Ella Fitzgerald’s Deep Cuts for Lindy Hop

Sometime last spring, a friend of mine, who also happens to be a jazz vocalist and a talented music producer, told me that she owned the Complete Ella Fitzgerald Songbooks on CD. I knew something magical was about to happen.

Hours of downloading later, my music library was populated with some of the most incredible swing music ever to grace the dance halls of New York. Ella Fitzgerald is a queen, y’all, and today we’re going to review some of my favorites among her lesser-known tunes.

Top Hat, White Tie and Tails, Ella Fitzgerald, 2:36, 152 BPM

This peppy Irving Berlin tune has some lovely modulations between major and minor sounds, and it has a sweet build up to a triumphant feel at the end. (I also get a private kick out of the fact that this song features a lady singing about a very dapper outfit indeed.)

While searching for this song on YouTube, I ran across this Polish tribute to Ella Fitzgerald for her 100th birthday. The big band sounds great, and I love the vocalist’s outfit!

Things Are Looking Up, Ella Fitzgerald, 2:35, 135 BPM

I’ll be honest, the band here sounds good, but they aren’t swinging quite as hard as some other dancing tunes. However, the lyrics are so bright and pretty, and the tone is so upbeat given the slower tempo, that I love having this song around to pick up an empty dance floor.

In A Mellow Tone, Ella Fitzgerald, 2:50, 133 BPM

Hey Mister Jesse recommended this album, Ella at Zardi’s, when it was released last year, and I like it a lot! This particular version of “In A Mellow Tone” features some dope scatting, and solid swinging rhythm from a piano-bass-drums trio.

Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall, Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie, 3:21, 159 BPM

The saxophones and trumpet provide great accompaniment to this foot-patting song. The rhythm is super tight and easily audible, so it’s easy to dance to. (Thanks, Basie!)

Drop Me Off In Harlem, Ella Fitzgerald, 3:51, 118 BPM

This song was originally written by Duke Ellington, so it has all the swanky swing it can handle, while moving along at a tempo perfect for beginners or a late night. Before Ella comes on, it opens with some really wonderful trumpet and trombone solos.

The Lady Is A Tramp, Ella Fitzgerald, 2:45, 168 BPM

When you need an alternative to Frank Sinatra, I love this upbeat rendition of the popular tune “The Lady Is A Tramp.” The lyrics are clearly audible and so much fun, and the bass and horns thump along in grand style.

I Got Rhythm, Ella Fitzgerald, 2:23, 144 BPM

If I were ever cool enough to teach a solo jazz class, this is definitely a song I would use. It has consistently placed stops in the first few phrases that still have a light rhythm section going, which helps students to keep time. And it’s also a great choice for the dance floor!

Don’t Get Around Much Anymore, Ella Fitzgerald, 5:02, 84 BPM

Okay, this one isn’t strictly a Lindy Hop tune. But truly, if you ever need to warm up a blues floor, I can’t imagine anything sweeter than this crooner. The soft hi hat in the background keeps the beat, while Ella’s voice floats along and the piano adds some texture and rhythmic interest.

Lesser-Known Songs of Lionel Hampton

It now says on my about page that I go nuts for vibraphone solos. I added that to reflect my recently unearthed obsession with all things Lionel Hampton. I love his creativity and the way his vibes always fit perfectly into the songs where they feature. However, while everyone knows “Flying Home” and “Lavender Coffin,” I wanted to take a moment to feature some really swinging Lionel Hampton songs that I don’t hear as often.

By the way – I found all of these tunes for free at Classic Jazz Online, and with better sound quality than the clips in this post. Head over there and stock up!

I Can’t Believe That You’re In Love With Me, 130 BPM, 3:16

I can’t get enough of this easy swinger. It starts out with a sweet saxophone solo and some excellent jazz electric guitar, almost certainly played by Charlie Christian. Then Hampton kicks in on the vibes, and they lend such an elegant sound to the rest of the song. I would love to play this after the floor was exhausted after a couple of high-tempo songs – it’s a great song for more relaxed dancing.

Open House, 132 BPM, 3:16

I love this song for its easily follow-able melody, and its beautiful solos – along with those vibes, you get to hear some saxophone, piano, clarinet, and electric guitar (Charlie Christian again!), and they all sound great. The mood is pretty chill, but the more upbeat feel of the main melody gives it a little more energy.

Loose Wig, 144 BPM, 3:03

This song starts out with some peppy hand-clapping, and then moves into a sax-trumpet call-response. The instrumentation is bold and features some pretty daring stuff on a soprano saxophone, and then the vibes hit and absolutely tear it up. Hampton is laid back and yet keeps perfectly on rhythm. (I think this is less surprising once you know that in his early career as a drummer, Hampton was famous for performing tricks like tossing and twirling his drumsticks and mallets, without ever missing a beat.)

Royal Family, 158 BPM, 3:09

love the melody of this song. The A chorus has an AAAB structure – super easy to swing out to – and the full chorus is AABA (just like they teach you in solo class!). Once the first chorus is through, you get beautiful soprano sax, piano, and that electric guitar! Throughout, Hampton holds it down on the vibes in the background, and his solo around 1:50 is understated but really funky and fun to listen to.

Wee Albert, 188 BPM, 3:20

This tune is rapidly becoming one of my all-time favorites. It swings along with a spiraling trumpet melody supported by a steady sax line, and it only gets more enthusiastic and upbeat as it moves along. There’s a pretty epic tenor sax solo starting around the 1:55 mark, and that wailing trumpet comes back and just does not stop. The vibes pop in right around the end for a big finish. Super fun!

When Lights Are Low, 200 BPM, 2:15

To me, this peppy rendition is an ideal demonstration of Lionel Hampton’s remarkable ability to carry the integrity of a melody while having all sorts of fun with rhythm and mood. The vibes start around :20 in and, supported by Charlie Christian holding down a steady beat on guitar, Hampton creates an artful portrait of the main melody of “When Lights Are Low” while somehow managing to move all over the vibraphone’s expressive range. I love this piece for solo jazz, and it would also get the balboa dancers hopping!

Flying Home: The Live Performance That Will Blow Your Mind

A post on Lionel Hampton would not be complete without a moment of appreciation for this eight minute long live rendition of “Flying Home” that pumps along at 256 BPM. Even if you don’t have time for the whole clip, at the very least watch the first few minutes and notice how much energy goes into Lionel Hampton playing on those vibes. This is clearly a man possessed by rhythm. His entire body bounces up and down with the beat, his hands bopping in time with the rhythm even when waiting to make his next move. I find this clip mesmerizing. Hope you enjoy!

Jumpin’ With Symphony Sid

On the recent album release from the Brooks Prumo Orchestra, Pass The Bounce, there’s a phenomenal rendition of the tune “Jumpin’ With Symphony Sid.” The team Southeast Scramble even used it to snag first place in the team choreography competition at Dayton Swing Smackdown this year! Check it out:

But long before Brooks Prumo made “Jumpin’ With Symphony Sid” a song that could catapult Lindy Hop teams to victory, Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins had created their own rocking version, and it swings just as hard as the Brooks Prumo cover. Check it out:

In this 1958 performance on Art Ford’s TV show “Jazz Party,” the piece starts with a pretty epic bass solo, which is then joined by an old-timey electric guitar. Then a clarinet comes on board, and after that, the familiar chorus kicks in, with Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins both in the front row on tenor saxophones. This clip also has a wonderful vibraphones player – I don’t know who he is, but he’s outstanding! After getting through the chorus once, the band proceeds to jam for eight more minutes. If you have time, let the clip play in the background and listen to the whole thing – it’s all so great!

Just for another point of comparison, here’s a studio recording version from Lester Young that you might hear at a dance, although I probably wouldn’t DJ it – the beat is not super swung, and it focuses more on Young’s solo improvisation. The tempo is a bit more mellow, and it features a lot of Young noodling around on that beautiful tenor sax, so it’s certainly lovely to listen to. Enjoy!

The Home of Happy Feet Is A Van Alexander Album Not To Be Missed

I found a fantastic album on iTunes recently, Van Alexander’s The Home of Happy Feet, released in 2012, and I want to talk about a few of the songs on it. As mentioned in my previous post, Soulacious Mr. Ben turned me onto Van Alexander when he featured “Let’s Get Together,” the first track on this album, on Mr. Ben’s Songs of the Week.

Van Alexander was born in Harlem in 1915 – what a time to be alive, am I right? – and learned classical piano from his mother before he started getting into band leading and arranging in high school. (Reminds me of me – my father, a professional pianist, taught me to play at a young age, and then I betrayed him by becoming a swing dancer instead.) I love all the music on this album for its passionate, punchy sound, and the arrangements are super tight, as one would expect when a band’s arranger is also its leader.

“Let’s Get Together” is a great tune from Van Alexander and His Orchestra that clocks in at about 188 BPM. It alternates between an infectious chorus melody and super fun solos. One of my favorite parts is the trumpet solos at about 0:55 and again around 1:30 – they have a marching feel, but the band maintains splashes of the original chorus behind them, so they feel tied in with the rest of the piece. Overall, this song lends itself well to fast Lindy or slow balboa, and I’m definitely putting it on my reference list of songs for competition finals!

“Stompin’ At the Savoy” is another gem from The Home of Happy Feet. Rather than the feverish tone that renditions of this popular tune usually strike, it has a very chill feeling, almost zen, with some phenomenal usage of what I think must be a xylophone. It’s a great introduction to “Stompin’ At the Savoy” for beginners, with a very friendly tempo of 124 BPM.

Not many people know that Van Alexander created the original arrangement of “A-Tiskey A-Tasket” that Chick Webb and Ella Fitzgerald made famous. Here is his own orchestra doing an instrumental version that features a sweet minor modulation around 1:20. I love the opening – it really just makes you want to move your feet.

I absolutely love this song – I think it might be my favorite on The Home of Happy Feet. “Blue Rhythm Be-Bop” comes from a smaller group, Van Alexander’s Blue Rhythm Band, and it has a bright, poppy melody that makes me want to hit the floor as soon as I hear it. At 162 BPM, it’s fast enough to keep the floor hopping but not so fast it wears people out, and the trumpet and clarinet solos strike a phenomenal balance between gentle and totally crazy. To top all that off, around 1:45 it has some stops that just MAKE it for me. It tics all my boxes for a great swing song, and I guarantee you’ll be seeing it around the blog quite a bit in the new year!

A fun bit of news before I let you go – I will be DJing at the Jam Cellar on Tuesday, January 9! If you’re in the DC area, I would love to see you there!

Happy holidays to all, and Merry Christmas!

 

 

You Haven’t Heard “Exactly Like You” Until You’ve Heard Helen Humes Singing It

Exactly Like You, Helen Humes, 3:49, 165 BPM

At SwingIN, one of the DJs (I think it was Celia – I need to keep better track of these things!) played this awesome, energetic version of “Exactly Like You.” Now, there are about a million covers of this standard, from everyone from Dizzy Gillespie to Count Basie to soul singers like Nina Simone and Sam Cooke. The version I hear most at swing events is Carmen McRae’s, which is an easy 140 BPM, has a sick bass line, and features some sweet piano in between Carmen’s vocals. But after hearing this new version come on at SwingIN, I had to go ask the DJ just who was that? 

After doing a bit of research, I’m surprised that I hadn’t heard of Helen Humes before. Not only was she a talented jazz vocalist who started recording as a teenager and became a regular at the Cincinnati Cotton Club, Count Basie discovered her in Cincinnati and asked her to join his orchestra to replace Billie Holiday. (Now that’s the kind of discovered-talent story that should make the news!) Humes toured with the Count Basie Orchestra for four years, from 1938 to 1942, where she sang mostly ballads and popular songs.

The video below shows her singing “I Cried For You” with Basie’s smaller orchestra in the 1950s (also worth watching for a killer tenor sax solo from Wardell Gray and Buddy DeFranco on clarinet), and I love that you can see Basie’s huge smile when Humes starts singing. It seems clear that they shared a deep love of jazz music. Later on, Helen Humes helped to bridge the gap between big band swing and rhythm and blues (her jump blues tune “Million Dollar Secret” is her most famous today), making her an important figure in the history of American vernacular music.

The song I’m featuring today, Helen Humes’ “Exactly Like You,” was recorded at a live concert in Paris in 1974. The song has an infectious energy and just swings harder and harder as it goes, which is just what I like to hear. It’s really pleasing to hear how her vocals differ from Carmen McRae’s version and play around with rhythm. I used to think “Exactly Like You” was kind of annoying because I always heard the same version, but Helen Humes made me love it again!

“The Jeep Is Jumping” Is A Great Introduction to Johnny Hodges

The Jeep Is Jumping, Johnny Hodges & His Orchestra, 2:51, 178 BPM

The Jeep Is Jumping starts around 2:50 in this recording of the full Castle Rock album. I like that it has a moderate feel while maintaining a pretty quick clip at 180 BPM, and has lots of fun musicality to play around with, including a great muted bass solo (around 4:15 in this video). The Jeep is Jumping features Johnny Hodges on alto sax, Lawrence Brown on trombone, Al Sears on tenor sax, Leroy Lovett on piano, Lloyd Trotman on bass, and Sonny Greer on drums.

There is a Duke Ellington cover of The Jeep is Jumping, but it’s at 255 BPM, so I figured this might be a bit more appropriate for dancing. Johnny Hodges was actually most well known as the lead alto sax in the Duke Ellington Orchestra, and only had his own orchestra for a short period during which he left Duke’s orchestra and later returned. Hodges was considered one of the greatest alto saxophonists of the big band era.

Johnny Hodges and Al Sears, Aquarium, New York,, ca. Nov. 1946 (William P. Gottlieb 04191).jpg

Johnny Hodges on alto sax with Al Sears in the background. 

“The Honeydripper” Has California Spirit

The Honeydripper, Cab Calloway, 2:57, 155 BPM

This song was originally an R&B hit by Joe Liggins and His Honeydrippers, and found runaway popularity in mid-1940s California as soliders returned from the Pacific, ready to experience civilian nightlife. The term “honeydripper” originates from a black slang term used to describe a sweet guy.

Jimmie Lunceford and the Delta Rhythm Boys also made a popular cover of this song, but I prefer Cab Calloway’s because I think it has a more swung feel that makes it more suited to dancing. The tempo is a bit slower than Liggins or Lunceford, which makes it a bit more accessible, and the vocals feel more energetic. Lunceford’s cover maintains the bouncy, driving R&B rhythm of the original version, which isn’t bad, but Cab Calloway’s version makes me want to get up and dance, which is my first requirement for any song I’m going to DJ!

“You Talk A Little Trash” Is a Cootie Williams Treasure

You Talk A Little Trash, Cootie Williams, 2:54, 160 BPM

This song, You Talk A Little Trash, has an infectious sound and is great for dancers – nice 32-count phrasing and an easy-to-follow melodic structure. And of course, Cootie Williams sounds great on trumpet, especially in the latter half of the song once he really starts throwing down variations.

I first heard You Talk A Little Trash in this video of Erin Morris and Alex Parker doing a social dancing demo in Montreal and immediately liked it. The bouncy melody facilitates such great styling from Erin, and the whole dance just looks smooth and comfy. This has been one of my favorite songs to DJ recently, to the point where sometimes I have to talk myself down and put something else on for variety.