Last Tuesday, I put together a playlist that told the Jam Cellar's story as I have experienced it over the past 15 years.
- Chant of the Groove, Fats Waller: Typically after announcements, we open the second half of the night with a line dance or a jam. I had songs for the Shim Sham and the Big Apple at the ready, but I didn’t want to turn my set into a line dance-a-polooza. I opted for the Tranky Do with the song that Jam Cellar instructors have preferred as an alternative to the Dipsy Doodle by Ella Fitzgerald.
Also, The Tranky Do was always more of a Jam Cellar thing. Way back in the early 00’s when Mike Faltesek was living here, he decided to piece together the original choreography. Up until that point, people were doing a version taught by Frankie Manning. Falty had noticed that the version in the Spirit Moves documentary seemed a little different and went on a mission to find any and all evidence of it on film. Eventually he was able to piece it together from a variety of film sources mostly featuring Al Minns and Leon James. This is a video of him alongside Frida Segerdahl the weekend they taught it at a workshop he organized and called “The Toe Jam” at the old Jam Cellar location. (This demo was not at the Jam Cellar though)
- Well, Git It!, Tommy Dorsey. As I said before, we usually do a jam or a line dance after announcement, but I did both because I had to play this song, and there was no way people would not jam to it. The much faster version of this song was the one used in the landmark Mad Dog routine, of which all the original JC founders were a part of. That's a pretty lengthy story by itself, but fortunately, I have written about it previously as part of my history of the modern Lindy Hop scene.
The Primordial Ooze
This section of songs served as a quick tour of the musical landscape leading up to the founding of The Jam Cellar.
- C Jam Blues, Lincoln Center Orchestra. I’m so confident that this is probably the most played song ever in the modern Lindy Hop scene, that I’m not even going to bother researching it.
- Swing Lover, Indigo Swing. Icons of the neo-swing era from the late 1990s. The irony is that this can be technically considered vintage music now. Also, yes, I did cut out that weird spoken word bit at the beginning.
- Watch The Birdie, Gene Krupa. On the short list of iconic Hollywood style songs. Another version was featured in the much less famous Hellzapoppin clip.
- Alright, O.K., You Win / Everyday (I Have the Blues), Barbara Morrison. Another overplayed classic representing the groove period, but still a great live album recorded at another legendary Lindy Hop venue in San Francisco: The 9:20 Special.
The next set paid homage to the modern musicians that have greatly influenced and supported The Jam Cellar.
- Sweet Eileen, Blue Sky 5. Craig Gildner has been a long time stalwart of the DC scene and a friend to The Jam Cellar since before the beginning. He leads a number of bands spanning varying styles of classic jazz from traditional New Orleans to small group vintage combos to post bop swing and of course classic big band. He's also shared his musical enthusiasm by DJing numerous vinyl nights at JC.
- Massachusetts (Live), Gordon Webster. Before starting her own band, JC co-founder Naomi Uyama was featured on a number of live Gordon Webster recordings.
- Black Coffee, The Careless Lovers. Friend of the Jam Cellar, Mike Faltesek, went on to play and lead several bands of his own.
- Someone’s Rockin My Dreamboat, The Boilermaker Jazz Band. The Jam Cellar has benefited greatly from its relationship with The Boilermakers. They were the band that opened the first night at the new location in the Columbia Heights neighborhood from the actual cellar location in Vienna, Virginia. More importantly, there's no way to quantify how the collective knowledge and understanding of Rich Strong, Marc Kotishon, Ernest McCarty, Jennifer McNulty, and especially Paul Cosentino has filtered throughout the world by way of the international instructors of the Jam Cellar, but it is incredibly significant. In regards to this specific song, I remember The Boilermakers first trying to figure it out at one of their gigs in DC because they heard it from an old Bugs Bunny cartoon.
- Meschiya Lake and the Little Big Horns. This represents the contributions of the vibrant New Orleans music scene to the Lindy Hop community. JC co-founder Andy Reid currently resides and plays music there on the regular.
Storming the Air Waves
About 10 years ago, I was invited to guest DJ on the live streaming radio channel that Yehoodi.com sponsored. I turned around and asked if we could feature all the DJs of The Jam Cellar. A total of 10 DJs submitted their favorite songs which we turned into a 4 hour radio show.
- Dinah, Cab Calloway & His Orchestra. The file I got for this song got corrupted, so it cuts out the last few seconds, but I had to play it because Dinah is supposed to be The Jam Cellar’s theme song . . .
- Opening JC Theme, The Hot Club de Jam Cellar. . . .which is why they re-worked it into this version. It has the distinction of actually being recorded live at The Jam Cellar in one of the spare rooms with a band completely made up of JC staff.
- Spinnin’ The Webb Chick Webb & His Orchestra.
- Yacht Club Swing, Fats Waller. The live version. Not to be confused with the not as good studio version.
- Sister Kate, Muggsy Spanier.
- Dark Eyes, Fats Waller. These last few songs are a sampling of what we submitted for the show. Dark Eyes for some reason was the most popular song amongst the DJs. It’s such a moody and unusual song for a swing dance, but that’s part of the reason why I think people love it.
Live! By The Jam Cellar
The next couple of songs were used in signature performances by Jam Cellar instructors.
- Jump through the Window, Roy Eldridge. A lot of people like to hate on this song because it inspires everyone to do the claps. However, can you think of another performance that has introduced such an indelible mark on a song that it's hard to imagine the song without them almost a decade later? Usually the music influences the dance, but this is a case where it goes the opposite way. People who have never seen this performance do the claps at the breaks to this day. Embrace the claps.
- I Could Write A Book (Live(1963/Copenhagen)), Sarah Vaughan. Not as famous as the last one, but one of my favorites from Naomi and her soon to be (at the time) husband Peter. I'm also going to take partial credit for this because I gave Naomi this song (along with a ton of other music) when she moved away. (Although I'm actually not sure if she realizes that.) My favorite part is seeing Ernest from the Boilermakers just grooving up there on stage. I normally hate it when musicians camp out on stage during performances, but considering the history between Ernest, Naomi and the rest of The Jam Cellar, I'm a fan.
I actually planned my whole set to lead up into this last stretch of songs.
- Just Kiddin’ Around, Artie Shaw & His Orchestra. Except this one. Honestly, I just threw this one in at the last second to eat some time, but it is one of my own personal favorite dance songs.
- On Revival Day, Laverne Baker. A local favorite. Generally I try to avoid drawing religious parallels to the dance scene because at the end of the day, they’re not really the same thing even if some people feel that way. In relation to this song at least, I like the themes it invokes about the hopefulness and joyfulness of being together. That's not very surprising since it invokes a lot of strong imagery of life in black churches and black culture in general from which Lindy Hop is very indebted to.
- No Regrets, Billie Holiday. My favorite Billie Holiday song. Shout out to Mike Marcotte for introducing it to me too long ago. The lyrics are spot on for this occasion.
- Shiny Stockings, Count Basie & His Orchestra. When I started putting this playlist together, this was the first song that I put on it, and I knew it also had to be the last one played. If Jumping at The Woodside is Lindy Hop’s national anthem, then Shiny Stockings is its national hymn.
- Just One Look, Doris Troy. I was totally unprepared for an encore, so I had to scramble. I probably should have seen this coming, but I overestimated lindy hoppers’ collective ability to figure out a social cue. I defaulted to one of my favorite “end of the night, everyone go home” songs.
- Dinah, James P. Johnson. Of course someone said that we should swing the eff out to end this. I thought about Woodside or Lindy Hoppers Delight, but this song has a very specific story attached to it.
At the end of the night of one of the first times I DJ’d at The Jam Cellar, I was messing around, playing random songs as the JC crew cleaned up. I decided to play a really hot song that I had found recently, and what came next felt like a lost clip from Hellzapoppin.
Everyone dropped their brooms and trash bags and started a solo jam. This was 2003, solo jazz was not a thing in the Lindy Hop scene, but the Jam Cellar was at the bleeding edge of the community’s understanding of the dance. This was mostly due to the fact that several of the world’s best dancers were living in DC at the time.
I'm sure it is a gross exaggeration to say this was the greatest solo jam I have ever witnessed, especially after seeing some of the best since then. There is no video. Just my increasingly nostalgic memory. The thing that stucks in my mind is how hard they danced. It wasn't like no one was watching because they were there with each other.
The song ended, people exchanged high 5’s and they finished closing up. Soon, some of them would be headlining workshops and winning major competitions all over the world. Some of them were already at that point. Others would follow different life paths away from dance altogether. But at that moment, it was just a Tuesday night.
This is actually not the song I played that night. It was a version of Charleston by a band led by Sidney Bechet, but it is on the same James P. Johnson compilation CD as this version of Dinah. These two songs are closely associated to me by sheer organizational chance. Plus it seemed more appropriate with Dinah being the Jam Cellar's theme song, even if few people remember that.
I suppose at it’s worse, The Jam Cellar allowed people to be a little too self indulgent like I am being here. It’s one of the pitfalls of having a nearly unrestrained creative sandbox. However, at its best, it was a place where people could come together to inspire and be inspired; to challenge and be challenged. Sometimes it was through creative performances, other times it may have been with difficult conversations, but most of the time it was with 2-3 minute dances.
The future of The Jam Cellar is uncertain. On Tuesday, they announced a summer break. The website was recently updated with a banner calling it an "indefinite break." To be honest, even if it doesn't come back, I won't miss it. I don’t miss trekking out to Vienna, Virginia to a basement in a strip mall. And I don’t even think I’ll miss the mansion/sauna in the heart of a changing nation's capital. To me The Jam Cellar wasn’t just a location.
I did the math, and I can confidently say that I’ve spent over 90% of my Tuesday nights at some form of The Jam Cellar over the past 15 years. I've seen people who were moving away break down into tears knowing that they may never return. We've celebrated engagements and consoled divorcees. The room was packed as people took turns telling their favorite Frankie Manning stories the Tuesday after he passed away.
What all these experiences have in common is that they are about people. Folks. Community. I will miss having a place to go every Tuesday night, knowing that I’ll see people that I want to be with. People who understand some of the fundamental principles of the dance that have not changed since it was born on the dance floors in Harlem almost 100 years ago. While there is plenty of room for individual creativity, you should not lose sight of your partner or the people around you. That's the main thing of value that we should take away from The Jam Cellar that should be carried over into the next chapter of whatever happens next.
More of my photos from that night are posted on my public Facebook page.