Jazz Music and Dance

This is a repost from my other blog nzjazz exploring how entwined music and dance were in jazz in the first half of the twentieth century, which I decided to share here for International Dance Day.

From about 1920 to the late 1940s jazz was almost inextricably linked with the act of dancing. This is a fact that is both simultaneously known and (for the most part) ignored by publications and courses on jazz (music) because it ruins the narrative that the greatest early jazz was not to be danced to. This was not something I learned in undergraduate jazz history, nor was it spoken much of during my masters degree. This is not a slight on my wonderful teachers, but rather a comment that they had different concerns about what they were teaching us: they wanted and needed to teach us about the rise of jazz as an art form, and the idea of jazz as a dancing music did not fit that ideal. Jazz for dancing smacks of commercialism and ‘entertainment’ rather than art, and as such has since the 1930s had a problematic fit in the canon of jazz history.

Despite this jazz music and dance are intimately twined together and many of the greatest early jazz bands were dedicated to the act of dancing, either social or choreographed. Bands such as those led by Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington made their livings during the 1920s and 1930s by playing for dancers in a social context and/or as music for a floorshow. Neither of these bandleaders, nor the many others that also performed such functions had any qualm about doing so, nor did they see it as detrimental to their art. However the musical evidence that remains of this era does not paint the whole picture of how musicians and dancers worked together.

In an interesting twist recordings are actually detrimental to jazz being seen by its own fans as a vibrant music that was not limited by dance, rather that dance enhanced the concepts of jazz. The 78 recordings from that era are obviously limited in scope (with a practical maximum of three and a half minutes per side), so the arrangements that were used in live performance needed to be contracted for the sake of technology. This in turn led to what most jazz fans think of as the pinnacle of the art form, improvisation, as being horribly limited and blame it on dancing rather than the limits of technology. This is not actually true. For example, Jeffrey Magee, who has written a fantastic biography on Fletcher Henderson, did some intense research on the band’s arrangements (and Henderson’s later arrangements for the Benny Goodman Band) and discovered that the arrangements used for live performance (even for social dancing) were much expanded and included longer sections for improvisation.

Personally I do not believe that improvisation is the be all and end all of jazz. I believe that arranging and performance practices (outside of improvisation) are equally important to what make’s jazz, jazz, and not some other style of music that also focuses on improvisation (and there are a lot of them!). The problem with these aspects- specifically arranging- is that they are quite often equated with commercialisation, which continues to be a bogey-man of jazz, as if commercialisation was all that was ‘wrong’ with jazz not being perceived as great.

But this is just a small of why jazz and dancing have been forcibly split in the canon of jazz history. Another aspect of this split actually arises from the circumstances of the writing of the first jazz history book by Hugues Panassié. Panassié, who is regarded as the first jazz historian, became interested in jazz when he was paralysed by polio. As such he could only listen to this music- in the context of the period he encountered jazz this was a huge difference from his peers who were primarily encountering jazz on the dance floor or in the dance studio. This difference in perception would play an important role in how Panassié thought and wrote about jazz, which was to separate jazz from dancing, because for him jazz was music to listen to.

Now, there is nothing wrong with this, and I obviously think that jazz is a wonderful music to listen to, but what if that first history had been written to be inclusive of the act of dancing? How different would the canon of jazz history be? Would dancing have been thought an integral part of jazz, or merely a sideline to the music? These types of questions are very interesting to muse over, particularly for me as I attempt in my writing of New Zealand jazz to integrate music and dancing. I feel that this is very important to the writing of the history of jazz in New Zealand because until the 1950s the majority of venues for jazz were also venues for dancing, or included dancing. The earliest fan clubs for jazz in New Zealand (actually until World War Two) primarily focused on dancing to jazz rather than listening to it. Even the ‘listening’ jazz fan clubs of the swing era- rhythm clubs as they were known in New Zealand- regularly held dances and included dancing in their club activities, because it was seen as an important aspect of jazz, even if you wanted to focus on listening to the music. To New Zealand fans of jazz, and to many of the early jazz musicians, the two activities, listening and dancing, would not be truly separated when it came to jazz. To close, I will just add that it is interesting that even so staunch a listening fan as Arthur Pearce (aka Turntable, the host of Rhythm on Record), who did not want to dance to jazz felt that jazz that could not be danced to such as bebop was missing something of the essence of jazz.



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