25 April 2007

A sure sign you've got a bad swing band

I have lindy hopped my way about the Los Angeles swing dancing scene for over eleven years now, so I've not only seen just about every local band, but also most of the national and international ones as well. (Canada produced one of the best groups of the late '90s, the Johnny Favourite Swing Orchestra, and Germany currently has a spectacular band called Ray Collins' Hot Club.) So along with superb groups like Lee Press-On and the Nails, Stompy Jones, George Gee and His Make-Believe Ballroom Orchestra, The Bill Elliott Swing Orchestra, Big Time Operator, Eight to the Bar, and Lavay Smith and Her Red Hot Skillet-Lickers, I've also seen a fair share of pretty awful bands. The worst of these were hanging around in the late '90s during the swing boom, and were nothing more than low-budget wedding bands that slapped on a couple of horns, learned to play a few Louis Jordan and Louis Prima tunes, and declared themselves a "swing band." When the boom died, most these slacker outfits died as well. In the scene today, the majority of the bands are the survivor ones filled with people dedicated to the music, so general quality has risen higher, even if quantity is way down.

However, the cheap bands still lurk in the dark corners of the jazz and swing dance scene. I don't like to hurl harsh criticism at the low-quality swing bands, and that's because I have respect for musicians who are out there trying to make a living. It's a tough job. But sometimes the poor musicianship is hard to take, and I get mad at the venue or the booking agent for thinking that they can scam a few extra buck off me and I won't care about the lack of talent in the band as long as there's a beat.

One group in particular that's still kicking around in Los Angeles really gives me the blues—the wrong kind of blues. I won't name them; as I've said, I am not interested in smearing local musicians. I'll refer to them as "Swing X." Swing X started out performing in the big faddish days of the 1990s and played a long-running gig in a Pasadena club. They've shown up at the Derby only a few times, thankfully. The Derby doesn't always hire the best, but apparently even they knew this outfit was rotten. Swing X makes uncreative and boring song choices, has sub-par musicians who lack basic fundamentals with their instruments, and doesn't appear to practice much since it seems that none of the players are listening to each other.

All this is terrible enough. But what really brought home to me that I was listening to a horrible band that didn't care a flat note about the music they were attempting to play was a major goof the Swing X's leader made during one of his intra-song announcements. After getting sloppily through another number, the leader said: "And now we're going to play Glenn Miller's theme song, 'In the Mood.'"

Never mind that "In the Mood" is an overdone piece that no serious band plays; it's the first swing piece most people know about, and the first one they forget once they start to really dig the music style. What's really wrong is that "In the Mood" is not Glenn Miller's theme song. Never was. It is his most popular piece, but it isn't his theme. The theme for Glenn Miller and His Orchestra (and the version that still exists under the name The Glenn Miller Orchestra) is "Moonlight Serenade" (one of the few Glenn Miller pieces I genuinely love). Swing X's frontman apparently thought that "popular" meant "theme." But an orchestra's theme in the 1930s and '40s was the music they played to open and close a show, and it wasn't necessarily their most popular number. For example, Benny Goodman is best known for "Sing, Sing, Sing (With a Swing)," but his theme is "Let's Dance" with "Good Bye" used as the closer. Artie Shaw had his biggest smash with "Begin the Beguine," but his theme is "Nightmare." With Count Basie, his most popular number, "One O'Clock Jump," actually is his theme as well, something that happened with Duke Ellington the 1940s when he adopted the hit "Take the 'A' Train" as the band's new theme. (They had used a few different themes prior to it.)

So: "In the Mood" = Glenn Miller's Theme. FALSE.

The leader of a band that plays music of the era should know this. Your average listener might think "In the Mood" was Miller's theme—that's completely understandable—but a swing musician, and a bandleader nonetheless, ought to know better. This sounds like a minor nit-picky complaint, but I think it reflects the general carelessness that surrounds Swing X's performances. You can't play swing right until you really live swing.

Excuse me for going all Heinlein geeky on you, but this band may have "Swing" in its name, but it apparently doesn't "grok" swing.

(However, when I think about it, I would rather that Swing X mangle "In the Mood" than "Moonlight Serenade." The latter is a bit more tricky to dance to as well and harder to play—it would have been a disaster.)