The Joys of Research — DJing for Blues and Swing dancers Part 5

Mr Ben
Swing & Blues for dancers
11 min readAug 8, 2020

So you got your equipment, you got your initial set of music that a friend, or the school you work for gave to you, and you are looking to expand. Great! This is where the fun begins. This is where the hard work starts. In my first post about motivation I spoke a lot about DJing being hard work and a lot of it happening behind the scenes. Today we will speak about the first part of that hard work. Researching and finding new music.

If you want to catch up on previous posts on motivation, do’s and don’ts, tips and tricks, and equipment, check out the publication.

Strangely enough this is a question I get asked quite often. “Where do you find new music?” It’s a question I have found quite hard to answer for some reason, so this is a good opportunity for me to use way too many words to do so.

I will deal with six basic methods of discovering music in this post. these are not the only ones, just the ones I have chosen to deal with. Why these? Because I felt like it. You need to find what works best for you and what gives you the most joy because you ain’t paid enough not to have fun.

  1. Copy the DJ
  2. Explore the Artist
  3. Follow the arranger and composer
  4. Trace the musician
  5. Same Song, different version
  6. Look into the history

1. Copy the DJ

Quite self evident. This doesn’t really count as research but let’s talk a bit about it anyway. There is no shame in hearing a song someone plays, liking it, getting it, and playing it yourself. But there are ways to do it and ways not to do it. At least I think so. You can think differently, but I will think you are wrong.

By copying a DJ I don’t mean only hearing songs when someone is playing, but I also mean listening to playlists made by DJs, teachers, or other people. Let’ go over these two scenarios and I’ll explain what I like about them, what I don’t like about them and what I think is the right way to do it.

So you are at a dance. The DJ plays a tune you really like and you think “oh damn, this is awesome! I want to play this too!” Sweet, you just scored yourself a new tune, and even better, you get to feel what its like to dance to it and you also get to see how people react to the song. But wait! Crud… You don’t know the name of the tune. What do you do?

Here are my two cents on that. ASK, DON’T SHAZAM. By ask I mean ask the DJ, not just your friend or whoever you are dancing with. Why should you ask?

Well firstly, and least importantly, Shazam is quite often wrong when it comes to Swing and Blues. It has a tendency to get the version wrong and sometimes the artist or even the title wrong. Or it might not have it.

Secondly, and still quite unimportantly (So what it’s not a real word? Sue me), if its a good song you probably want to dance to it. It is quite hard to dance when you are holding your phone still to try to get Shazam to pick up the tune.

Thirdly, and most importantly, asking the DJ lets them know that you like their music. Compliments don’t pay the bills, but neither does DJing for dancers. Knowing that people like your music is really rewarding though. If someone comes up and asks me what the song is I will always tell them even if I have to go out of my way to look at my play history to find it.

There have been occasions where I have wanted to be the only one to play a song that I discovered. Mainly because I want to be unique and a special flower and actually have some form of cred for the labor I have put in. Well it happened with one specific song. However, when people came and asked what it was, I still told them but I did ask them to please wait a few months to play it. Was it petty? Sure, but less so than editing the audio file so it was unshazamable, something I actually considered doing. There is a romance to the pre-shazam days when DJs would sometimes hide the titles of rare tracks so they would be the only ones who had them. But then again, I am pretty pretentious.

Let’s say you are listening to a playlist that some DJ, teacher, or school made. Or perhaps a podcast host, a radio station or a whatever. Great, you already know exactly what the song is. Pay your dues. If you like the work someone does, tell them. You don’t have to give them money (though it is really nice if you do), but perhaps just write them a message saying “Hey! I really like your playlists. I especially like this and this song and I think I will DJ it in the future. Oh, and you made me discover this artist that I love now.” It doesn’t cost you anything more than a few seconds, but it is really rewarding to the person that inspired you.

Story time! I was at a festival a while back and I heard a fairly obscure artist being played. I was really surprised because I thought I was the only one playing them. Then I heard a second, and a 4th, and a 6th tune that I love. My first thought was “Damn, this DJ is killing it!” so I went up to tell them so. I started talking to the DJ and they said “Thank you, I got them from your playlist of Female Blues artists. My teaching partner and I actually used that playlist as a base for a lecture we gave a couple of months ago.”

Now on the one hand, I was happy that it was used for education and that it had impact. After all, that is one of the main reasons I made the playlist. The other being a way to chronicle my own education. On the other, would it have killed you to tell me so? Had it not been for that chance encounter I wouldn’t have had a clue that someone had used it. Never mind used my unpaid work for their paid work. I actually don’t mind that in this case because most dance teachers are also paid less than they deserve, but seriously. Would it have killed you to write me and let me know? Just because these people will probably read this and know I am talking about the,. No I don’t bear a grudge. this is just one example that I felt was very clear. Rant over.

Anyway. if you are a DJ I strongly recommend that you teach your scene to ask instead of Shazaming. You get to interact with them regarding music, you get to know what they like, and you get to feel that warm fuzzy glow of people enjoying your work.

2. Explore the Artist

Thought point 1 was long? Well this one will be short.

Heard a song you like? Well get on Spotify, YouTube, or whatever and listen to more songs by that artist. Then buy the music. Spotify and YouTube barely pays artists. If you insist on using Spotify or YouTube anyway, consider finding a way to send some cash to the musicians (especially if they are contemporary) I ended up sending some money over PayPal to an artist because I couldn’t find a way to buy their tracks.

3. Follow the arranger and composer

Do you know who wrote that song you like? Do you know who arranged it? Look it up, it might help you find more music to enjoy! The examples here will be Swing as blues usually don’t have an arranger or composer in the same way. Unless you are talking about Willie Dixon. And lots of other people. An example is just an example and you can do the exact same thing for blues.

When we are talking about Swing music the arranger is often more important than the composer. A song might have been written in 1908 and performed in non swing styles, or diffrent swing styles for 60 years before someone arranged it as the tune you enjoy.

Let’s say you heard Duke Ellington — Blue Skies (Trumpet no end) and really enjoyed it. You want more songs with a similar feel. You go look up who wrote Blue Skies and you quite quickly find that the song is written by Irving Berlin. Thank you YouTube uploader!

Problem is that knowing who wrote it doesn’t really help us much. The song was written for a musical in 1926 and has since become a Jazz standard. That means that everybody and their pet iguana has recorded a version of it. Discogs, which is an incomplete register, has 13,083 releases of Blue Skies logged. Knowing who wrote the tune won’t be enough to figure out what makes this version different.

Oh, let me introduce you to your new best friend. Discogs.com is an online searchable discography. It can tell you who wrote a song, who arranged it, and if you are really lucky who performed on a particular recording. It is far from the most complete or the best, but it is free and easy to use. For basic research all you really need is Discogs, Wikipedia, and Spotify or YouTube. By the way, YouTube uploads and the comments can be a really good place to find out arrangers, composers and musicians as well. Just beware that it’s not always correct.

Ok, so we look up Blue Skies on Discogs and lo and behold what do we find?

https://www.discogs.com/Duke-Ellington-The-Duke-Ellington-Carnegie-Hall-Concerts-December-1944/release/13463865

Hey, it was arranged by Mary Lou Williams! Who is she? Let’s open up her Wikipedia page and learn a bit more about her! Wow she seems really cool. I wonder what else she arranged or wrote. Holy smokes was she a prolific writer. Let’s see what else she did! From here on I would normally make a playlist of the arrangers music

Here are some examples of arranger playlists I have made: Mary Lou Williams, Frank Foster, Edgar Sampson, Joe Garland. This takes some effort but it is really rewarding as it allows you to discover music you otherwise wouldn’t have had a chance to enjoy.

4. Trace the musician

This is pretty much exactly the same as tracing the arranger or composer, but a bit more difficult. Imagine the following scenario. You are sitting listening to music and all the sudden you are blown away by the Tenor sax solo on Lionel Hampton’s 1942 recording of Flying Home. Thankfully the YouTube clip tells you that it was Illinois Jacquet that played it. So now you head over to his Wikipedia page where you find out about other bands he played in as well as that he had his own orchestra.

You look those bands up. You do some googling and learn some more about him. All the sudden you know the musician better, you know his influences, you start actually seeing the person behind the music. So not only do you get more music but you also humanize the musician and gain knowledge. These are good things.

Word of advice. Don’t stare yourself blind with the soloists. Sure they are good, but they don’t mean squat if the band isn’t good. If there are particular songs you like that you feel groove hard, check out the rhythm section. Use the tools you have: Discogs, Wikipedia, Google, AllMusic, asking friends. But figure out who the rhythm section are. They are the beating heart of the band. Check out what else they did. It might be a bit harder, but it is oh so rewarding.

5. Same Song, different version

This is one of my favorite methods at the moment. Partially because it is super lazy. You just take a song you like, and then look at what versions you can find. Sometimes I do this because I want to find other artists, sometimes because I like the song but there is something with the rendition I don’t like.

So for example I really like the classic jump blues tune Caldonia by Luis Jordan. However, it is quite overplayed and I don’t think it swings the right way for lindy hop, nor does it please blues dancers. To the research center! By that I mean YouTube, Spotify, Discogs, and Google. I compile a playlist of all the versions I like, and a few that I don’t.

What does this give me? Well first of all it gives me a list of versions that I may want to buy so I can add them to my DJ set. But more than that it gives me names of artists and bands that I may not have heard before that I can now explore. This is a super simple way to discover new artists and versions that I strongly recommend. You obviously don’t have to make a playlist but can just listen and write it down. I actually keep a Google Doc of artists I want to explore. I strongly recommend that.

Here are a few that I prepared earlier: Rocks in my bed, No Name Jive, Blues in the Night, Lulu’s Back in Town, Sweet Lorraine.

6. Look into the history

This is the one that requires the most effort. But also the one that will teach you the most about the music, the culture, and generally make you a more educated person. However, it comes down to a lot of time. Here is a list of things you can do:

  1. Read biographies
  2. Watch Documentaries
  3. Listen to lectures (YouTube is amazing)
  4. Read books about the music, the artists and the dances
  5. Learn about the different House Bands at the Savoy if you are a Lindy Hop DJ (Ever heard of Fess Williams Hot Flush Orchestra?) Actually read up on the Savoy in general and get some myths busted.
  6. Look things up on Wikipedia and Google.
  7. Take a university or online course if you have the chance.

“But Ben, why aren’t you giving me these resources? I don’t know where to start looking!”

Well firstly I already told you that I am lazy. Secondly, I don’t want to create carbon copies of me. Figure out what subjects interest and start researching them. Odds are that there are lectures available on YouTube or articles written that you can google yourself to. Join one of the bazzilion Facebook groups that exist about music and dance history. I would strongly recommend joining groups that aren’t exclusively populated by dancers as we tend to be significantly less educated than people who are regular fans of the music.

This was a less than short introduction to the joys of research. Please let me know in the comments if you have any questions, disagree about anything, or if there is anything in particular you would like me to write about. Until next time, keep researching, keep listening, and keep taking notes.

To catch up with all articles about Swing & Blues, check out the publication!

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Mr Ben
Swing & Blues for dancers

Swing and Blues DJ with a love of music and dancing. Ranter, raver and unstructured of mind.