Saturday night at DCLX, we will witness one of the few true Big Band Battles in the lindy hop community. Glenn Crytzer was generous to agree to an interview giving insight to his “authentic approach,” what he looks for in his musicians, and what surprises might be coming at the 2nd Annual Battle of the Bands.
Abigail: As a professional musician, give those of us going to DCLX a sense of your musical “style.” What greats do you borrow from and why?
Glenn: I like to select music for my groups that is from the era that inspired the creation and development of the lindy hop. Our book of tunes ranges in style from around 1927 (the purported year that the lindy hop began) through the mid 1940’s. Our musical starting point is fairly obvious, but the way I choose the ending point is more subjective. The reason I cap things off at around 1945 is that in the mid to late 1940’s there was a big shift in the philosophy behind what jazz musicians were doing – they wanted to create music that people would listen to rather than dance to. This of course caused the public taste to shift away from jazz. Latin music, Country-Western, Rhythm and Blues, and Rock n’ Roll came to the forefront as the popular dance music while jazz largely went the direction of be-bop and was performed more in concert and club settings than in dance halls.
Abigail: Can you explain more about where music was headed from then through the 1940’s?
Glenn: Around this time the “old testament” Basie band disbanded due to lack of work, while Ellington continued on a shoestring through the 1940’s. Almost every other big band from the swing era had dissolved by the mid 1940’s. In the 50’s when Basie reformed, his band, Buddy Rich’s, Ellington’s and other newer bands were touring around and mostly playing festivals and concerts rather than in the big dance halls that were around in the swing era. The music of the 1930’s and 1940’s seemed old fashioned to 1950’s and 1960’s audiences, and the new music being performed by the big bands had a more modern style, largely intended for listening in a concert setting.
Abigail: How has your knowledge of Lindy Hop impacted your musical choices?
Glenn: As a long time dancer myself (I’ve been at it over a decade) it feels like a square peg in a round hole if I try to dance the lindy hop to music that is from outside the Swing Era – it feels as off to me as if I tried dancing it to Lady Gaga. One of the things that really inspired me to start a band is that I wanted to give my fellow dancers more opportunities to dance to the music that has a natural fit with the dance with the hopes that it would inspire them to new heights in their dancing and would help them to feel as amazing as it makes me feel to swing out to a tune that just has THAT swing.
Abigail: Tom Cunningham described you as “a real zealot for the authentic approach with his music.” In what ways do you set up your band to be “authentic”?
Glenn: Well, our book of tunes, as mentioned above, is a big part of that. I also like to work with musicians that really focus on the older music and that really make a conscious effort to play in a way that is stylistic. Another thing that we do is that we try to minimize the use of electronics. In the 1930’s, the capacity to mic every instrumentalist on stage didn’t exist, and stage monitors didn’t come around until the early 1960’s. Would the musicians have used this stuff in the swing era if they had had it? I would venture to say they would have. Would they have ended up making the same music that they did? I would say probably not. What you hear affects what you play. It’s actually a particular interest of mine – the way that both electronic and acoustic technology affected performance practice in jazz. I’m searching for a research grant in the next few years to write a book about it.
Abigail: Congrats, that sounds like an excellent project. To go a little further in understanding the mechanics, why do some bands choose to use monitors?
Glenn: I chose not to use monitors, but some bands like to; there are advantages to using monitors. You can have the bass or the piano blowing at you as loud as they want if you have a monitor – you can have a different blend for the band coming through every monitor for what each player wants to hear. If the bass and guitar are amplified, it’s already elevated the stage volume in an unnatural way and that means that you start needing monitors to raise the stage volume of the other instruments. You can also make it so you can hear yourself louder if you’re not a very loud player. Monitors are a great way to assist weaker players, as well, who need to hear the changes really well in order to keep from getting lost or for a drummer that plays so loud that he can’t hear the rest of the band.
I choose to avoid using monitors because I feel that the disadvantages outweigh the advantages. I actually used them when the band first started, but my regular musicians really disliked them and encouraged me to get rid of them. They were right.
Abigail: How do monitors affect the band’s dynamic?
Glenn: Having monitors makes it easy for players to play along with the speakers instead of playing with the ensemble. This can make an ensemble’s time drag. Monitors significantly raise the stage volume and often can make it harder to hear anything. It makes instruments like drums – who typically don’t have their own instrument coming through the monitors play louder. It makes instruments like trumpets or reeds who typically want to hear themselves coming through the monitors play softer. While the microphone can make up for the softer instrument by amplifying it more in main speakers, the sound of a trumpet played loudly is far different from the sound of a trumpet played softly. A soft gentle trumpet solo when we need to kick the band up to a higher level of energy on a final chorus doesn’t get the job done – even if you can hear it over the band because the mic made it louder. Basically they ruin the natural stage balance.
Abigail: What other downsides are there to using monitors?
Glenn: Monitors can also suck the energy right out of a band. Ever been to a rock concert where it was so loud that it just made you tired? That’s kind of what it’s like to stand in front of monitor for 3 hours. Now combine that with how exhausting it is to be PLAYING a show in the first place!
My philosophy is to keep bass amps, keyboards, and guitar amps off the stage, and then to just to hire players that don’t need a crutch. I think most bands would sound better if they took the monitors off stage because they’d have to get rid of all the players that couldn’t cut it without them.
Abigail: My favorite moment at DCLX 2011 was when we, crowding the dance floor, heard the shout of “DIXIELAND BAND?!?!” from the stage and you surprised the audience with a banjo and sousaphone. How did you prepare for that moment?
Glenn: That decision was a spur of the moment thing. It was just inspired by the energy of going back and forth with another great band. I was trying to decide what we’d do next and Jason suggested we do a Dixieland chorus. It was a great idea and the audience loved it. Not only was it a surprise, but reaching back to an earlier style of jazz really showcased our band’s range of abilities – other than two or three tunes from earlier in the night, most of the music we played that evening was from the mid to late 1930’s and early 1940’s. It was a nice way to showcase that my players are wonderful hot jazz musicians in addition to being great swing musicians. The audience response was really awesome, you can hear during the previous chorus on the video when people start cheering as the sousaphone comes out from behind the piano. It was a special moment. Who knows what we’ll come up with this year!
Abigail: I can’t wait. On that note, how is preparing for a band battle different from a regular gig for you?
Glenn: I don’t think too much about battling. I have a lot of faith that my players will do great things in the moment. I write all the charts just the way I would for any other big band show – each new song I add to the book takes anywhere from 4-15 hours from start to finish – for this year’s DCLX I spent around 80-100 hours preparing the music. It’s an unconventional approach to do all this work myself instead of just buying stock arrangements or transcriptions, but it’s part of my commitment to putting on a great show. It’s my job to entertain the dancers whether there is another band or not. If the dancers have fun, both bands win.
Abigail: As a bandleader, what do you find are the most important things that you look for when hiring musicians? How did you come by the group who will be at DCLX 2012?
Glenn: Well I’ve got a regular core of players that I hire around the country, but I’m always looking for outstanding players. Bria, Meschiya, Jason, Craig, Mike, Solomon, Patrick, and Ken will all be back from last year. This year we’ve added Lucian Cobb on trombone, who is a great player and a bandleader as well as Dan Levinson on lead alto who is a world-renowned reedman.
My criteria for hiring musicians are pretty simple. Can they play the book? Do they know the style? Are they reliable? Are they fun to listen to, watch, and be on stage with? Do they inspire the other musicians and the audience?
I’m really proud and excited to work with such wonderful musicians again this year and to play big band music for dancers. Because of the economics of hiring a big band full of first class professional musicians, we only get to perform these charts a few times a year. Most jazz musicians will tell you that big band music from the 20’s and 30’s is some of the toughest stuff to perform, so my players are really pumped at the rare opportunity to play these tunes with other equally-talented colleagues who can, collectively, bring the excitement and energy that you’d have heard them played with when swing was king!
Abigail: We look forward to hearing you April 21, 2012 in the Glen Echo Spanish Ballroom! I have no doubt we will be impressed by the musicianship and the energy of both your talented Blue Rhythm Band and Tom Cunningham’s Orchestra.