Musicians and Dancers

Here’s a transcript of the video, in case you prefer to read…

Hello and welcome back to this little historical series with me Katie Cobalt.

Today we are going to be looking at the relationship between the musicians and the dancers. Obviously as dancers we are forever affected by the music we dance to. After all, the music always comes before the dance. But today I want to look at how the musicians of the Swing Jazz era saw and interacted with dancers. 

Our main source material in this episode is this book here, Steppin’ on the Blues: The Visible Rhythms of African American Dance by Jacqui Malone, in this book Malone has an entire chapter dedicated to the intersection between musicians and dancing called “Jazz Music in Motion”. Additionally, this episode ended up being very heavy on Duke Ellington. Many of the sources I consulted kept coming back to him and then I found his book and it was all over. So be ready to hear a lot about what Ellington thought.

Speaking of, like Malone I’m going to open with this quote from Duke Ellington:

Dancing is very important to people who play music with a beat. I think that people who don’t dance, or never did dance, don’t really understand the beat…I know musicians who don’t and never did dance, and they have difficulty communicating

Duke Ellington, The World of Duke Ellington by Stanley Dance 1970

We often hear about the best musicians being those who have a strong relationship with the dancers. Those who dance truly understand what it is that dancers are looking for. Some of my favourite musicians are also amazing dancers in their own right. There is such a sense of joy and excitement when someone like Jonathan Stout steps down from the stage to join in a jam circle. 

But it’s not just modern musicians who will put down their instruments to take to the floor! Dizzy Gillespie would dance with his vocalists, Sarah Vaughan or Ella Fitzgerald on stage.

We used to take the floor over. Yeah, do the Lindy Hop because we could do it. Yeah, we danced like mad together…We’d go with the old Savoy steps

Ella Fitzgerald quoted in Steppin’ on the Blues Jacqui Malone. 

Some even made it a huge part of their act and stage persona, think of Cab Calloway who was a phenomenal dancer and even got featured in Betty Boop cartoons, where animators rotoscoped his dancing into various larger than life characters.

Calloway was a bandleader, singer and dancer, he regularly performed at Harlem’s Cotton Club and was the first African-American musician to sell a million records from a single song -Minnie the Moocher- and he was the first African-American to have a nationally syndicated radio show. After the sensation which was Minnie the Moocher he earned the nickname The Hi-de-ho man and was equal parts dancer and musician.

Another musician with a dancing streak was the inimitable Chick Webb. He was such a powerhouse and won countless “battles of the bands” at the Savoy, Duke Ellington said that his dancing was the secret to his success. 

Some musicians are dancers, and Chick Webb was. You can dance with a lot of things besides your feet. Billy Strayhorn was another dancer – in his mind. He was a dance-writer. Chick Webb was a dance-drummer who painted pictures of dances with his drums…The reason why Chick Webb had such control, such command of his audiences at the Savoy ballroom, was because he was always in communication with the dancers and felt it the way they did. And that is probably the biggest reason why he could cut all the other bands that went in there.

Duke Ellington quoted in Steppin’ on the Blues Jaqui Malone. 

Imagine dancing at the Savoy Ballroom with the Chick Webb orchestra playing. They had him on drums banging out this dancing beat which instantly connected with the rhythms you were dancing in your body. His ability to understand the dance is why he is one of the legends of the swing world.

SIDE NOTE: Billy Strayhorn is definitely someone worth falling down a wikipedia hole for. He and Duke Ellington worked together for almost 30 years! He was one of the best composers, arrangers and pianists in the business. His first love was classical music but realised that there was no way a black man could possibly work in classical music in 1930s America, so he switched to Swing Jazz. He first met Duke Ellington when he was just 23. He caught the Duke after a show and showed Ellington how he would have re-arranged the music if given the chance. Luckily, Ellington was very impressed and they worked together until Strayhorn’s early death at 51. Ellington said that 

“He was not, as he was often referred to by many, my alter ego. Billy Strayhorn was my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head, my brain waves in his head, and his in mine.

Music is my Mistress by Duke Ellington 1973

Strayhorn was also the man behind the song “Take the A-Train” he composed the song in 1939. The story behind this song is that after Ellington offered Strayhorn a job and gave him money to travel from Pittsburgh to New York City. Ellington wrote directions for Strayhorn to get to his house by subway, directions that began, “Take the A Train”. 

Editors note: I failed to mention this in the video, but Billy Strayhorn was openly gay, which was pretty radical for the time.

Oh wow that was a long side note, anyways back to the intersection of dancers and musicians! There is one particular musician and style of dance which has quite a lot of overlap. Jazz drummers and tap dancers! Did you know that Buddy Rich, Jo Jones, Eddie Locke and Cozy Cole could all tap dance as well as playing the drums? It makes total sense, it’s all about expressing rhythm either with the drums or with your taps! Duke Ellington said of Jo Jones:

You get a guy like Jo Jones, all those guys can do a time step and the shim-sham-shimmy because that’s what you did in the theatre…We base all of our rhythms on dancing.”

Duke Ellington quoted in Steppin’ on the Blues Jacqui Malone

Baby Laurence, a rhythm tap dancer performing in the 60s often spoke about the overlap between playing music and dancing. In Laurence’s obituary Whitney Balliett wrote:

A great drummer dances sitting down. A great tap-dancer drums standing up” 

Another way the musicians and dancers interacted is when they performed together. From the days of the vaudeville circuit with touring acts like The Whitman Sisters, where Count Basie got his start, to the residencies that acts like Norma Miller and Cab Calloway did in the 60s. It was very common for musicians to bring dancers along with them on tour or play for dancers. 

Andy Kirk, the bandleader for the twelve clouds of joy from Kansas, would play at the Harlem’s Apollo for tap dance legend Bill Robinson, but you might know him as Bojanges (Who also got his start on tour with The Whitman sisters) 

Playing the Apollo was different from playing a dance hall, because in a dance hall the dancers had to dance to your music. At the Apollo, with a star like Bojangles, we had to play music for him to dance to… we always had regard for the artist, whatever he was doing, and our music was background. We wanted to play it right – the way he wanted it.

quoted in Steppin’ on the Blues Jaqui Malone

Musicians needed to focus on the needs of the dancer and make sure that they were doing what they could to help shine a spotlight on the dancers talent and ability. Moreover they wanted to do this to make sure to put on a great show.

Hmm but what about playing in those dance halls? Many musicians have spoken about how much the dancers affected the way they played. 

Dicky Wells, who played trombone at the Savoy with Jimmy Rushing’s band said that

the Lindy Hoppers there made you watch your P’s and Q’s. The dancers would come and tell you if you didn’t play. They made the guys play, and they’d stand in front patting their hands until you got the right tempo

quoted in Steppin’ on the Blues Jacqui Malone

Imagine standing at the edge of the stage and clapping a rhythm for the band. I think nowadays that kind of thing wouldn’t fly. But back then the relationship between musicians and dancers was a lot closer and sometimes the musicians needed the dancers to help support their music. 

A lot of musicians playing for dancers for the first time would pull from the dancers and use their rhythm to support their playing. As Duke Ellington said: 

“It’s a kick to play for people who really jump and swing. On two occasions up there we were using a substitute drummer, but we didn’t have to worry about him because the dancers were carrying the band and the drummer. You start playing, the dancers start dancing, and they have such a great beat you just hang on!” 

Duke Ellington  quoted in Steppin’ on the Blues Jaqui Malone

I also love how Duke clearly enjoys playing for dancers. I know many musicians who say that it’s so much more fun to play for people who dance. To see the music that they’re playing be brought to life and have people clearly interacting with them. 

From Jazz drummers who could hoof, bandleaders who danced as part of their acts, to dancers carrying the band with the rhythm. The music has always come before the dance but that doesn’t mean that the dancers haven’t changed the music. I love the title of Jaqui Malone’s chapter on this intersection, Jazz music in Motion. When we dance we are taking this wonderful thing and making it physical by putting it into our bodies. Dancers and musicians will always be intrinsically tied, we do not exist without the other. And we will always affect one another, we change how we dance based on the music but musicians will also change how they play based on the dancers. 

And to close out, I want to share with you a contemporary example of how music and dancers can affect one another. I give you LaTasha Barnes & Josh Collazo: