Audrey and I recently taught a musicality workshop at the 9:20 Special in San Francisco in which we asked students to get familiar with the melodies and structure of some quintessential pieces of swing music — in order to better dance and enjoy those pieces. For the first incarnation of the workshop, we focused on a popular swing dancer’s anthem: Moten Swing.

The “Moten” in the song title Moten Swing refers to the composers’ last names, bandleader Bennie Moten and his nephew, piano and accordian player Ira “Buster” Moten. Bennie Moten was a pianist/bandleader who was at the center of the Kansas City jazz scene of the 1920s and 30s. While early music by his Kansas City Orchestra reflected a rhythmic stiffness rooted in ragtime music of the 20s, their later works — including Moten Swing — helped define a looser, blues-influenced style that used repetitive phrases and riffs.

Moten formed his band by raiding another Kansas City band, Walter Page’s Blue Devils, and in the process acquired such top talent as Count Basie, Jimmy Rushing, Hot Lips Page, Eddie Durham and Ben Webster. After Moten’s death in 1935, Count Basie took leadership of the group which evolved into the Count Basie Orchestra, and which adopted many of Moten’s charts and musical  innovations.

In the notes to his book Jazz Styles: History and Analysis author Mark C. Gridley says, “‘Moten Swing’ is a thirty-two measure AABA form that is based on the chord progression to a song called ‘You’re Driving Me Crazy.’” Here are a couple of fun versions of that song:

See if you can hear the similarities in Bennie Moten’s original:

Moten Swing – Benny Moten Orchestra (1930 -1932).

And now, for some of my favorite versions of this tune:

Moten Swing – Andy Kirk and His Clouds of Joy — retains some of the original punchiness and zing

Moten Swing (2003 Digital Remaster) – Count Basie — featuring the smoother and polished sound of the New Testament Basie Big Band

Moten Swing – Charlie Barnet, The Everest Years — one of my favorite versions to DJ for dancers, due to it’s creamy, textured horns, and rich crescendos that make you float, even while the rhythm section drives forward steadily

Moten Swing (2000 Digital Remaster) – Jonah Jones, Jumpin’ with Jonah — after hearing DJ Jesse Miner spin this classy, jazzy and uptempo version I had to go home and download it right away. I loved it so much, I ended up putting together a performance routine to it for my Sunset Lindy Hop Intermediate/Advanced Students

Moten Swing – the Jonah Jones Quartet — the next time I conferred with Jesse about the Jonah Jones version, he clued me in to this awesome slow version by the same musician. WOW! This is a great version to play with dancing and expressing the silent parts and pauses in the music.

Moten Swing – Barney Kessel – okay, back to fun, lively upbeat versions

Moten Swing from Kansas City: A Robert Altman Film – Original Motion Picture Soundtrack — and this version with a chunky rhythm section by Jesse Davis & James Carter could possibly warrant the purchase of the whole soundtrack CD. I don’t know…don’t ask me how I got my copy of the track 😉

Dance/Musicality exercise:

  1. Listen to a particular version of the song, and see if you can learn and hum the main theme. In which phrases and beats do you hear accents, hits, or breaks?
  2. Once you feel like you can hum the theme on your own, listen to another version and hum along with it. How do the two versions line-up? How much do they share the melody? How would you describe the differences in the way the two bands express some of the same accents, hits or breaks?
  3. What types of dance moves or body movements could you use to  match the character of each selection?
  4. Try it!

When it comes to musicality, there really is no right or wrong way to do it, and it’s really a matter of personal interpretation and creativity. I personally find that knowing the general tune of the song adds to my dance enjoyment because, well, it’s fun to hit the breaks with my partner. At the same time, it’s always worth a good laugh with my partner when I hit a break that I thought was there because I was singing a different version of the tune in my head than the one actually playing. There’s the real challenge: knowing the basic tune enough to inform your big picture dancing, while staying present in the dance moment enough to express the nuances and subtleties as they arise.

Alright, enough commentary…happy dancing and listening!

Moten Swing(s)