lyrics?”  Bands who are experienced professionals are going to anticipate your wedding’s needs and deliver a product that is appropriate for the day.

WEEKENDS ARE PRIME TIME

Most weddings occur on a weekend or holiday, when people are already off work and ready to have fun and relax.  These are also the same days that restaurants, bars, festivals, and lots of other events also want to hire bands to draw people to their establishments and events.  With supply and demand comes an increase in cost, as well as musicians maximizing their prime time, since weeknights can be tricky for musicians to get gigs (depending on the area).

As an added factor, bandleaders also want to hire the best musicians for the gig and want these musicians to have a financial incentive to keep this gig.  If a musician is offered a different gig on a weekend that pays more than the gig you offered them, that musician will often take the higher paying gig.  This results in more stress for the bandleader and could result in a reduction of quality of the music, depending on the proximity of the musician’s cancellation to the wedding date and the availability of good substitute musicians.

SPECIAL REQUESTS

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Special request from the band: can we have a piece of cake? 🙂

Last-minute, unanticipated requests are a wedding specialty.  I have a template questionnaire I send to engaged couples to assess how much work and how much time the wedding in question will take.  Inevitably, there is always something that the questionnaire didn’t anticipate or that the couple didn’t know at the time they filled out the questionnaire.  This can be anything from a venue change to unanticipated electrical access issues for outdoor weddings to the bride’s cousin wanting to sing a song with the band that the band doesn’t have in their book to a completely different reception time.  Sometimes the engaged couple will forget that they need an emcee and someone in the band is drafted to do this job, or they forget to tell you that they need your PA for an hour in the middle of the gig so everyone can do toasts.  Part of paying more for a wedding band is that you are paying for the flexibility to make major changes to a contractual agreement that the band has to rely on in order to prepare and schedule their day around your wedding.  It is rare that there are not changes to terms set forth in the wedding/band contract at some point between the date of signing the contract to the date of the wedding.

PREPARATION

Unless a band is a dedicated wedding band that only plays weddings, chances are that a wedding gig will require some extra preparation beyond a normal gig for the band – that may be in the form of custom charts for the band to perform (i.e. a special first dance song, the groom’s favorite song, that cousin wanting to sit in who sings a certain song in a certain key, etc.), working in extra players/musicians/sitting in, additional rehearsal(s), and, perhaps the most time-consuming for me, communicating about the wedding.  Weddings require a lot of attention to detail and all of that is done via phone and email over the course of the months between the booking and the event, usually increasing in the week(s) prior to the event.  Weddings necessitate a written and signed contract for me, which isn’t always the case with other venues who book us regularly or people with whom we have worked before.  Some weddings have wardrobe requirements in terms of colors or formal attire, which means some or all of the band have to plan ahead to acquire these items and spend money to accommodate that request.  Weddings are a one-shot, don’t-mess-this-up kind of event, so it’s important to take the time to get the details right; but this means more time and work from the band, who, conversely, can show up to their weekly/monthly gigs with minimal preparation.

LOAD IN/OUT

Weddings often have difficult and/or lengthy load-in or load-out scenarios.  Weddings are frequently held in locations that do not regularly accommodate live music, which makes it difficult to plan for things like the following:

  • Access to electrical outlets (in relation to wherever the bride/groom/wedding coordinator want the band to set up)
  • The logistics of loading in and out (access to stairs/elevators/ramps, traversing long hallways and multiple levels, loading in/out through high traffic areas like kitchens or the reception crowd)
  • Dealing with traffic/loading zones while loading in
  • Locating (and sometimes paying for) parking
  • Outdoor logistics (grass/hills/rocks/bugs/critters/standing water/weather)
  • Gatekeepers, which can literally mean a person at a gatehouse for a gated community and they won’t let you in because someone forgot to put the band on the guest list.  This can also mean other people at the venue who take up more of your time and prevent the band from timely loading in, such as an indecisive or absent (when the band arrives) wedding planner who isn’t providing the band with information they need or someone at the venue forgetting to leave space for the band to set up and the band has to wait while someone goes and gets someone else to move the chairs/tables/whatever that are blocking the area where the band is supposed to set up

If the ceremony is at the same venue as the reception, this almost always necessitates a load in that is anywhere from 2 to 6 hours before the band actually reports for duty to perform.  This is additional time that the bandleaders and, usually, the drummer, have to take out of their day to go to the venue and set up and then either hang out at the venue or go home and come back during the interim time, as opposed to a regular gig where the band would simply load in about an hour ahead of time and play almost immediately after loading in.

Ultimately, it usually takes longer to load in/set up and break down/load out than the typical band gig.  Sometimes we can anticipate what logistics are involved in advance and sometimes we can’t.  If we do a walk-through prior to the wedding day, then that is additional time we have added to preparing for the wedding gig.

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Sitting in with the Boilermaker Jazz Band at my own wedding

SCHEDULE…WHAT SCHEDULE?

I have yet to work a wedding that stayed on the schedule I was given ahead of the wedding, if I was given a schedule at all.  The band is expected to roll with the shifting priorities and requirements of a wedding, which, in turn, affects the amount of time we have to play, sit and wait, and the beginning and/or ending time of the band’s performance.

One of my biggest complaints about wedding gigs is that, because the wedding runs on its own schedule without consideration for the band (which is fine, for the most part, this day is not about us!), the newlyweds do not often maximize the band’s playing time and we ultimately play less than anticipated, overall.  We really do want to perform for you!  However, you are paying for our time in its entirety (playing or not playing), so if we’re contracted to play from 4:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. and the party just really got started at 7:00 p.m. because of toasts/photos/arrival/cake cutting, I’m sorry, we have already been at your wedding for a good portion of the day and our contractual obligation is over.  Often this is upsetting to the bride/groom/other person in charge, they may get angry at us, give us a guilt trip, or they may even offer to begrudgingly pay us more money to stay longer.  This is a very awkward situation and everyone feels terrible – we want to provide the wedding with something of value, but we also want our time to be respected.

In a similar vein, you can’t expect the band to make up for the delays by playing for two hours straight – this is brutal to people who are hitting/plucking/strumming/blowing, essentially using their bodies to create music, without a break at some point (usually somewhere between 40 minutes and an hour of playing).

There may be specific instructions for where and how to enter or when and how the band can leave and we are waiting and paying attention for these things to happen, looking for certain cues to indicate action on our part.  With these delays we may be checking in multiple times with the wedding coordinator to get updates on how to proceed or what the new plan involves, since the paper plan is out the window.  If there is no wedding coordinator, there may be multiple people telling us different things about what the band is supposed to be doing at any given time.   We want to do this right and whoever has the plan, we are willing to go with that new plan.

EMOTIONS

The stakes are high and there’s no dress rehearsal for this show, we are all striving to deliver the best possible services; inevitably, some things will go awry at weddings and there are always people who will get emotional about it and project that onto the staff or whoever may be nearest to them – wedding planners, grooms, brides, fathers of the brides, mothers of the grooms, caterers, whoever has a stake in the day and/or a job to do.

EXTRA COSTS

There are always extra costs, some surprises, some known, such as the aforementioned specific attire or any additional sound equipment that may be needed to accommodate the requests from the bride/groom or the logistics of the venue.  I would also note that another difference in wedding v. regular gig is the absence of merchandise sales, CD sales, and tips; obviously, this would be super tacky to hawk our wares at your wedding or pass around a tip jar, but it is one consideration among many in the added cost.  There are also fewer intangible rewards, such as creative license in the gig itself and applause – I don’t know that I’ve been to a wedding where the crowd burst into applause, but I have been a part of many weddings where the guests either generally ignored the band or, if they are dancing, didn’t clap after songs.  Perhaps applause at a wedding reception is not necessarily appropriate, but it’s one of those things that can add to the feeling that a wedding gig is more work.

RISK FACTOR

This is one type of gig that is at great risk for cancellation, as we certainly can’t control matters of the heart.  I always build in some sort of deposit and cancellation policy, because there is risk in taking a gig like this, as we are often holding this date months, maybe even over a year, in advance and turning down other gigs.  It’s also risky dealing with people who are not used to booking bands – there are certain norms in the professional music community that may seem odd to someone who is not a professional musician, but are necessary in order to accomplish the gig; if they are not willing to see the necessity, to accommodate the basic needs of the band, or to communicate the necessary details requested, then the gig and/or preparing for the gig can quickly become a nightmare.

IN CONCLUSION…

To sum everything up, it’s simply more work to accept and execute a wedding gig for a band and, for this and all the specific the reasons stated above (and probably some I’m forgetting), this is why your average professional band will often charge more for a wedding than they would charge for a regular gig.   That said, while a wedding is more work, that does not mean that bandleaders avoid wedding gigs.  The examples listed above don’t all happen at the same time, there are a lot of wonderful aspects of performing at a wedding, and I don’t know of many bandleaders who would refuse a wedding gig with appropriate compensation – there’s a lot of love that is shared, with families and friends coming together, and we’re all here to have a big celebration and contribute to that celebration in some meaningful way.

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Chapel Hill High School v. Duke University – An Inadvertent Battle of the Jazz Ensembles

This past month we’ve had two dances pop up with ensembles that are not regular dance bands – Chapel Hill High School’s and Duke University’s respective jazz ensembles. They had, in my mind, potential to overcome some of the problems some local adult big bands face, like the fact that some of these kids are picking up these instruments every day and playing 5 days a week in an ensemble setting might give them an edge. Also, how would the high school kids stack up against the college kids? I’d heard some good things about the Chapel Hill High School’s jazz program, but then Duke kids are probably some of the most gifted students in the nation.

Might I suggest a version of "Tiger Rag" for next year's dance? :)

Might I suggest a version of “Tiger Rag” for next year’s dance? 🙂

The first dance was Chapel Hill High School’s swing dance on March 8, held in the high school gymnasium, but not without substantial pomp and decorations. This year was the 18th anniversary of the annual swing dance, which is a fundraiser for the band boosters that includes the dance and a silent auction of goods and services from local businesses. The gymnasium was packed with teenagers, mostly standing around or solo dancing in groups, but some were actually partner dancing. Parents and adults had a seated area near the stage. A large stage was set up with risers for the band, which was necessary since the band was a giant big band – something like 8 or 9 trumpets, as many trombones, even more saxes, plus students trading off spots in the rhythm section.

That piano intro is like a call to arms, a trigger for a jam circle!

That piano intro is like a call to arms, a trigger for a jam circle!

The dance itself was quite a show – the band director kept things moving with announcements, introduction of the numerous (I counted at least 6) guest vocalists, and promotions for the fundraiser and silent auction, leaping into the next musical number as soon as he was finished speaking. The song selection was a mix of classic swinging tunes (Jumpin’ at the Woodside and Leap Frog were highlights), songbirds and crooners on slower dance tunes, some 50’s/60’s Sinatra, a token neo-swing song (vocals performed with gusto, I might add – I had to smile), and a smattering of ballroom fare. Overall, the tempos were up and most of the songs kept us moving. The kids in the crowd cheered for their friends when they were featured and the vibe in the room was extremely positive and supportive. When the band took a break, a student combo played the breaks. The first band break was a little more swinging than the second and that was their only big misstep, having a group play more modern feeling tunes that lacked the drive to be danceable during that second break.

In spite of being outnumbered 50 to 1 by high school students and feeling only slightly awkward being the only dancing adults in the room, our group had a pretty good time. What the high school kids lacked in skill they made up for in enthusiasm and spectacle. I hope more members of the swing dance community decide to come out to this dance next year, both to support these burgeoning jazz and swing musicians and as a great opportunity for outreach to all these high school kids who were dancing and enjoying themselves. If only they knew they could do this every weekend!

The dance floor at Duke Gardens is amazing!

The dance floor at Duke Gardens is amazing!

The second dance was at Duke Gardens on March 27 and was a collaboration amongst Duke Gardens, Jazz@ Duke, the Duke Swing Dance Club, and the Duke Jazz Ensemble. Duke Gardens has played host to a number of DJ’d swing dances over the past few years and is arguably one of the swing dance community’s loveliest venues. This dance was not only free to all who attended, but also had an impressive buffet set up on the patio for the dancers to partake. The Duke Swing Dance Club did a great job with promoting the dance and teaching the beginner lesson before the dance. This is the second year the Duke Jazz Ensemble has performed in collaboration with the Duke Swing Dance Club, although the location of the dance was different from last year.

I had high hopes for the Duke Jazz Ensemble for several reasons:

– The students were older, had probably played their instruments longer, and I knew that gaps in the ensemble were often filled by more skilled community players.

Les Brown and his Blue Devils

Les Brown and his Blue Devils

– In the 1930’s Duke University was host to several dance bands and orchestras, including Les Brown and his Blue Devils from 1933-1936, before Les Brown went on to start his Band of Renown. Under the direction of Les Brown, the Blue Devils made some hot recordings and went on several regional tours. Check out this fantastic recording of the Blue Devils performing “Rigamarole.” Arrangements from Les Brown’s time at Duke and from later years reside in the Les Brown Scores Collection at Duke University Libraries – I am salivating over this collection!

– I have on good authority that there are other swing era charts (as opposed to post-WWII arrangements of swing era songs) in Duke’s music library, per a former Duke student who performed in the jazz ensemble.

– In the Facebook event the Jazz@ promoter posted that the band would be performing “swing-style Jazz from periods before, during, and after the 30’s.” I’ve only heard one other Triangle-based big band perform a 1920’s piece, which was the North Carolina Jazz Repertory Orchestra, a band made up of professional musicians and college professors from around the state. The Facebook event also had 180+ RSVPs, which meant lots of people and potential energy.

So with all of these things in mind I was fairly confident that the Duke Jazz Ensemble would deliver a dance that at least had some variance in song selection, perhaps some lesser known tunes with hot arrangements. Musicianship-wise, they had an edge on the high school students because the students did take solos, but most of the solos were done by the excellent Brian Miller, a local professional, whose solos were definitely a highlight of the dance and who appeared to carry the band at times.

However, the Duke band lacked the presentation, showmanship, and energy that the high school event excelled at executing. The Duke ensemble had no vocalists, though they played many of the same vocal tunes as the high school band, just as instrumental arrangements. The guitar player slouched in his chair and plucked single notes on his hard body guitar, instead of laying down the essential rhythmic chunk-chunk-chunk-chunk of quarter note chords that completes a swing rhythm section. Most of the tempos were around 150 bpm and songs ran well over 5 minutes – in several instances there were 8 minute songs, which can be purgatory for a newer dancer who may only know a few moves. There were a few really slow tunes and some faster tunes, but the band seemed to fall apart toward the end of the faster tunes, which were around 180-190 bpm. Toward the end of the night they played a combo tune while the rest of the big band just sat there – if you have a big band, use it! We can hear small groups any time. There were also no 1920’s tunes, as were promised, and, arguably, no 1930’s tunes – the repertoire was 1940’s-1960’s and the drummer never left the ride cymbal except to play fills.

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One of the songs the band performed was an arrangement almost identical to Count Basie’s “April in Paris,” a song that was recorded in 1955 or 1956 and released in 1957 on an album of the same title. This particular recording is quintessentially new-testament Basie and any swing DJ worth his/her salt will know this tune. A local dancer/DJ was dancing in front of the band when they performed this tune and at the end, after they hit the big sustained note as an ensemble, she yelled to the band, “One more once!” No one cracked a smile and they stared blankly at her. She addressed them again, “One more time!” More blank stares, no shout chorus. Brian Miller was the only one within earshot who acknowledged that she was referencing the recording and told her that the band did not have that version of the arrangement. I don’t know if this means that the rest of the band had not checked out the recording of the song they just played or if they were being obtuse, but it did not sit well.

I’m going to declare the Chapel Hill High School Jazz Ensemble the winner of this battle – while the Duke Jazz Ensemble played a post-WWII repertoire with the addition of improvised solos, the Chapel Hill students captured the energy and feel of the swing era and songs of later eras, as well as considering the needs of dancers in terms of song length, rhythm section, and creating a connection to the audience through the bandleader and vocalists.

Interview with Alice Windley for Voices of the Jazz Era Ballroom

My grandfather, grandmother, and aunt, circa 1947

A couple of years ago I read about Voices of the Jazz Era Ballroom, a “web-based oral history project devoted to preserving and passing along the memory of dance in the Jazz Era through the lives and words of everyday people.” Anyone could contribute a video or audio recording of anyone who lived and danced in the 1920’s through the 1950’s. I knew immediately that I wanted to capture my grandmother’s stories and this project was the impetus to do it. Since I started swing dancing over 15 years ago, my grandmother, Alice Windley, would relay stories of her own dance history and I loved it, all the little tidbits of her life and how dancing was a part of it. It gave me the feeling that I had carried forward the legacy of the family jitterbug to the third generation (the second generation having adopted Carolina shag).

My grandmother grew up in eastern North Carolina, living a mostly rural life, but with the onset of World War II and her proximity to a military base, I believe she was exposed to much more music and swing dancing in her early years of social dancing than might otherwise would have occurred in this part of the country. But I’ll let her tell you all the stories, via YouTube.

Not All Jazz Swings

I’m sure some of you are thinking, “Thank you, Captain Obvious,” but I really just need to put it out there, for the Triangle dancers and jazz musicians, for various reasons.

Norfolk, Virginia swing DJ Bill Speidel has already written the article I would write at this point in time, called “Do You Want to Swing, Virginia?” I encourage dancers and local jazz musicians to read this and note the examples. While I do have a bit of a broader interpretation of what swings for me, I think Bill narrows the issue to make a point.

If it doesn’t swing, then it doesn’t inherently inspire me to dance.

So You Want to Play for Swing Dancers?

So you had a few dancers show up to one of your gigs and they looked like they had a great time. One of the dancers came up to you after the gig and said “You should talk to so-and-so about playing for X Swing Dance Night” and gave you so-and-so’s contact information. You send so-and-so an email – of course they’ll hire you, right? You’ve had this great endorsement by a dancer! Now that you’ve been endorsed, you can advertise to all the local swing dance groups and contact all the local promoters and the dancers will come flocking to your shows…

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I’ve been seeing a bit of this lately with some local bands who would like to play for swing dancers – bandleaders who contact local organizers to promote their events or about being hired, but have very little experience playing for dance events (or playing for swing dance events specifically, as opposed to ballroom events or more general dancing) or had past experience playing for dancers but haven’t kept up with trends in music in the swing dance community. Several people have written blog posts about playing music for dancers and I agree that the music is the most important aspect and that feedback should be considered, but I want to focus on relationships and communication.

In addition to my role as a co-bandleader for the Mint Julep Jazz Band, I also book the bands for RDU Rent Party and have spent many years booking bands in other capacities. I am also passionate about swing dancing and discovering new bands to play for swing dancers. I don’t want people reading this to be discouraged or feel like there are gatekeepers – we want to help you! The more quality live swing music we have in our lives, the better.

Playing for dancers is different from playing for an outdoor festival is different from playing for a concert hall is different from playing a wedding – you need certain knowledge and tools to be successful in these endeavors and you prepare for each gig differently, if not in large ways, then in small ways. Each swing dance community has their own tastes and norms (which is why I feel I can’t talk about the logistics of the music, specifically, although if you are in the Triangle area of North Carolina, I’m happy to speak with you) and it’s important to find out those norms in advance in order to be a viable candidate to play swing dances.

If this is what your bass looks like, then we are probably not on the same page.

If this is what your bass looks like, then we are probably not on the same page.

DO YOU PLAY SWING MUSIC?

This is a baseline question – do you play music that swings, music that is easy to swing dance to? Dancers can get really creative in what they will dance to, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that your music is going to be ideal for swing dancing. For example, I think the most common misconception in this area is that people who play straight ahead jazz, standards, and big band can also play swing dances – many of the jazz musicians playing this music were not trained to play the earlier forms of jazz (1920’s and 1930’s) that gave rise to these dances and lack the foundation and understanding of this music to apply to their playing. Consequently, the music can sound either too stiff, too smooth, or too lounge-y for swing dancing.

You may not want to change your repertoire or style of playing to accommodate the dancers, and that is fine – it’s your thing and it sounds great for listening. However, if you are intrigued and decide you do want to play for dancers, talk to them about what kinds of music they dance to, what other local and touring bands they have checked out, and, if you can find a DJ in the group, pick their brain about music to check out that might bridge the gap between what you are playing now and what would make your music more conducive to dancing.

HAVE AUDIO/VIDEO FILES ONLINE

I am constantly scouting for bands and, in the Internet age, a lot of that legwork is done online. I still go to a lot of shows to check bands out in person (very important), but having the ability to preview bands and see if there is potential for hiring a band for a swing dance is amazing. It eliminates some things that may be lost in translation – your friend saw this amazing band that they swear would be good for swing dancing and you go to the show, only to find out that it’s a bluegrass band. Nothing against bluegrass, it’s just not swing. Now, you can go online and find that band’s website, Facebook, ReverbNation page, etc. and listen to recordings of the band, find videos on YouTube, and get a feel for what you might expect.

If a band does not have any audio or video online, there’s not a lot I can do in the interim – I have to wait for a show to check out the band or rely on word of mouth (which isn’t always reliable) or reputation (a bit more reliable). Having audio and video online, even if it’s not professional quality, is the first stepping stone and helps band bookers and potential fans bypass the wait – you can have people interested in your music right now, raise the level of anticipation for your shows, or just put yourself out there for people to see what you are doing. You can also eliminate the potentially awkward situation where you have been hired to play a dance and you realize that you are not a good fit for this particular group. People are looking for your band online to research what you do so it’s important to give them the tools they need to find you and your music.

KEEP YOUR WEBSITE UPDATED

If your website hasn’t been updated in over a year and you aren’t keeping up with a calendar or list of shows, then we have no way of knowing whether or not your band is active (if the internet is our only lead for information on your band). The next step in scouting, after looking for information online, is actually going to a show – if you don’t have any schedule posted or shows listed, then there is little I can do to find you in person. In the Internet age, information is key and having the most current information on your website is essential.

DO RESEARCH AND GET TO KNOW THE COMMUNITY

Have you ever been to a swing dance? If the answer is no, then that should be your first objective, to attend a swing dance, preferably one with a live band so that you can see the environment. Introduce yourself to the organizers. Notice how the dancers respond to the music – what are they enjoying? How are they moving in relation to the music? What is the tempo range of the music? Talk to the DJ spinning tunes during the band breaks. Talk to the band playing for dancers. Everyone will have some insight into a particular aspect of the dance that will help you put together the bigger picture.

Is there more than one community? Many times, swing dance communities are fragmented, either by instructor, musical preference, or some other factor. Find out where you might fit into that scheme – if your swing is more blues-y, then maybe your better bet would be to attend the local DJ’ed blues night and talk to them about featuring you as a live band.

The more you talk to people, the more you will learn about the community. You may also find resources online, so check them out, as well.

SCHEDULING

scheduling

This is more relevant if you are trying to get dancers to come out to your gigs (rather than getting a gig at a swing dance), but one of the biggest issues I see in the Triangle area is scheduling. There are already established dance nights in this area – Triangle Swing Dance Society on first and third Saturdays, Lindy Lab every Thursday, Dance Blues Friday, Elk’s Lodge on Sunday – if you are trying to target one of these groups to attend your show, then scheduling that show on the same night as an established dance night will be to your detriment. If you want to attract dancers and have the flexibility to schedule your show on a night that there is not a conflicting dance, then everyone wins. Dancers will almost always choose the best bet for the night – generally, that means the reliable bet of their weekly dance, where they know they will have good music, a wood floor, air conditioning, and plenty of space to dance.

That said, there are a lot of prime nights of the week taken up by regular dance events, but if you know your audience, you will know how to schedule your shows – for example, if you are a hot jazz band playing lots of Charleston music, scheduling your show on a Sunday night might work because, even though it conflicts with the Elk’s Lodge, the Elk’s Lodge draws a crowd that prefers a bit slower tempos, so you wouldn’t see as much of a conflict in scheduling because the dancers who prefer to dance Charleston to hot jazz would probably prefer to attend your show over the dance at the Elk’s Lodge. Scheduling that same show on a Thursday wouldn’t work out because a higher concentration of dancers who do Charleston prefer to go to the Lindy Lab on Thursday nights for dancing.

ASK FOR HELP

If you are starting from square one, there are basic guidelines and considerations for performing at swing dances that people have written down – the Triangle Swing Dance Society has one that they share with new bands – and if you ask organizers they will generally share what they are looking for in terms of a band’s performance and what is expected at a dance. Bobby White, one of the international swing dance instructors, has posted a set of guidelines that is pretty solid on his blog, Swungover, at http://swungover.wordpress.com/2012/10/29/a-quick-note-on-training-bands-to-play-for-dancers/.

If you haven’t gotten that far or maybe just played for a few dancers at a bar and want to know more about how you might fit in at a swing dance, don’t be afraid to ask questions – are my range of tempos good? Is the mix of tempos and styles working? Did the set have a good flow? We tried something new with X song, did that work for the dancers? Will this work for most of the dancers? What could we do to make the music better for dancers? Can you give some examples for me to listen to/check out later? Solicit feedback from several people, people you know and people you don’t know. Even if you have played dances in the past, it’s good to continue asking these questions – tastes and norms evolve and it’s important to stay aware of what is going on in the dance community (especially if it’s been a few years since you were hired to play a swing dance).

bad-attitude

HAVE A GOOD ATTITUDE ABOUT FEEDBACK

Obviously, everyone is going to have an opinion about your music, some positive, some negative. Try to stay positive and focus on constructive feedback, things that you can actually accomplish. Reinforce the things you are doing well. Improve or modify things that may not be working.

ADAPT

You may not be able to implement everything you got in your feedback, but even making small changes gradually will help. Dancers will be quick to let you know when things like tempo, song length, and volume aren’t working, so definitely listen to that feedback and adapt. Experiment with other adaptations, see what is working, what is not working, then solicit more feedback.

One of the quickest ways to lose a dance gig or not get one at all is to ignore the feedback you get. There have been great swing bands that lost gigs because they insisted on featuring their soloists for umpteen choruses and the songs ended up being 10 minutes long. If you have never danced to an uptempo song for 10 minutes, try running for 10 minutes and see how winded you are. You want the dancers to be exhausted at the end of the night, not in the middle of the first set. The guidelines and norms are there for a reason, and the reasons are generally practical.

RECOGNIZE WHEN YOU AREN’T A GOOD FIT

Sometimes it’s just not going to work out. You’ve talked to the organizers at length, worked on getting your songs just right, but there is something missing – maybe attendance is declining when you play a dance, people aren’t dancing as much, the advanced dancers don’t come to your shows, you see the same dancers come out every week but your audience isn’t growing, or you keep getting feedback that seems evasive…then maybe it’s just not a good fit.

I have experienced the “not a good fit” when a band I performed with played swing music for a ballroom or beach music crowd – no one was dancing, red-faced old men came up to me and yelled “play some dance music!” and people left early. It can be that obvious, or it may be more subtle. Pay attention to the crowd and verbal and physical cues and know when to bow out.

Pitch a Boogie Woogie and Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers

About 11 years ago when I was an undergraduate at East Carolina University in Greenville, NC, I took a film class that had a research component, where we had to research a topic and write a paper on that topic. At the time (well, and even now) I was over the moon about swing dancing and wanted to do my research on something swing dance and film related. My friend Dave Fillmore once told me about a documentary he saw on a film made in Greenville in the 1940’s that featured some of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers and I knew that I wanted to dig into this topic and find out more.

How did a couple of Harlem Lindy Hoppers end up in a film made in a tobacco town in the 1940’s? Of course there’s a story. 🙂

In the years building up to the making of the film, Greenville saw a number of touring jazz musicians, who would hold big band dances in the tobacco warehouses nearby, including Louis Jordan, Lucky Millinder, Billy Eckstine, Andy Kirk, and Earl Hines. In addition to these national touring bands, there were local and regional big bands that would play dances – it seems that just about every larger town in North Carolina had their own band for dances: Jimmy Gunn from Charlotte, The Carolina Stompers from Wilson, the Blackhawks from Kinston, the Mud (if I noted this correctly) Stompers from Elizabeth City, the Rhythm Vets from Greensboro, and I’m sure there were others. There were other entertainers who traveled this circuit, including minstrel and variety shows. A favorite was Irving Miller’s Brown Skin Models from Harlem. All of this to say that Greenville had its share of jazz, dancing, and entertainment in the 1940’s.

The film is called “Pitch a Boogie Woogie” and it was made in 1947 by a man named John Warner who owned The Plaza Theater. The Plaza was located in the hub of the African-American community in Greenville, NC, an area called The Block. Warner, though a white man, was a part of the community around The Block, and fancied himself a filmmaker. He would shoot footage of people on The Block, local talent shows, and other local events, and would show these films at The Plaza Theater. It was a brilliant idea that kept people coming back to the theater, to see if they had made it into some of the local footage Warner shot.

Warner had bigger ideas about his filmmaking so he formed a corporation, Lord Warner Pictures, with his brother, William Lord, who worked on Broadway as a songwriter. Their first endeavor was a 30 minute documentary called “Greenville on Parade,” which was followed by the 1947 featurette, “Pitch a Boogie Woogie.”

“Pitch a Boogie Woogie” had a mostly local, all-African-American cast, including the stars of the film, Tom Foreman and Herman Forbes (incidentally, Herman Forbes went on to become the NC Teacher of the Year for 1975). Warner brought in a few ringers for his production, to round out the entertainment for his “backstage musical,” including some of Winstead’s Mighty Minstrels, chorus girl dancers, actress Evelyn Whorton, tap dancer Cleophus Lines, and a couple of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers named The Count and Harriet. The Count got his name because he loved to play Count Basie on the piano.

There is no direct information about how The Count and Harriet ended up in this film. The other performers had a connection and were specifically mentioned as performing as part of troupes that had performed in Greenville before. Did Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers come through Greenville to perform in earlier years? Or did other Harlem performers who had been through town recommend them? Did the theater patrons see films like Hellzapoppin and want something like that in their film? Or did William Lord know of them through his connections in New York? There are definitely still gaps in my research, but I like to think about the possibilities.

Also of note in this film is footage of local Greenville residents social dancing – you see some Lindy Hop and some solo dancing.

The soundtrack was written by William Lord and originally performed by Don Dunning’s Orchestra, but the original soundtrack had too many issues and was later overdubbed by the Rhythm Vets from Greensboro. I find it interesting that there were so many soundtrack issues, especially with Lindy Hop clips (Hellzapoppin’, A Day at the Races) – members of the Rhythm Vets noted that it was difficult to try to fit the music to the dancing in “Pitch a Boogie Woogie” post-production.

“Pitch a Boogie Woogie” premiered on January 28, 1948 at The Plaza Theater in Greenville, NC. It was a huge local and regional success, but never saw distribution outside of the South. Shortly after the premiere, Warner got into a disagreement with distributors and was blacklisted. Then, the African-American community boycotted the theater following an incident at The Plaza where the police arrested a disorderly patron, who was taken to the police station and beaten.

The Block faded, The Plaza closed, another theater named The Roxy opened and closed near The Block, and in 1975 some people using The Roxy building discovered one of the remaining reels for “Pitch a Boogie Woogie.” The nitrate film was restored by the American Film Institute, and the film re-premiered in Greenville on February 8, 1986 with the living members of the cast and the Rhythm Vets in attendance. In 1988, the UNC Center for Public Television put together a documentary of the making of the film and the rediscovery of the film called “Boogie in Black and White.”

It has taken me a long time to get this information and video posted. I still had my research paper, but the copy of “Boogie in Black and White” I used belonged to ECU’s Joyner Library. A few years after I graduated I decided I wanted a copy of “Boogie in Black and White” and wrote to UNC-TV to try to obtain a copy. They wrote back that they could not locate any archived material on this program, but to call a number and speak with someone else. I called the UNC-TV number given to me and the person I spoke with said they had no idea what I was talking about.

I gave up on trying to obtain a copy until last year, when I thought about all the great Lindy Hop clips on YouTube and thought I’d search the Interwebs to see if any clips or information would come up on The Count and Harriet. The only hit was the Joyner Library archives at ECU. It was important to me that these clips survive because of my research, my love of dancing, and that this footage came from my home state and my mother’s home town.

I thought to email ECU professor Alex Albright, who was one of the people I interviewed for my paper, who was also a driving force behind the “Pitch a Boogie Woogie” restoration, conducted much of the research for the documentary, and wrote most of the content for the UNC-TV documentary. He was not surprised at UNC-TV’s response to my request and was as disappointed as I was at the possibility that this film might be forgotten. The only right he retained to the documentary was the right to make VHS copies of the documentary for a small fee. I was elated that I could finally, after 10 years, get my hands on a copy of this film. Dr. Albright also told me that Tom Whiteside, a technician at Duke University, still has a film copy of “Pitch a Boogie Woogie,” so there’s still hope for the film beyond the VHS copies.

I hope you enjoy the clips I have posted and this bit of background information. I’d like to give special thanks to Alex Albright for his initial research, assistance with my research, and for the VHS tape of the film. Additional thanks to Chris Owens for converting the VHS tape to digital format. I’d also like to thank Bobby White for suggesting that there should be a post on this topic and for offering to do a story on this for his Swungover blog. I believe that there are many things already on his plate, so I decided to play swing archivist for the day.

(Edited to add that Norma Miller has identified that these are not Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers; however, Peter Loggins and Harri Heinilä have posed possible theories that could place them as Whitey’s. I suppose we shall stay tuned to find out the answer to the question – who are The Count and Harriet? To tune into the discussion visit the Jassdancer Facebook page)

(Edited again to add that Harri Heinilä found verification that The Count and Harriet were members of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, or were at least trained by Herbert “Whitey” White: “Count & Harriet were former members of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers according to Willie Jones, who was possibly one of the oldest members of the group…you can find that from Robert Crease’s Willie Jones interview, which was published in New York Swing Dance Society’s Footnotes in Spring 1990.” Both Peter and Harri are checking their sources for information on Southern tours that might place them in or near Greenville, NC)

***The sources listed below are from my research paper, which focused more on the local theaters and the climate that gave rise to the film, but are also relevant to the information in my post.

Sources:

Albright, Alex. Personal interview, December 4, 2001.

Boogie in Black and White. Written by Alex Albright and directed by Susan Massengale. Videotape. UNC Center for Public Television, 1988.

John Warner Papers. East Carolina University Manuscript Collection. East Carolina University.

Kammerer, Roger. “The Movie Houses of Greenville: Part II.” Greenville Times, January 5-18, 1994.

McLawhorn, Melvin. Personal interview, December 7, 2001.

Pierce, Candace. Personal interview, November 30, 2001.

Shiver, Charles. Personal interview, December 9, 2001.

Windley, Gayle. Telephone interview, December 9, 2001.

What Jazz is Missing in the Triangle

I ran across a blog called LiveMusicNC.com and discovered a post called “10 Great Places to See Live Jazz (Plus One Great Show!).” I scanned the list, hoping for a scoop on where I might hear some stride piano, a dixieland group, or a swing band, and there was the same list of venues I check, week after week, that only book bebop, modern, or “straight ahead” jazz.

Clearly, we are not speaking the same language. Where is my jazz?

To say that I am disappointed with jazz in the Triangle is an understatement. This has been the norm, me being hopeful that someone will book one of the local, underrated jazz groups I love that play jazz from the 1920’s, 1930’s, and 1940’s, then being disappointed after reading local concert and venue listings. I have tried to get touring dixieland and swing bands gigs at some of these venues and at other venues that hire live music, but to no avail. I even promise an audience who will pay for the band in tips, and I still get no response.

There’s been a lot of lip service recently about jazz in the Triangle, but if the local venues are only offering a certain type of jazz or only booking certain musicians, is the scene really that vibrant?

What if there’s an entire subset of jazz lovers, new patrons, that you could draw to your venue if you added a few more bands to your lineup?

What if there’s an entire subset of talented jazz musicians you’ve never heard of because they rarely get a chance to play the music that really makes them shine?

MY POINT: We will not have a complete and vibrant jazz community without embracing all forms of jazz.

Jazz did not begin in 1950. There is an extensive, almost endless catalog of songs from the three prior decades that is full of life, energy, relevance, bliss, heartache, humor, love, affection, food, sex, and crazy people. This music is awesome in so many ways and, perhaps, should be performed live because sometimes the recording technology back then wasn’t up to modern snuff.

I want to hear it and I have friends who want to hear it. I’d love to be able to go out to something other than a swing dance and hear “Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gave to Me” or “Dinah” or “Rockin’ in Rhythm.” Can we do this, Triangle? I’ve got the people if you’ve got the space.

To help in understanding where I am coming from, I have compiled a list of reasons why your venue should book musicians who play 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s jazz:

FUN

What made the Roaring Twenties fun? It wasn’t just the booze, it was also the music – the two were almost inseparable. This music was made for parties, dance halls, brothels, bars, and just about every place your mother would disapprove of. It’s joyous music with an energy that can lift your spirits.

ACCESSIBLE

The jazz of the 1920’s, 30’s, and 40’s is pop music – it was the pop music of its time and, while it sounds somewhat different from today’s pop music, the two are not so far apart. It’s melodic and, for the most part, it has lyrics or is based on songs written with lyrics. It all has a driving rhythm, a certain pulse. Most of it is in a major key and in 4/4 time. I think we’ve met most of the criteria for pop music at this point, so your subconscious should at least warm up to the sound.

I don’t want to spend any time bashing modern jazz, I’ll just say it’s not my bag. It doesn’t speak to me the way earlier forms of jazz have spoken to me. Perhaps I just need something that’s simple to enjoy.

DANCE-ABLE

The jazz of the 1920’s through the 1940’s was dance music. In fact, a major divide between this era and the bebop/modern jazz era is that sensibility, that jazz transitioned from something that you danced to into something that you listened to – from the dance hall to the concert hall.

However, dancing isn’t the only function. Think about the music that we dance to today – people play “dance” music in bars and restaurants all the time, but you don’t necessarily get up and dance at those places. Early jazz music can create a similar energy in a room.

CLASSY

A lot of people book jazz groups to set a mood. Perhaps its the instrumentation or the songs themselves, but jazz is a class act. Early jazz can add a different tone of class, obviously harkening back to an earlier, perhaps even more genteel and elegant era of the silver screen, the lawn party, and the supper club. It can be a party, but it can also be a soiree, depending on the song selection.

ALL AGES

I see evidence of this mostly at live, outdoor events, but people of all ages love this music. Obviously the people who were there the first time around are fans, but kids immediately start going bananas when they hear an uptempo swing tune and try to get as close to the band as possible. Some of the most vocal fans of this music are from the Baby Boomers. As someone sort of spanning Gen X and Y, I’ve been listening to this music since I was a teenager and there are countless others just like me in cities all over the world, and even a few more like me here in the Triangle.

I’d like to make a difference for my friends who love this music or love to perform this music. I’d like to get excited about events and bands. I’d like to make the Triangle a great place for all kinds of jazz. There is certainly so much potential here, but there is still work left to do to bridge these musical gaps.