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South Africa: Summiting the Mountain

I’m sorry for the delay in posting. I had a late night last night, and an early morning scheduled for today. But now you get the joy of two days worth of updates in one!

Yesterday, I didn’t have anything planned that I had to do. I spent the morning sleeping in a bit, and then decided to hike Lion Head mountain. I’d heard that it was an easy hike with amazing views. I was doing good for a while until the path turned into a ledge cut on the side of the mountain with some scrambling up rocks. When I first saw this, my heart started racing. I managed to push past my fear several times. Finally, I reach what I would refer to as the mane of the lion, and decided that was far enough for me. There was a nice plateau where I could set up my tripod, and take some amazing pictures I can stitch together into a panorama.

Sometimes we push past our fears. Sometimes our fears are trying to tell us something. Sometimes we aim to summit the mountain and still fall short. It doesn’t always happen in a day. The circumstances aren’t always right, sometimes we aren’t in the right place. But even though I fell short, I celebrate my effort and my personal growth. In many ways, this entire trip has felt like that: pushing myself up the mountain…pushing past my fears. Tomorrow is a new day, and I get to try again. This time, I have a guide as I hike to the top of Table Mountain, the centerpiece of Cape Town.

After hiking Lions Head, I had time to spend with one of the new friends I’ve made through dancing here. Hillary is one of those beautiful Christians that lives her life as an example of what Christianity can be at its best. I had originally planned to see a big band concert, but it was sold out. So instead, we managed to just barely catch the sunset over the Atlantic before getting dinner, and then heading out to a club to swing dance. While the tourist experiences here are amazing, the best moments keep coming from the locals.

Which brings me tot today. This morning, I visited Hillary’s church, an Anglican Church that reminds me of the small and diverse congregation at Hunting Ridge Presbyterian Church where I work. After the service, I helped her bake in preparation for a tea she was hosting, but had to head out before the tea to get to the Langa township for a concert. On my first day here, I met a lovely young woman who mentioned the concert. I had given her my card, and asked her to email me the details. The concert was amazing, and a highlight of my time here. 

Before the main group, two local groups part of a collective called Langa Arts performed. Thami, the woman I had met, was the singer for the marimba band. She is a dynamite powerhouse. I was blown away. And to state the obvious, I’m not blown away easily. After those two groups, a third band that had been brought in from France performed. They were a Voodoo funk band, really an Afro-funk band. Everyone was dancing, including me. One of the older women from the township started teaching me to dance. It felt wonderful to be  immersed in this world and let myself go. 

I am ever grateful to all of the people I have met here who have embraced me so whole heartedly. All of my most amazing experiences are things I would never have found researching on the Internet. Baltimore will always be my home, but there is something in this place that calls me to be a part of it in some capacity. I can’t help but think that this is what love is at its core: when you open your heart to the world, and the world opens its heart back. 

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Swing Dancing, the Olympics, and Doctor Who

Not having a TV, Susanne and I haven’t had many opportunities to watch the Olympics, but that hasn’t stopped us from following the results online, reading articles, looking through pictures and some limited videos, and whatever else we can find. Looking at those chiseled athletes and what they have trained themselves to do is inspiring. I often have to remind myself that one reason I don’t have washboard abs like an olympic athlete is because that’s not my job. I don’t train my body for hours every day, at least not for a sport. As a musician, I do spend at minimum of an hour playing every day, usually more. I have amazing definition in my forearms, for what it’s worth. Continue reading

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Three (Light-Hearted) Rules for a Good Dance

Before I get on with today’s post, just a quick reminder that tap dancer and recent guest to All the Cats Join In, Andrew Nemr, will be presenting¬† his show, Echoes in Time, tonight at Symphony Space in NYC. Check out the interview with Andrew from last week, and if you’re in NYC, go see the show tonight!
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I was shocked the first time a woman told me she was intimidated to dance with me. I thought, Really? Me? But I’m not even that great, and I’m a mellow cat. I’ve since come to realize that anyone who can do a swingout with relative ease can be intimidating to a new dancer. After having the same conversations many times, I’ve developed a couple of standard lines in response to some of the things I hear from follows. Most dancers I know develop some sort of lexicon of catch phrases for all those common conversations. Here are some of mine:

Me: Would you like to dance?
Follow: Umm, I’m not very good.
Me: (In a totally upbeat, non-sarcastic tone of voice) Then I’m glad I asked you to dance, and not if you were very good.

New Follow: (after mucking up) I’m so sorry.
Me: Don’t be, you’re doing great. I have three rules for a good dance. One, we’re both smiling and having a fun. Two, neither of us gets hurt. And three, no one’s ass hits the floor unless its intentional.

I also try to be encouraging to new dancers at the end of a dance without going overboard. I will also let them know they are welcome to find me for a dance anytime, and that if they have any questions or need any help to feel free to ask. There’s a lead in DC, an older gentlemen who’s been dancing since before I was born, who told Susanne after she’d been dancing for a month or so, “Stick with it kiddo. You’re gonna be good.” I don’t know if I have the guts for that level of honesty. Its probably easier hearing that from a kooky older guy, but it impressed me that he was able to pull it off.

I’m wondering what are some of the other regular conversations you have, and what are your stock responses?

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Vintage Jazz Buffet (5 of 5)

Today is the final day of our 100 songs by 100 artists. I don’t know about you, but this jazz buffet has left me stuffed! I hope you’ve enjoyed this list and found it helpful and fun. I never meant for this to be a conclusive list, so if I left out an artist you love or there’s a song you feel deserves mention, please take a moment to leave a comment. Also, a lot of time and love went into this list, so I hope you’ll share the link with your swing communities.

Part 1 (1-20)
Part 2 (21-40)
Part 3 (41-60)
Part 4 (61-80)
Part 5 (81-100)

  1. “Fever” – Peggy Lee. I’ve heard it said that Peggy Lee knew she didn’t have the biggest voice, but learned that by singing with quiet intensity she could get people to listen. I don’t know if that’s true since she can sing with some power when she wants to, but it certainly holds true that her voice can mesmerize. She recorded throughout her life, adapting to changing genres over the years, her last album recorded in 1992.
  2. “Cheek to Cheek” – Ray Anthony. Ray Anthony started playing with Glenn Miller and then Tommy Dorsey before starting up his own band. He had a hit with “Dancing in the Dark,” not so much of a danceable tune, but a solid standard ballad. He also achieved fame for writing the theme to Dragnet.
  3. “Messin On Melrose” – Ray Bauduc. Bauduc was a drummer in the 20s and 30s who helped to transition jazz from Charlston/New Orleans jazz into the swing of the 1930s. He played in Ben Pollock’s band for six years, while sitting in on recordings for Jack Teagarden, Benny Goodman, Louis Prima, Glenn Miller, and more.
  4. “Little Jack Frost Get Lost” – Ray McKinley Orchestra. Ray McKinley also co-led the Will Bradley Orchestra which recorded one of my favorites, “Celery Stalks at Midnight.” His own band was short lived as he entered the army during WWII, working with Glenn Miller’s army band. After Miller’s passing, McKinley continued to lead Glenn Miller’s legacy orchestra for a decade.
  5. “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” – Rosemary Clooney. The aunt of actor, George Clooney, Rosemary had a great career in movies and music. Her sultry alto voice stood in contrast to many of the innocent sounding songbirds of the day. Her skills as an actress showed through in her emotional performances, compensating for her lack of virtuosity.
  6. “Jump Through the Window” – Roy Eldridge. Eldridge was not a pretty trumpet player, he attacked the music, aggressive and forthright. His most memorable work came in the 1940s with Gene Krupa and Anita O’Day and also with Artie Shaw.
  7. “Hop, Skip, & Jump” – Roy Milton. Milton was a solid sender, literally. His R&B influenced band, The Solid Senders, benefitted from his driving work on drums. He has a string of hits in the 1940’s, this particular tune being one of my personal favorites of his.
  8. “Love Me or Leave Me” – Sammy Davis, Jr. Unlike the rest of the rat pack who started as crooners for big bands, Sammy started with a small group combo, Will Mastin’s Gang. As a tap dancer, he understands music on a deep level, and knows how to swing it, although his arrangements sometimes veer into his theatrical, vaudeville roots.
  9. “Ballin’ the Jack” – Sidney Bechet. Bechet achieved more success and fame in Europe than he ever achieved in the States during his life. He worked steadily in the 1920s, but had trouble finding jobs in the 1930s. His own attempts to start up bands usually flopped. In 1949, he played a jazz festival in France, and the warm reception he received convinced him to stay abroad where he finally achieved some success and recognition.
  10. “Shout, Sister, Shout!” – Sister Rosetta Tharpe (with Lucky Millinder). The Lord blessed us dancers with this amazing gospel talent who was willing to swing it hard in the clubs with us dancers. She popularized gospel music, becoming so successful as to be one of only two gospel acts recorded on the V-Discs for American troops in WWII.
  11. “Jump Session” – Slim Gaillard (and Slam Stewart). Slim Gaillard was never really taken seriously as a musician, perhaps because the man was hardly ever serious himself. He was immensely entertaining and versatile as a singer, guitarist, and pianist. He often included gimmicks like singing in his made up dialogue of “Vout” and playing piano with the back of his hands.
  12. “Eager Beaver” – Stan Kenton. Kenton came up playing piano in dance bands, but always longed for something else. He started his own band in the early 40s, and slowly built up some success. Adding June Christy as vocalist certainly helped. But Kenton wanted to be playing more complicated, “Progressive Jazz,” for a concert audience. Still, he could swing hard when he wanted to.
  13. “For Dancers Only” – Sy Oliver. A student introduced me to Sy Oliver recently. Sy only led his own band briefly, but he was a successful trumpeter and arranger. He arranged charts for Jimmy Lunceford in the 30s and for Tommy Dorsey in the 40s. In the 50s, he started doing freelance work that kept him busy and working until his death in the 1980s.
  14. “B-Flat Swing” – Teddy Wilson. Big bands were so plentiful in the 1930s that its easy to overlook some of the smaller combos. Teddy Wilson made a career playing in smaller groups where his accessible piano style shined. He often worked with Benny Goodman, and also taught at Julliard for a time.
  15. “American Patrol” – Tex Beneke. Beneke was a sax player, but made his name as a vocalist for Glenn Miller recording, “Chattanooga Choo Choo” and other classics. He led the Glenn Miller Orchestra in the years after Miller’s death, but was unhappy with the limitations placed on the band by Miller’s estate and launched his own band.
  16. “Darktown Strutters Ball” – Tiny Hill & His Orchestra. Like all men named Tiny, this 350 lb. gent moved slow and steady. His band grew in fame over the 1930s to the point where they were doing national tours. In the 40s, he got a gig as the house band on the radio show, “Your Hit Parade.”
  17. “That’s the Rhythm” – Three Sharps and A Flat. Bill Spiedel introduced me to this song. I can’t find much about the group, but they are a vocal harmony group in a similar vein to Cats and The Fiddle. He and I would both like this song to catch on more.
  18. “Blue Moon” – Tommy Dorsey & His Orchestra (w/Frank Sinatra). At this point, I’ve talked so much about Tommy Dorsey as I’ve mentioned all the people who came through his band, that I feel there’s little left to add. What I will say is that Tommy is my favorite of the two Dorsey Brothers.
  19. “Jack I’m Mellow” – Trixie Smith. Primarily a blues singer, Trixie recorded in the mid 20s with Louis Armstrong. Her fame faded with time, and she was primarily forgotten. Were it not for this pot-inspired song, chances are she wouldn’t be on this list.
  20. “Ain’t Misbehavin'” – Woody Herman. Woody Herman was an experimenter with his big band. Sometimes, its wildly successful, sometimes its wildly successful for someone who doesn’t have to dance to it. For example, his band recorded the Ebony Concerto which was written by Stravinsky for them. That takes some serious chops!

This post is part 5 of a series that lists one hundred different songs by one hundred different artists. It is designed to be used as an inspiration for dancers to explore the catalogs of our great vintage jazz recording artists. I’ve placed what I consider to be iconic artists in bold. If you are just starting to explore vintage jazz, I recommend you start with these artists.

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Vintage Jazz Buffet (4 of 5)

This post is part 4 of a series that lists one hundred different songs by one hundred different artists. It is designed to be used as an inspiration for dancers to explore the catalogs of our great vintage jazz recording artists. I’ve placed what I consider to be iconic artists in bold. If you are just starting to explore vintage jazz, I recommend you start with these artists.

Part 1 (1-20)
Part 2 (21-40)
Part 3 (41-60)
Part 4 (61-80)
Part 5 (81-100)

  1. “Come On-A-My House” – Kay Starr. Kay Starr is mostly remembered for her work in the 50s when she had the big hit with “Wheel of Fortune.” I’m not one for the sweeping strings and shmaltz of those recordings, but a little more digging and you’ll find a Kay Starr that swings hard with a powerful voice similar to Dinah Washington’s.
  2. “New Orleans Shout” – King Oliver & His Orchestra. King Oliver’s group was one of the last successful dixieland bands with a fully improvisational style. In it, he mentored many up and coming musicians including Louis Armstrong. Unfortunately, the recording technology of the day leaves us with only a faint impression of what the robust band must have sounded like in its day.
  3. “Glen Island Hop” – Larry Clinton & His Orchestra. As an arranger, Larry Clinton was known for taking classical music and well known songs, and transforming them into swinging hits. He had some success with his own band before Glenn Miller came along and took the spotlight from him.
  4. “Honeysuckle Rose” – Lena Horne. With a stunning figure and a beautiful voice, Lena Horne found success in both music and in the movies. But as an African-American, she was often unable to get respectable movie parts, and focused her career more on music. While ballads were her specialty (she’s known for “Stormy Weather”), she was just as comfortable with anything dripping with jazz.
  5. “Bizet Has His Day” – Les Brown. Launching Doris Day’s career made Les Brown a star, too. He was never a great innovator in jazz, but had a solid crew of talent. In later years, he partnered up with Bob Hope, and was able to maintain his success throughout his life. Continue reading

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Vintage Jazz Buffet (3 of 5)

This post is part 3 of a series that lists one hundred different songs by one hundred different artists. It is designed to be used as an inspiration for dancers to explore the catalogs of our great vintage jazz recording artists. I’ve placed what I consider to be iconic artists in bold. If you are just starting to explore vintage jazz, I recommend you start with these artists.

Part 1 (1-20)
Part 2 (21-40)
Part 3 (41-60)
Part 4 (61-80)
Part 5 (81-100)

  1. “Yacht Club Swing” – Fats Waller. Fats Waller was an amazing pianist who used to tear it up at the rent parties in Harlem. He was also one hell of an entertainer, and while not being the “best” vocalist, he was so expressive with his voice that it never mattered. I’m particularly fond of his appearance in the movie, Stormy Weather.
  2. “Blue Lou” – Fletcher Henderson. With degrees in chemistry and mathematics, Fletcher Henderson proves that geek-dom and jazz/swing/dancing have been intertwined since the beginning. Unable to find work with his degrees, he found work in music and became quite the success. Many of the musicians in this list came through his band at some point including Fats Waller, Don Redman, Roy Eldridge, and Louis Armstrong.
  3. “I Like Pie, I Like Cake” – The Four Chefs. This is the only song I know by them, and the only one listed on iTunes. There’s no entry on Allmusic.com for them, and I can’t find a website with any info about them. This one song is amazing, and I’d love to learn more about these cooking crusaders for harmonic justice. If you know anything about their secret identity, please share.
  4. “Swingin On a Star” – Frank Sinatra (with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra). Frank Sinatra started with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, and I love this recording because it sounds little like the Sinatra most people think of at the mention of his name. Occasionally, I like to play this or another of his early recordings in response to people’s requests for Frank just to defy their expectations. Yes, his later work with Capitol records produced many iconic recordings, but looking at the whole of his work, he was a much more complex artist than those canonical recordings lead us to believe.
  5. “Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails” – Fred Astaire. I own the complete set of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies, and watch them regularly. Although he was always self conscious about his vocal abilities, Fred Astaire was a solid vocalist with a smooth, light tenor voice that matched his easy dancing. There are many great recordings from all of the films he did, and he also recorded some.
  6. “Opus One” – Gene Krupa. Gene Krupa’s most easily recognized work is his drum solo on Benny Goodman’s recording of “Sing, Sing, Sing.” He was the first to use a full drum set on recordings and brought the drums to greater prominence through his use of drum solos. After a tiff with Goodman, Krupa started his own band which was well regarded.
  7. “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone” – Glenn Miller. Glenn Miller had many hits including “Sing, Sing, Sing,” “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree,” “Kalamazoo,” “Pensylvania 6500,” and more. Many of these songs have been staples in the dance scene as long as I can remember because of their familiarity to both beginner and experienced dancers. His collection runs much deeper than those hits, though, and their are a lot of great songs that most dancers don’t know that deserve some attention. One of my favorites is “Sunvalley Stomp.” Continue reading

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