Annie Sklar is a Student Advisor at Berkleemusic.com. She finished her studies at Berklee College of Music, where she studied Jazz Composition and Tenor Saxophone. Annie has worked and played with jazz greats such as Maria Schneider, Rufus Reid, and Herb Pomeroy. You can hear some of her music on the Berklee Music Network.
Dance is a four-letter word in jazz. The days of swing being the go-to dance floor soundtrack have long since past, and the jazz community gazes back on that era with the fondness for the quaint and the outdated usually reserved for doddering elders. Jazz has evolved into one of the highest forms of art music that humans can conjure up. At some point, the jazz listener evolved into a creature made entirely of ears, and maybe a tapping toe. There is a definite tendency in jazz to eschew music that does not live up to high intellectual standards (if you say that isn’t true, then you might be an offender), and an even greater impulse to dismiss entirely anything that features a pulsing groove specifically for the purposes of dancing. But wait! Are we jazzers missing out on a basic human experience – dancing?
There’s a lot of bad dance music out there. The explosion of technology available to “producers” (however Mom’s basement bound they may be) has made the creation of electronic music very easy. And good lord do hacks and jokers take advantage of that. Even well produced top 40 pop music is generally so musically egregious that stumbling upon it on the radio triggers my “ekldik!” reflex (ah Yiddish, the language of lovers- words that sound exactly like what they mean). But there is dance music out there that is creative, unexpected, and fun. A good DJ playing great, well-produced tracks can provide a mind-body-spirit lift of the highest order. Who cares if the track stays on the I chord the whole time? Appreciate the forward motion of the beat and the non-complexity of the harmony. As a jazz writer, I get my fill of reharmonization and multi-tonic systems. I often find myself appreciating dance styles for their lack of chords, traded instead for atmospheric harmonic structures. As long as the groove is hot and the DJ doesn’t try to mix in a track that’s a half step off-that makes me want to throw theory books towards the booth.
No, I’m not saying (and never would) that dance music could ever hope to even approach jazz, or classical, or any other art music in creativity, emotion, or intellectual pursuit. But I would argue that it doesn’t have to. And to shake a proverbial finger at those who might dismiss it for being aesthetically shallow, when was the last time YOU danced in public? Because that is the basic function of dance genres – party music! Music that exudes such energy that anyone within earshot can’t help but move. And nothing gets a crowd moving like a moving crowd.
And now to jump into a topic that I admittedly know next to nothing about- evolutionary biology! Why do we have such a primal urge to shake it when we hear an awesome drumbeat or bass line? Why did our propensity for what we call music evolve in the first place? And did dance come first, or the music that we dance to? Completely un-scientific Googling indicates that no one has any definite answers. There has been some research (you’re not really expecting me to footnote, right? You don’t want to read ‘em and I’m definitely too lazy to write ‘em. No need to get heavy. Let’s move on) that indicates that musical productivity mirrors reproductive activity in the life cycles of humans. Darwin believed that musical ability (like singing) might be a “sexually selected” (woo woo!) trait to aid in courtship, like a peacock’s tail. So maybe that’s part of it. But there’s another hypothesis out there, proposing that music evolved as a way to bind social groups together. I can dig that, can’t you? The original purpose of dancing could be related to reproduction; showing off for the opposite sex through movement is a technique that is employed throughout the animal kingdom-check out THESE FLY MOVES. But consider also the early human tribe preparing for battle with their rivals from the other side of the watering hole. I see fire and drums and music making and dancing and general revelry. This type of behavior is hypothesized to be able to bring the group to an altered, trance-like state of mind. Individuals would be more in line with the cause, even to the extent that pain and fear would take a back seat. A good old-fashioned team building exercise! We can still experience a little piece of this most primal exercise when we dance in a crowd. You get caught up, get a little wild, and have a great time. Dancing makes your body feel good and connects you emotionally with those around you. After a particularly epic build in a track, the adrenaline rush when it drops flows through the whole crowd at the same time. Not too often do we get that kind of shared elemental human experience in a positive context (such moments are generally reserved for moments of terror, like rapidly descending airplanes). We should enjoy it before we evolve it away!
We should all get to experience the benefits of music absorbed through primal functions like dancing. Art music is wonderful and perhaps the finest form of human creative expression. Everyone should at least try to listen and understand the exceptional and uniquely human ability to manipulate pitch, tone, and rhythm to create a thing that exists only for itself. That may be the zenith of human evolution-art for the sake of art. But it is valuable to sometimes experience music at a more primitive level. And dance music is perfect for that! You don’t have to think, you don’t have to analyze-you just get to enjoy it for what it is; a vehicle for movement. You don’t necessarily have to rave out with neon and glow sticks to get it. Enjoy the basic properties of the music: the drums, bass, builds and drops, and appreciate the simple modality. And be careful who you lay your jazz snobbery on, because you never know if that chick grooving out next to you has a degree in Jazz Composition. And if she does, she may just be able to justify why dance music deserves our love, too.
Berkleemusic’s next term begins on September 24th, 2012.
Find out more at berkleemusic.com or contact a Student Advisor:
1-866-BERKLEE (USA) | +1 617 747 2146 (Intl) | email@example.com