Jazz Collaborations: Tips for Performing with Live Music

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Lindy Hop and solo jazz performances danced to live music impress me time and time again. There’s an energy that is created by musicians and performers all on stage at the same time that truly isn’t possible when dance is accompanied by a recording. I bet social dancers can relate -- if you know a track like the back of your hand and are lucky enough to hear it played live, you're less likely to predict the ensemble's interpretation of the tune. In that moment, dancers react differently to the fresh sounds, and musicians even play off the movement they see. The improvisation and collaboration that results is beautiful and each performance can never be duplicated!

As a dancer, I’ve been involved in a good handful of performances with live music. This past year, I made an effort to seek out more opportunities to collaborate in this way. Each performance was with a different group of dancers and musicians, and were all for unique events (see the list & videos below). I acted as performance coordinator and choreographer for many of them, so I’ll share some tips that may come in handy if you’re interested in delving into your own projects of this sort. In my opinion, the more jazz collaborations, the better :)

Groove Juice Swing's March Special with Gordon Webster. Photos by Talha Azhar.

Tips for Performing with Live Music

This list is a resource for folks who are interested in putting together some collaborative performances of your own! If you have any questions along your process, feel free to send me a message -- I’m happy to help :)

Choosing Your Tune

  1. Chat with your bandleader in person (or on the phone). Choose your performance song together.

  2. You can give your bandleader a BPM range or energy level and they can come back to you with some recommendations.

  3. You could ask for a tune that you’ve heard that band play before. Maybe it’s off an album of theirs that you own. Or maybe they’re planning on recording a new album soon and have an unreleased version you can use to practice to in the meantime.

  4. Ask if the band has a transcription of a recording you know. A musical transcription of a sound recording is notated on sheet music exactly as heard. You can count on the song form, choruses, bridges, and breaks being the same as you heard on the recording you love. Solos will likely not be notated, so those will be improvised and sound different each time you perform or rehearse.

  5. Jazz standards are a great place to start. For this, you’ll need to work out how many choruses will be played, what intro and ending you want, and if any bridges will occur. If you use standard phrasing of 32-bar song form or 12 bar blues, it’s easy to piece together choreography that will work to a variety of different melodies! Your local band can find charts (or may already have them in their back pocket) for tunes like "All of Me." "Honeysuckle Rose." or "Ain't Misbehavin'."

Practicing

  1. Use a recording!

  2. Use software or an app to slow down or speed up music.

  3. Choose a choreographer (or two) and have her/him/them prep choreography before any group rehearsals occur. If it’s a group choreography (choreographed by everyone), expect to spend more time in rehearsals all together.

  4. If your dancers are from different scenes, you can share videos online. Have the choreographer dance it to counts and dance it to music. Sharing the choreography at least one month in advance should give everyone enough time to learn it on their own.

Day of the Performance

  1. If your dancers are collaborating from afar, schedule a rehearsal (maybe 1.5 hrs) onsite without the band. It’s good to try out the venue/stage that you’ll perform at, but not crucial for this rehearsal.

  2. Bands typically have sound check immediately preceding their set. Sometimes this is offset an hour or two because a lesson may occur at the venue immediately before the dance. Schedule about 20 minutes near the end of their sound check to rehearse your piece. Treat this as a stage trial and wear the shoes and clothes you’ll perform in.

  3. If musicians are traveling in for the gig, this may be the first time they’re reading the tune or playing together. So give them the time and space to work out kinks, and then have just one point person talk with the bandleader about adjusting tempos, intros, endings, etc.. And ask for their feedback!

  4. Meet your sound guy, lights guy, videographer, and emcee. Communicate with them about how you want your piece to be portrayed to the public.

  5. Rehearse your entrance and bows.

  6. There will always be adjustments to be made day-of. Prep your dancers to make sure they know that changes might be made, and have your choreographer be the point person to do so. When there are so many pieces in the puzzle with many musicians, dancers, and techies, it is important to have a decision-maker for your dancers already established.

  7. Be in tune with the group during the performance! If you and all your fellow performers (dancers and musicians) are able to bring collective awareness to the piece, you’ll be able to react to each other in the moment, expressing through music and movement simultaneously, creating a one-of-a-kind original piece of art. Concretely: listen to the music in the moment (not as you expect it to sound from the recording), communicate and respond to your partner and other dancers to adjust along the way (not just how you practiced), allow for genuine emotion to affect your movement and expression by perhaps responding to the audience’s cheers or acknowledging the other people on stage with you as you share the experience with them.

Call For More Performances!

Countless competitions and contests to live jazz have been hosted around the world, and they seem to be more prevalent in recent years. I think that most Lindy Hoppers know where to go to find these contests. But, do we know where to go to perform? To perform for the sake of sharing art or expression, not in a competitive manner or to be judged or ranked. There are a few events out there that have hosted shows in the past, and I often see teachers highlighted at weekend events that they're teaching at. But past that, I'd I'd personally love to see more opportunities and venues for dancers of all levels to share their ideas through performance.

  • If you're an organizer, invite some dancers to perform at an evening dance you host!

  • If you're a teacher, coach a student team.

  • If you're a student, learn and perform a classic like the Tranky Doo, or start with a short, less than 2 minute choreography of your own and perform at a local venue.

  • If you're a seasoned performer, reach out to an event you're attending or a band you love to dance to!

  • Or if you've ever witnessed an inspiring performance, speak up and thank those artists for their contribution and hard work :)

Some Recent Live Music Performances & Notes

Here are some memorable live music performances and notes from this past year. Maybe you can learn from my experiences!

October 2016: The Roaring 20s Party. Mike Davis & the New Wonders played a jazz standard and we created a little social piece. We joined together the Shim Sham with a formation change or two, some social jamming, solo jazz, and the California Routine for an easy-on-everyone-involved little routine. This choreo would work for any 32 bar song form tune, which is how we pitched it to Mike & the band. Bonus: some fancy costumes to make it fit for a 20s party!

December 2016: Tim Schramm’s Christmas Follies. Doriel and I rehearsed with organist & pianist once to choose two songs for us Lindy Hoppers to add some diversity to his program on stage. He was a pro at adapting to length of song, tempo, and energy all on the fly. We settled upon two contrasting tunes -- a medium tempo standard, and another that began slow and ended with double time so we could throw some air without being too tuckered out on stage! This is where having a regular partner is so wonderful because you know each other’s repertoire and capabilities in & out, so putting together performances for the public comes without much fuss!

March 2017: UR’s Board of Trustees retreat. The Eastman Jazz Band lead by Jeff Campbell played to accompany UR swing club & alumni dancers. We used a transcription of Benny Goodman’s “Swingtime in the Rockies.” I was most nervous about a few of the bridges and breaks being there in the band’s sheet music, but sure enough, it was an accurate transcription and thus easy for us to perform to!

March 2017: Groove Juice Swing & Friends with Gordon Webster & Friends. This was a fun collaboration where Gordon suggested a few songs, and was gracious enough to slow down one of his latest charts, “Close Shave” by John Kirby and his orchestra, to a tempo we all could swing out to (thanks, Gord!). We practiced to a recording from the 1930s, broke up the choreography into chunks so a bunch of our locals could contribute, and then had the pleasure of performing with Gordon at our home venue! I loved this collaboration!

June 2017: Chorus Line at Stompology. It was such a pleasure to bring together so many people from around the world. Erin Morris (St. Louis) choreographed this piece to feature Marie N’daiye (Stockholm, Sweden) and herself as soloists, backed up by a chorus line of ladies from the Cats Club Chorus Line (Montreal) and the Flower City Follies (Rochester). Paul Cosentino arranged St. Louis Blues for the Boilermaker Jazz Band, based off of charts from another performance. I loved especially how so many of the chorus line movements echoed the solos that Marie & Erin had -- they complemented each other beautifully!

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