This past Saturday my band took a serious dance aptitude test (DAT). We played for a local dance club, an organization that teaches ballroom dancing to couples and has monthly dinner dances where they practice what they learn. The instructor couple had indicated to me how much trouble they had in past years finding bands who could cut the gig. I sympathized with them up to a point, but in the back of my mind I was wondering what the problem was. Was it because playing for dancing has become a thing of the past? This is partly true, but musicians in my generation have spent many hours playing gigs where people dance, most often at weddings but sometimes in clubs. So I wasn’t quite sure what the problem was, until I got the suggested song list, which I requested.
When I received the list I understood their issue with bands. It was easy to see that these dancers would be very specific in their wants. In years past, a band leader could feel comfortable going into a gig with dancers by having a sampling of tunes that covered swing, a few 6/8 ballads, a couple of rock numbers, a waltz, a bossa nova and a polka if requested. These styles could usually get you through any gig.
The list I received from the leaders of this club was more specifically defined. It included all the above-mentioned styles, with the addition of a foxtrot, a bolero, a merengue, two types of cha-chas (a regular cha-cha and a chilly cha-cha), a samba, a rumba, a mambo, an Argentine tango and an American tango. You might guess that I was approaching this gig with a bit more seriousness than was originally anticipated. As I looked through the identified songs that accompanied each style, I surmised an unusual degree of homework lay ahead. The biggest issues were with the Latin numbers. When we are asked for a Latin tune, most musicians think of a bossa nova, like “Girl from Ipanema,” or “Spanish Eyes.” That used to cover the Latin genre. This list made me seriously ponder what I actually knew about the difference between a tango, a cha-cha, a samba and a mambo. I had to admit that I did not actually know a heck of a lot. Adding to my trepidation was the fact that although I had a quartet, I did not have my full band with me. I was grateful, however, to have Tom McGrath on the gig, my A-list drummer.
The gig was a dinner dance and I put a lot of thought into the first tune. We started in our comfort zone and played the bossa nova “Summer Samba,” (also called “So Nice”), and to my immense relief we weren’t four measures into the tune when more than half the audience was on the dance floor, even though they were mid-dinner. I immediately saw that these dancers knew their stuff. As the night progressed I felt better and more confident as the dancers responded to our selections. But in addition to all these styles, we had a flood of requests. We expected the polka and the waltz, but in addition we were asked for west coast swing, “Spanish Eyes,” “The Hustle,” “Mustang Sally,” “The Electric Slide,” and even a song called “Number 720 in the Book.” I admit I had never heard of that one, but we filled nearly every request and apparently passed the DAT by a margin of two standard deviations above the mean.
I often think I missed the era of music I really would have thrived in, the late 30’s through the war years, when the audience participated by dancing, when arrangers could find work with big bands, when there were plentiful gigs for sidemen, and when jazz and swing music was the popular music of the day. I try not to talk about music history that predated me as if I were there, like the 39-year-old who proclaimed in a Ken Burns documentary that in 1940 the Savoy dance club was THE place to be. So I will only say that I had a flash this last Saturday night of being in a dance hall in 1939. We had a stage, a beautiful dance floor, we had the spotlighted globe rotating in the ceiling, and we had 50 couples dancing and dressed to the nines, applauding after every selection with enthusiastic smiles.
If I’d had a roadie to move my gear I would have called it the perfect gig.