Jazz Bars: How to Learn to Stop Worrying and Love Crowded Drunk Music … a Guide for Lindy Hop Dancers by Kelly Porter
The thing that struck me the very first time I visited New Orleans, was how clear it was that I was in the birthplace of jazz. You are constantly reminded: buskers everywhere, music pouring off Frenchman and Bourbon Streets, kids in open lots with marching bands, street-corner and front-porch jams; second lines for funerals, weddings, social clubs, charitable drives and any of the panoply of local ceremonies deemed occasion enough to get drunk and carouse publicly. Jazz is a living culture in New Orleans, not part of a bygone “vintage” era. It mixes freely with soul, funk, blues, zydeco, roots music, country, bluegrass and R&B, creating new sounds that can sometimes only be described as “New Orleans music.” That culture, with its constant insistence on the primacy of live entertainment is what makes NOLA one-of-a-kind— perhaps my favorite city in the US. Where else do you go that jazz is the neighborhood music? Where it still informs the collective identity of nearly everyone who lives there?
That said, to those used to dancing at lindy hop competitions and dance camps— where everything is catered to dancers and swinging out— New Orleans’ jazz clubs can occasionally seem unfulfilling if you are not prepared to love them for what they are good at, forget some ways in which they are unlike the dance events you may be used to, and learn how to participate as locals do. Truly, I would sacrifice most trips to most lindy hop events for an evening or two on a bar stool at the Spotted Cat or DBA with a decent band in the offing. You can have the most fun in these places if you know what you are getting into. So read on, dancers, for a few friendly tips on how I (a “lindy hopper”) almost always have an obscenely good time in NOLA’s jazz bars.
1.) Let go of the notion of swinging out to every song, then let go of the notion of dancing to about half of the songs. Space will not be abundant, so do not spend the night lamenting it. Sit, listen, have a drink, chat with someone, watch a few of the badasses show off on the bandstand and the dance floor. Wait for a song that is so good that you cannot imagine sitting still for it … then have a dance. If everyone tries to dance at once it’s a melee, and an ugly one. If people informally ‘take turns’ by sitting out a few songs, it works out more often than not.
So what to do when you are not dancing? Well, I am sometimes confused as to why many lindy hop enthusiasts seem not to enjoy just watching good live jazz, since it’s such compelling performance up close. I would rather watch a sweating soloist pour his guts into his instrument, see what he (or she) really has to say, than to dance over it sometimes. So try it out if you don’t do it very often, or for very long— try watching jazz— you will experience a lot of emotion and interaction that is easy to miss from the dance floor. You will see the ‘good stuff’ coming and get excited about it, like a soloist standing up, ready to take down the house; or the band leader starting to check in with his players’ eyes to let them know they’re gonna play down the chorus one more time … really hard. Or maybe you get up in front and decide to show off a little— if you’re any good the musicians pay attention, maybe someone with an instrument gets whipped up on account of the steps you’re doing. That is fun you just cannot have with your iPod.
2.) Be aware that you are walking into two businesses when you go to the club: music and bar/restaurant. Just like with any other business, staying for a long time and failing to buy anything is considered somewhat bad form. So first, buy drinks or a meal. Don’t want alcohol? That’s fine. Have a Coke, several Cokes, nobody will mind. Not thirsty? Buy a drink for a friend or for some unfortunate soul looking in need of bourbon— you might meet some interesting folks that way. Then, when the band plays something so awesome that it nearly shatters your face with joy, go toss $5 in their tip jar to let them know you dug it. If you really really really dug it, then maybe buy their CD.
If you are there for several hours then repeat this process a few times. A good rule of thumb is to tip and/or buy a drink for each set played. If this seems like a large investment, keep in mind that both those who assume the risk of running live music venues (a huge financial risk that often does not pay off) and the performers themselves are usually walking home with little more than your tips and some booze-sales between them. If the bar is packed and happy all night it means little to nothing if the clientele isn’t paying much to be there. Thus, the easiest way to have a good time in these places is to be a good patron amongst other good patrons … and be assured, the band and bar-staff will notice either way, so it’s easy to choose to have them excited to see you rather than bummed to be entertaining a cheap crowd. Everyone is happier that way, so encourage your friends to be good patrons, too.
3.) Be open to changing the way you dance to fit the space, instead of being worried that there is not enough space to dance the way you normally would. Necessity is the mother of invention— so it was with balboa, a mutated form of shag created at least in part by the demands of a packed dance floor. If you watch the partnered dancers who live in New Orleans at one of these venues, you can see a bit of a local dance-style that has a lot to do with things being crowded. People play with their feet and foot-rhythms a lot. When you cannot move much, you tend to keep it close and keep it under you. This often has the effect of inventing new patterns and basic steps that you can return to over and over again— so get your shuffle on.
People used to dancing in these spaces are also good with floorcraft, which is to say “not bumping into people and things.” Little patches of space for a swingout or something bigger will emerge on the dance floor, and if you are not prepared to maneuver into and out of them as they open and close, you will either be constantly pinned or constantly plowing into everything. How to prevent this? Just with common sense. Be aware of your surroundings, look in the direction you are about to go before going (or sending anyone else). You get better at it with practice in extremely close spaces. This goes for those following a dance as well as leading— if you can see that your partner is about to bump into someone at least try to save them by saying something or trying to hold them back a little. Do be sure never to get in the band’s or bar-staff’s way with your dancing, though. If you do stomp or bump someone, just take a second to say “I’m sorry,” and mean it. Most such sins are easily enough forgiven and forgotten.
The world that gave us lindy hop, charleston, slow drag … all of the many dances celebrated by ULHS … was in its heyday a thriving and diverse live-jazz-and-dance culture of revues, floor shows, small nite clubs, variety acts, music halls, hole-in-the-walls, ballrooms, brothels, whiskey-scows and riverboats dotted across the US. I would contend that the combined culture of social dance, jazz and entrepreneurship that grew out of those places is alive and well in New Orleans, surviving with a strength that has proven difficult to maintain almost anywhere else. This is not to suggest that going to a jazz club there is a step back in time, because it is not anachronism (and who would want the 1930’s back wholesale, anyway?). Rather it’s a place where that culture, its rhythms and social customs never wholly faded as they did in so many American cities after jazz transitioned to be almost entirely a form of concert music. In New Orleans it kept on. It kept evolving, and it kept bodies moving in the streets and clubs. As such, I think it offers a chance for dancers to participate in a living local jazz culture which embodies everything we claim to love: the collective enthusiasm of good live performance, improvisation, the practice of social dance as a joyful custom that brings diverse groups of people together. If you look at New Orleans this way, it is hard to object that the floors may be sticky or too crowded, that there is a line for the bar, or that you are reluctant to part with your money. None of these things seem enough to warrant staying away, or even to warrant much fuss at all when held in comparison to the elation you get in return for just sitting on a bar stool, buying a drink, and opening your eyes and ears.
About the author:
Kelly can name the clarinetist on all of your grandmother’s jazz 78’s, dance a mean charleston, transliterate poorly into standard Arabic, pour elaborate designs in a cup of coffee, excavate the dead. She climb trees, interprets stratigraphic diagrams, plays a tiny banjo, and reads loved ones to sleep from thousands of miles away. Kelly resides in Seattle, Washington and is one of the few featured DJs at The New Orleans Swing Dance Festival & The Ultimate Lindy Hop Showdown.