Our deep connection to music

One of my favorite memories of DJing included playing the song above.  I had my reservations about playing it… after all, it doesn’t chunk or drive along like some songs. On the other hand, I think it inspires a solid dance, and well, I like it.  An older gent came up to the DJ booth, and with a tear in his eye, he said “You’re playing the sweet jazz”. I found a song that brought meaningful memories to life for him.  Chances are that he had a longer history with music like that than I… and that maybe he grew up in a time or a household that valued this music more than most do today…. But I came to realize something: Each of us has songs that we carry with us… Songs that we hear that bring us comfort, nostalgia, happiness.  Our own personal soundtrack of the movie that is our life.

For me, that soundtrack includes Safronia B, Flip Flip and Fly, The Way You look Tonight, Corner Pocket, Moten Swing, Jumpin at the Woodside, as well as many others that take me back to a great times in my personal social dance history and instantly awaken the desire to dance for me.  There are dozens of songs for which I can remember wonderful dances that made the whole world fall away. And many of them were live versions, played by fantastically talented bands.  They were moments in time that can never exist again.  The perfect intersection of a time in my life, a partner, a venue, a band, a city and a feeling.  Magical injections of live music that brought me transcendent feelings, memories, purpose, and joy. 

For each of us those songs are different, but at some point you hear them enough, dance them enough, and they become just as much a part of your “personal story” like the school you went to, where you grew up, or your favorite color.   When you find that the music is *in* you in this way, the urge comes to recreate it and share the music with your personal stamp added to it.  For me, I’ve always been so inspired and moved when I see people picking up an instrument, that the urge overcame me:  that I would learn to somehow coerce sounds from an instrument that would inspire others the same way that people had done so for me.

There may come a day when you feel a love for jazz so deep and so true that you feel the urge to pick up an instrument and make your own voice heard in a Jazz way.  This blog serves as some motivation, some resources, and a guide for your path down that road, should you choose to follow it. 

I don’t play notes, I hang them on rhythms -Dizzy Gillespie

What can you give back with music?

Music is a gift, in the truest sense.   Like any art, it’s meant to be practiced, developed, shared and given to others. For your community, it’s needed.  Every city in the world can use more skilled Jazz players that play the kind of music we love to swing dance to.  Dancers that understand the music, and musicians that understand the dance serve up a combination that will build up the skill level and feed the community and your scene.  

Who will make dancing happen in the future?

One mistake we often make early on in our dance careers is assuming that dancing will always happen, with or without us.  Don’t underestimate the power of carrying a tradition, or the likelihood that someday, you might be the teacher, promoter, DJ, and/or bandleader of your scene. 

I’ve met many original dancers in my day, from Frankie Manning to Norma Miller, Dawn Hampton to Willie Desatof to Freda Wykoff. Of the dozens that were alive when I started dancing, only a handful remain alive. If you are dancing today, you are a parallel to these Original Jitterbugs for some future generation. The same goes for musicians. Even in my own hometown, I’ve watched master musicians, one after the other, pass from this world to the next. If we want to have musicians in the future that understand what dancers want to hear, then we have to be those musicians.

As a dancer you are in a unique position to select songs that are great for dancing, and expand stretch the comfort zone of dancers in your city via tempo, rhythm, or just simply pushing them away from “memorized songs” into being in the moment.  

How will it directly affect your dancing?

I’ve listed many things that playing music will do for others, and for your community, but how will it help you?

  • You learn about song structure.  You can predict breaks, follow phrasing and listen for changes of all kinds.
  • If you teach dance, you will gain a whole arsenal of language that describes what’s going on in the dance just as well as it describes what’s going on in the music.  Tags, cadenzas, attack, pedal notes, modulations, dissonance, enclosures, chromatic approaches and more will be part of your vocabulary.  You’ll be able to more accurately explain the “1”, or how to feel whats coming up in the music. You can put names on things that you could not name before. 
  • You’ll hear influences, quotations, and the way different bandleaders and band members affected the sound of a song.  You’ll literally be able to hear a new layer of the history you probably were more or less unaware of before. 
  • You’ll learn how and where in the music that syncopation makes the most sense. There are common entry points of melodic lines, and by using them, it will fundamentally change the way you approach moves.  
  • You’ll learn different variations on expressing a “swung” feel (there are definitely many) 
  • When you play with others, you’ll develop internal rhythm that will manifest in your dancing in positive ways.  
  • You will experience being a student again.  And that is guaranteed to make you a better teacher.
  • As you learn to improvise, you’ll learn better how to let your own ideas flow without getting in the way of them.
  • As jazz becomes your native language you’ll be able to hear subtle intonations that you couldn’t hear before. Slides, glissando, flattened fifths and thirds. Changes in resonance or vibrato.  
  • Your capacity for memorizing things will improve drastically. 
  • You will have another group of friends at any event (people who jam)
  • You’ll have another way to enjoy yourself when you’re tired, injured or just want a change of pace. 
  • You’ll learn the “Charleston Rhythm”, as a more specific musical entity, and it’ll change your Charleston for the better. 


How to get started

The easiest way to start is to pick up an instrument you played in high school band, or as a child, if you played as a child. That’s going to be the fastest way to be proficient, though by no means do you need to start there, you can pick anything. I think the best instrument is the one that matches your personality. I play guitar because it’s a solid supporting instrument, laying down both a rhythm and a set of tones for others to shine, and only taking a shine for itself on occasion. I think that matches for me. I played trumpet in school, but in jazz it’s a loud instrument. It’s like the most boisterous person in the room. It doesn’t match my personality right now, but I still practice it. I also play a little piano because it’s the easiest for me to visualize the chord shapes on, and Duke, Basie, and Oscar Peterson have inspired me with so many melodies.  You might also consider quieter instruments if you live in an apartment.  If you can’t practice, you can’t progress. 


Speaking of practice, when you start playing Jazz, it’s important to make a consistent schedule. I practice an hour a day, whether I feel like it or not. If I miss, I have to make up for it with a double later. Progress is all about baby steps that add up to big gains.  Some people say 20-30 minute sessions are best, but for me, I usually do warmups and technique for 20-30 minutes before I even start practicing.  

I stay very organized with these tools:

  • An actual physical notebook.  It’s my friend when pulling out a laptop is inconvenient.  It’s also better for drawing pictures, which I do a lot of.  And notebooks never run out of batteries.  
  • Evernote.  I’ve talked about this a lot before, but it’s a note app that syncs between your computer , phone, and other devices.  Bear is also a nice app alternative.  I have folders for practice, list of notes from lessons and more. I use a structure something like this
    • To-Do List Folder
      • Practice Plan
        • A list of all the things I need to work on, starting with a warmup, then moving to my weakest items, progressing to the most fun ones
      • Current questions list
        • Things I need to understand better or ask my teacher about, or research
      • Set list
        • This is a list of the songs I feel comfortable with, ready to practice, when I don’t feel like learning, I just want to play
      • Exercises and Games
        • Things that I may not use anymore, or revisit from time to time.  Also used when I help other people out with their music.
    • Videos
      • Inspirational
      • Instructional (Instrument specific)
      • Instructional (Theory and composition)
    • Private Lesson notes
      • Notes from each lesson, dated.  As I’ve said in other blogs, the memory always fades, so you should be very explicit with writing out what you learned. 
  • Dropbox.  Dropbox keeps a copy of a certain folder in the cloud, and synchronizes them on my devices.  I typically divide up folders by each song I’m learning so, typically I’ll have files like the following:
    • The Chart in PDF
    • Play along tracks (that I purchased or made)
    • PDFs of arpeggios or other studies
    • Videos of favorite performances of the song

Playing in groups

Playing with others is really important. It’ll keep you honest, it’ll keep you inspired. You can find jams on Facebook, Meetup and other sites too. If you have a dance team, that’s a great place to get started as well. Playing with people who are better than you are — as well as people who are newer are both important. 

Going to a music camp is another option.  Music camps are just like dance camps, except that they are much more inclusive in terms of ranges in age, ability and experience.  The first ones you attend, you will likely be way over your head.  Get ready to feel the humility of being a student again.  

There are a few camps that mix dancing with music as well.  

  • Welbourne Jazz / Dance Camp
    • Welbourne Jazz/ Dance Camp is a dancer / musician’s dream come true.  With one-on-one classes, dancing, music and more, it’s one of a kind. 
  • Camp Hollywood
    • Camp Hollywood features a music track now in it’s offering.  Besides being one of the most popular dance camps (for good reason, you have to see it to believe it)
  • Music Track at Lindy Focus
    • Lindy Focus, one of the world’s premiere dance events also has a small but excellent music course for dancer/musicians

Free Resources on the Web

Understanding Theory:

Playing in Time

  • EyDy Looper is an awesome practice tool that lets you create loops.  For instance you can comp chords into the looper and then practice soloing over them.
  • Tempo is a fantastic, free metronome app

Charts and Playalongs

  • iRealPro is probably the best thing to happen to anyone that needs to practice.  You can import literally tens of thousands of charts for free, and transpose them, play them as backing tracks, at any speed you wish. It’s become the standard in my city for jamming. 


  • The Jazz Treasury Podcast is a great way to dive into the music as a listener, which is key for being a player.  Many advanced musicians talk about the difference between hearing and listening.  This show is great for giving you more context for listening to Jazz music.  


Playing Jazz is like dancing to it.  It takes practice, persistence, and it’s pretty hard to become proficient without a little help and a fair bit of community. 

I’d like to add to the resources and camps lists above, so please let me know if you know of more resources. 

Thanks for reading!