So you want to fall in love with jazz. Maybe you’ve always thought of jazz as being a being too free form, or maybe it’s just been a tempo backdrop for Lindy Hop, or maybe you are getting into DJ’ing.  Here’s my tips for taking your relationship with this amazing music one step further. 

1) Listen to high fidelity music, often and preferably classic

When I first started dancing, I couldn’t even find the “1” of the music. It took a while, but I was able to find the one at least 99% of the time a few months later. A few years later when I first started learning about music, I was a complete beginner. I *could*, for instance, tell the difference between a slow song and a fast song, a single note and a chord, a high note and a low note, but I *could not* listen to a sound and tell the difference between a dominant chord and a major chord. I couldn’t tell when a chord was missing the 5th, or when it was a diminished or an augmented. I can tell those things now, and it took me a lot of time to be able to do that. Not that you need to be able to make these identifications to love jazz, but the point is that over time, you will hear different things in the music than you did when you first got acquainted with it. The missing link is that I did is what some call “educating my ears”.
Much like a great chef will try foods from all over the world and develop their own opinions and styles, you need to feed your ears not just variety, but the best possible sounds you can. And like a great chef starts with the classic dishes, you need to start with the classics of swing.
a) Listen to high quality music as much as possible. This means for the most part you should aim to get rid of streaming music services. You can’t become a food critic by eating frozen dinners. You’ll never be able to develop the nuances of your opinions about music without listening to music in as lossless a form as possible. You need high quality sound. When a sound is made by an instrument, the sound wave is analog. That means there are infinite points of data. It is unbroken and untranslated into the language of a computer. When that music is transferred to CD, it becomes a set of sound samples. It’s 1s and 0s, and it’ll ever be as good as the original. Every time a piece of music is transferred from one media to another, there is a downgrade in sound. When that music is streamed online, the streaming services reduce and reduce those samples down to a bare minimum. They cut out highs and lows, and reduce the amount of samples. (Lower the bitrate). This minimal amount of information makes it hard to appreciate a broad variety of music. I think this is one reason why people tend to like Electro Swing, and later swing recordings, because they have lost less of their sound quality from the original. But, if you take control over your listening experience by digitizing your own music, not only will people enjoy your DJing more, you’ll be able to hear things in the music that you couldn’t before.
b) You need to be listening to the right things. Early swing is the epicenter of what you should start with, because Jazz and Blues come from the African American expression of the experience in predominantly white America. Some people say that this preference is snobbery on the part of DJs, but I think it is about giving credit to the creators of the genre, and dancing to the music that best matches the built-in syncopations, stretches and the rhythms of the dance. While you also need to listen to some Artie Shaw and some Dixieland, and you might even want to listen to some electro-swing on occasion for some reason, these are -part of the diet- but not the core of it. Jazz is a blend of African and European music traditions created in an American environment, and I think it’s important that in the beginning you get most of your jazz listening with Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, Nina Simone, Louis Jordan, and the like.

2) Get your albums in physical form when possible

You need to buy albums. Being a great DJ or music lover is a donation of both your time and your treasure (money). Physical albums are best. Hold them in your hands while you listen. Read the liner notes and look up info about the musicians that play along with the headliner. You should know your sidemen. There are often little clues and context around the album in the liner notes.
You might say “I can’t afford to buy music”, and I understand student budgets, etc, but you shouldn’t pirate music. You should plan for the day when you will be able to afford it. If nothing else, think of the musicians — making art is work. Just as you wouldn’t expect someone to wash your car or clean your house for free, you can’t expect the musicians you like to make recordings and play and expand their talents without being able to make a living. To be a music connoisseur you must buy, collect, and sacrifice for music. If you are a 100% digital collector, Bandcamp is also a great way to buy music, and in my opinion has the best options for a DJ who cares about their sound quality
Plus, as I mentioned before, if you take control over your digitizing, you can use the physical albums to get the best experience possible.If you want to fall deeply in love with jazz, you must have a lot of music to choose from, and you must know it very well. You also want to have control over the quality that the music files are on your computer, so it’s important to start with physical albums and then encode them using some form of lossless or near lossless compression. Especially if you are playing big rooms, rooms without sound baffles, or outdoors.

3) Listen all the time

It seems obvious. But listening a lot is important, especially early on in the process of falling in love with Jazz. Listen in the car, while working, etc. It’s important to move past the phases of enjoying music for it’s novelty, and moving into a phase where you love it’s content. One test I like to use is “If I listened to this song every day for a month, would I still like it”. To make this easier, I make a lot of playlists and transfer them to my phone for listening on the bus or while out and about. I also recommend a few podcasts I use Evernote to take notes, but Bear and others are also great ways to keep organized and write down songs that you are into right now. If I have a DJ’ing gig on a Saturday, I will listen all week and makes notes like “___ is a good song if I need a classy vibe” or “_____ is a good song if I need a Balboa/Lindy crossover”, and then I have these as reference to keep my sets feeling fresh and new.

4) Get good equipment

You have to be able to playback music with some sense of fidelity to the original. You need to play it in a way that touches your soul most deeply. I have often advocated for listening on headphones. I think it gives such a different feel. The most creative things I’ve ever done have come out of just lying on the floor and listening to music.
My headphones of choice: Master and Dynamic., But I’ve had some some great luck with Bose and I also have a pair of these EMU headphones for my desk at work that I think are a stellar option under $100
My speakers of choice are Blumenstein Audio, but mostly because they’re local to me. I have a nice direct drive turntable that I purchased locally, and the best part about getting equipment from a specialty shop as opposed to online is that they will often help you trade up as your budget changes, and they also teach you to truly care for the equipment which is a huge bonus.
4b) Get your backup systems in order. There’s nothing worse than losing all of your playlists and music that you painstakingly scoured record stores for, and digitized. Personally, I use Dropbox Plus. For $10 a month, I have it set up to automatically mirror my music as well as important documents. It takes no thought or planning, everything is backed up automatically, and if I have to set up a new DJ laptop I can just set it to sync over a couple of days. I like the added benefit of not having to worry about storing hard drives.

5) Collect a discography

Every great lover of all things jazz has a favorite artist, and they have _everything_ that artist ever did. Probably early on in your listening you’ll take a shine to a particular artist or two. My two are Lionel Hampton and Nina Simone
Find out everything they ever recorded and endeavor to collect it. Every great DJ or jazz lover should know one great artist through and through. As in their whole life story. A great way to get started on a Discography is to check out All Music, where most of any artists work can be researched quickly and easily.

6) Read biographies

Knowing the story behind music is really important. Imagine looking at an old photo, but then someone tells you the story behind the photo. All of the sudden it’s much more interesting. Same with music. When you have a little bit of background on why songs were written, or the life of the people who wrote them, they take on a whole new dimension. There are a ton of wonderful books and bios, some of which I outline here, but many more coming out all the time. Yes, they can be hard to get through, but I think they are particularly rewarding, and you often find out little tidbits about Lindy Hop history that you’ll never find anywhere else.

7) Find life-long jazz lovers

The world is filled with people who love the music we all love, but do not dance. Some of my best finds have come from asking record store owners or jazz musicians who don’t dance about the music that they love.
Finding people who have listened to swing and jazz for decades can be a valuable source of leads on artists as well as having perspectives worth considering. At the current rate, record stores might not be around for a long time, so it would be wise to make use of them while you still can.

8) Learn to listen to music as a dancer and as a non-dancer

Not all music is for dancing. Some is for listening, and thats ok. Many great DJs I know have played wonderful music but music I didn’t feel particularly compelled to move to, and vice versa.
You have to learn which is which, and a lot of that comes from
  • Having enough music to be able to make that choice. You don’t want to be playing yourundancable stuffbecause you don’t have enough choices.
  • Actually getting out of the DJ booth and dancing to your music so you know what has the right feel in the body as well as thebrain.
  • Being ok with not dancing sometimes, just to listen, especially if it’s live music. Recently I’ve tried to connect with jazz outside of Lindy Hop a lot more, and it’s been eye-opening.

9) Get Vinyl

There are people who do things decently well and then there are people who love things with their whole being. Vinyl will make you fall in love with jazz in a way that no other medium can. It’s often said that only 10% of the music that was ever recorded on vinyl was ever re-released to CD, so there is a lot of music out there that you’ll never hear otherwise.
Vinyl is the best way, in my opinion, to enjoy music next to hearing it live. Vinyl is an experience. Sometimes you must come home, and pour your favorite cocktail, or make a perfect cup of tea. Nestle into a blanket and listen to a record. Records have a warm glow like nothing else.
My current favorite record to do this with is a French pressing of Djangologie: the one with Django and friends playing “Jumping at the Woodside” that isn’t on any CD anywhere. As soon as the needle drops in, the warm glow of analog sound takes over my room. It’s an inspired recording.
Another favorite of mine is a blues record by Mississippi Fred McDowell record. He talks for about 10 minutes before playing. “…and I do not play no rock and roll. I just play straight ’n’ nachel blue… and my type of blue.. I play it with a bottleneck. I first got this style from a beef bone, you understand… “. On this one record, this man tells more about blues history than can be fit into 50 books. I could transcribe it all here, but it wouldn’t be the same. He noodles on some blues riffs while he talks and it’s simply indescribable.
I fall in love with jazz and blues again and again, every time I put a record on. Music on vinyl feels a way that it’ll never feel with any other form of music .

10) Realize you will have some favorites no one will understand.

I love stand-up comedy. I listen to a really amazing podcast called “Good One”. In this podcast, he always asks professional comics if there is a joke or a story that they love, but audiences never get. Every comic has these personal jokes that they just don’t tell anymore because audiences don’t get it.
With music, it’s the same. There will always be songs that you love, songs that move you, but that people just won’t dance to. It could be that that song will come into fashion later. It might also be a divisive song. As a DJ, I’ve played songs where two people will come up to the DJ booth and one will say it was the best song they’ve ever heard, and another person will say that it’s the worst and I should never ever play it again. That’s just how it goes.
Make notes and try them again in a couple of years.

11) Don’t forget about playing it too

Learning to play Jazz will inform your dancing in ways that nothing else can.  I highly recommend picking up an instrument, or re-picking up and instrument you left behind in grade school.  It will give you a whole new way to connect.  Perhaps a subject for a blog of its own, but don’t forget this wonderful way to connect. 

12) Write about your love and share it with people.

Music is meant to be shared and to be enjoyed — and if your goal is to be a DJ, you need to share that love with others. If your goal is to hear more good music at events, then by sharing things you like, you are encouraging others to go down the same path you are on. Whether it be Facebook posts, Twitter, your own blog or other means, sharing music is a great way to get leads on good music and to connect with other people who have developed the same passions.