This is the second in a three-part series focusing on musicians as they navigate what it means to produce music during the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2019, the first three-part series 'The Art of Song' was released following artists as they navigated the song-writing process.
“How do you throw a show that’s responsible and not putting people in danger and still allowing people to feel it?” Josh Ramsay, who plays music under the name Jaybird, faced this question during the end of summer and earlier this fall when he and his friends were presented with the opportunity to play a couple shows for the Orpheum Theater’s Under the Stars series.
Ramsay is known as one of the creators of The Heartbeat, a house music experience that would have reached its third anniversary this fall. During the event, house music is played by several DJs culminating in a night of celebration and dancing. House music is a genre of electronic dance music, known as EDM.
“When disco ‘died,’ it was stamped out. Techno and house music were born then,” Ramsay says. “It gave a home to people who had ‘alternative lifestyles.’ It was more than just a party, it was a home for those people who didn’t have other places to go. It was a place for these communities to let loose.”
Created as an underground music genre in Chicago after the popularity of disco waned in the 1980s, house music slowly made its way to Flagstaff. It’s known for its “four on the floor” beat and 120-130 beats per minute tempo. Ramsay had experienced this genre of music elsewhere but couldn’t find it in Flagstaff prior to introducing The Heartbeat.
“The reason I got into this is because I would go to these parties with EDM and I would be so upset with myself. I didn’t know how to dance to it or what this music meant. It didn’t make sense to my brain,” he says. “When I’d heard it for the first time, I felt it in my body. It’s such a personal thing.”
Influences for DJs who work with house music include soul, disco and jazz. Ramsay explains that with many electronic music genres it’s hard to understand where the letting loose comes from. For him, it’s the influences of the house music genre that allow him to radiate with joy.
Ramsay says, “It’s groovy and sexy. It’s creating an atmosphere, a bubble. [When you DJ] you’re picking and choosing other artists’ music. You’re finding stuff that people should hear. You are figuring a way to combine it to create a dance floor. When you’re playing a show like that, there's this moment where you’re seeing the people [on a vibe]. It’s because the music is so pure. The Heartbeat is about the music first.”
With COVID restrictions in place for safety, it’s hard to imagine what it would be like to experience house music in the same ways as last year. Ramsay reflects on the communal aspect of this genre.
“You’re feeling each other’s souls,” he says. “There doesn’t need to be a conversation. Instead, there’s a recognition of one another. It’s just people smiling ear to ear. They’re bouncing and forming circles and being so excited together. It’s almost like seeing them hear music for the first time.”
After having played for the Orpheum’s Under the Starsseries, he and fellow DJs Jean Jacket and Ill Divo found themselves altering their normal sets. The Orpheum did a lot of work to create a safe and socially distanced event, selling tickets in small groups and assigning attendees individual pods, with a table and chairs. While people weren’t able to dance as they might pre-pandemic, it created exciting challenges for the DJs.
“We altered our shows with the expectation that people can’t dance. You wanted to make it sexy and groovy, but you held yourself back. It held us back but it made us think about the way we create our music together.”
While people still danced in their seats, Ramsay felt the mixes were curated for creating a mood. It’s important for this music genre to place the listener in the moment and experience what the DJ has put together.
For those who want to begin, Ramsay says go for it.
“You create what you want to create and the right people will attach to it. You show them what they don’t know they want to hear,” he says. “You just have to start, get it all together and invest a little time into it. Play what you love and be true to yourself. It’s like making a mixtape for someone you love. It’s a beautiful experience to see people understand what you feel.”
Throughout quarantine, Ramsay has released several longer sets on his Soundcloud under Jaybird that are accessible to everyone.
Margarita Cruz holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Northern Arizona University. She serves on the Northern Arizona Book Festival board and as editor-in-chief for Thin Air Magazine. Her work has been featured in The Tunnels and Susquehanna Review, among others.