Swing refers to both a special quality of jazz music (and some related musical genres) and a specific period of jazz, known as the Swing Era (roughly the 1930s, especially since 1935, and the early 1940s). The two are related, as the “bouncy” quality inherent to jazz music in general and known as swing became a dominant characteristic of jazz played in the so-called Swing Era. Though it is not limited to it, swing is invariably linked to the formation of big bands and activity on the dance floor. Swing is generally considered an essential component of jazz and the Swing Era is considered the age of classic jazz. The swing element is responsible for the unique dynamic nature of jazz music.
Swing music, also known as swing jazz, is a form of jazz music that developed during the 1920s and had solidified as a distinctive style by 1935 in the United States. Swing is distinguished primarily by a strong rhythm section, usually including string bass and drums, medium to fast tempo, and the distinctive swing time rhythm that is common to many forms of jazz.
Definitions of swing
Defining swing is a notoriously difficult thing to do, since the swing quality of a musical piece is essentially a matter of perception and appreciation. It is generally accepted that the perceptible presence of swing in a piece of music is a key to having it labeled as jazz. As the 1923 Duke Ellington lyric goes, “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.” Musicologists have attempted to scientifically define the element that makes up the swing effect and to trace its origins, though there is disagreement.
While the presence or absence of a swing feeling is much too subtle for it to be synthesized mechanically, it can nevertheless be analyzed. In layman’s terms, any time a note is not accentuated in a “straight” way, exactly on the beat, but rather slightly before or slightly after, a special kind of push or accentuation is given to that beat, making it feel “bouncy.” When that effect is repeated throughout a piece, with all kinds of variations, the phenomenon of swing is generated, as anyone can witness by listening to most types of jazz music, especially from the Swing Era. To paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, one may be unable to define swing, but one knows it when one hears it.
Things become more complicated and controversial when one tries to be technical. “A way of performing eighth notes where downbeats and upbeats receive approximately 2/3 and 1/3 of the beat, respectively, providing a rhythmic lift to the music” (jazzinamerica.org) is one of the more accessible definitions. In our electronic age, the swing effect has been subjected to computer analysis, yielding essentially the same results—that of measuring an intentional departure from the regular, straight beats of European music.
The African heritage
Some, however, have rejected this whole approach as Eurocentric and, in part at least, with good reason. Defining swing as syncopation, or a "triplet feel" (where the first note of a bar is made to last twice as long as the second one) means applying Western musical paradigms to a music that is in large part rooted in a totally different musical tradition, that of West Africa. Swing is a hybrid concept of time/pulse and rhythm: the result of the miscegenation between West African triple meter and multiple rhythmic layering with Western European duple meter and singular rhythm. This "3 inside 2" is fundamentally a West African-descended phenomenon, found in all African diasporic music where more than one time and more than one rhythm coexist. Enslaved Africans in the Diaspora developed unique types of "swing"—in Cuba, Haiti, Puerto Rico, Brazil, etc.
A musical synthesis
In sum, the swing element is part of a musical synthesis that appeared in the United States in the first half of the twentieth century—jazz itself. Like every genuinely new creation, it was generated out of the “genetic” input from two sides, themselves a mixture of other combinations. Recognizing the importance of the African-American, and ultimately the African genesis of the swing effect is important, because it is part of the music’s life.
Swing is not a technical trick that can be recreated at will for the sake of a certain effect. At the same time, it is clear that the African rhythmic element has given birth to what became swing in the context of the European musical tradition as played in the United States some one hundred years ago, including not only classical music, but also marching band music, ragtime, and various forms of popular and folk music. Even these latter forms of music, of course, had a black as well as a white tradition. While not being directly related to the specific nature of the Swing era, the blues tradition, with its strong emotional emphasis definitely has to be taken into account as an in-depth factor as well.
The extent to which one’s ethnic background influences one’s ability to swing or not has remained the object of heated debate. What is certain is that, in traditional jazz particularly, white musicians and black musicians tend to have a slightly different way of playing swing music. For a further discussion on the ethnic component of the question, refer to the jazz article.
History of the Swing genre and the Swing Era
The first recordings labeled swing style date from the 1920s, and come from both the United States and the United Kingdom. They are characterized by the swing rhythm already at that time common in jazz music, and a lively style which is harder to define but distinctive. Although swing evolved out of the jazz experimentation that began in New Orleans and that developed further (and in varying forms) in Kansas City (MO), Chicago, and New York City, what is now called swing diverged from other jazz music in ways that distinguished it as a form in its own right. The Swing Era “officially” began around 1935 with the emergence of Benny Goodman and his band of white musicians. Count Basie’s African-American band emerged slightly later, producing its own brand of swing. Though Benny Goodman was dubbed the “King of Swing,” many would insist that the title rightfully belonged to Basie. The real initiator of the big band and swing era, however, was Fletcher Henderson. As early as 1930, his band had been playing what was essentially music of the Swing Era. And he was not alone—in a number of places, precursors of the Swing Era were playing similar music around the same time.
The Big Bands
Swing bands tended to be bigger and more crowded than other jazz bands, necessitating a slightly more detailed and organized type of musical composition and musical notation than was then the norm. Bandleaders put more energy into developing arrangements, perhaps reducing the chaos that might result from as many as 12 or 16 musicians spontaneously improvising. But the best swing bands at the height of the era explored the full gamut of possibilities from spontaneous ensemble playing to highly orchestrated music in the vein of European art music.
A typical song played in swing style would feature a strong, anchoring rhythm section in support of more loosely tied wind, brass, and later, string and/or vocal sections in some cases. The level of improvisation that the audience might expect at any one time varied depending on the arrangement, the band, the song, and the bandleader. The most common style consisted of having one soloist at a time taking center stage, and take up an improvised routine, with his bandmates playing support. As a song progressed, multiple soloists might be expected to pick up the baton, and then pass it on. That said, it was far from uncommon to have two or three band members improvising at any one time.
Swing jazz began to be embraced by the public around 1935. Previously to that time it had had only a very limited acceptance, mostly among Black audiences and insiders. As the music began to grow in popularity throughout the United States, a number of changes occurred in the culture that surrounded the music. For one, the introduction of swing music, with its strong rhythms, loud tunes, and "swinging" style led to an explosion of creative dance in the black community. The Chick Webb band in Harlem is a perfect example. The various rowdy, energetic, creative, and improvisational dances that came into effect during that time came to be known, collectively, as swing dance.
The second change that occurred as swing music increased in popularity outside the black community, was, to some extent, an increasing pressure on musicians and band leaders to soften (some would say dumb-down) the music to cater to a more staid and conservative, Anglo-American audience. In the United States, there was some resistance to the acceptance of swing music until around 1939. Bennie Goodman’s first Carnegie Hall concert on January 18, 1938, is considered a landmark in that regard.
Similar conflicts arose when Swing spread to other countries. In Germany, it conflicted with Nazi ideology and was declared officially forbidden by the Nazi regime. And, while jazz music was initially embraced during the early years of the Soviet Union, it was soon forbidden as a result of being deemed politically unacceptable. After a long hiatus, though, jazz music was eventually readmitted to Soviet audiences.
In later decades, the popular, sterilized, mass-market form of swing music would often, and unfortunately, be the first taste that younger generations might be exposed to, which often led to it begin labeled something akin to 'old-fashioned big-band dance music'.
Ironically, early swing musicians were often in fact annoyed by the young people who would throw a room into chaos by seemingly tossing each other across the floor at random—thus somewhat nullifying the idea that swing was developed as dance music, when in fact, swing dancing evolved among young aficionados to complement the energy of the music. Nevertheless, it is a fact that dancing is inherently part of the swing phenomenon, since the very nature of that music stimulates one’s expression through bodily movements. The oneness between dance and music is also very much in line with its African heritage, as well as its origins in western folk music.
The death of swing
Swing music began a slow decline during World War II and most swing historians believe 1947 to be the year that its popularity went into a tailspin. This was due to two things, both of which are related to the end of the war. One is the beginning of the baby boom, where swing fans were getting jobs, getting married, and having millions of babies—and putting their swing records in the attic. The other is the development of rhythm and blues and jump blues in the black community after the war, which became popular because smaller three- to five-piece combos were found to be more profitable than large swing bands. A third reason is the recording ban of 1948. The year 1947 ended with recordings still being made in the swing genre, and also with the very first rhythm and blues records being pressed. In 1948 there were no records legally made at all, although independent labels continued to bootleg them in small numbers. When the ban was over in January 1949 and the smoke cleared, swing was dead and in its place was fully-formed rhythm and blues, which, when it crossed over to the white community in the early 1950s as rock and roll, finally put swing music out of its misery. The original shuffle rhythm of swing was dead, and the backbeat was the new standard. As for mainline jazz, it had by then moved into the realm of bebop, hard bop and related developments where swing as an effect mostly remained, but in an altered form quite remote from the sounds of the Swing Era.
Interestingly, the short-lived Swing Revival movement of the 1990s, lead by bands such as Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, Royal Crown Revue, and Brian Setzer, was not really swing music at all, but swing orchestration over an R&B backbeat by people who grew up with rock and roll.
- Download sample of "Begin the Beguine" by Artie Shaw, a surprise hit that turned the clarinetist into a swing star
- Download sample of "Jumpin' at the Woodside" by Count Basie & His Orchestra, a popular swing song by a jazz legend
- Download sample of "And the Angels Sing" by Benny Goodman and Martha Tilton, a legendary swing recording that helped keep Goodman's career afloat as band members departed
Famous Swing Musicians
Clarinet: Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Buster Bailey
Trumpet: Louis Armstrong, Roy Eldridge, Harry “Sweets” Edison, Bunny Berrigan, Buck Clayton, Harry James, Cootie Williams, Jonah Jones
Piano: Count Basie, Earl Hines, Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, Teddy Wilson, Fats Waller
Tenor saxophone: Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Don Byas, Chu Berry, Ben Webster
Alto saxophone: Johnny Hodges, Benny Carter, Edgar Sampson
Baritone saxophone: Harry Carney
Guitar: Django Reinhardt, Charlie Christian
Bass: John Kirby, Jimmy Blanton, Walter Page
Drums: Chick Webb, Jo Jones, Cozy Cole, Sidney “Big Sid” Catlett, Gene Krupa, Lionel Hampton (vibraphone)
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Erenberg, Lewis A. 1998. Swingin' the Dream: Big Band Jazz and the Rebirth of American Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0226215172
- Gitler, Ira. 1985. Swing to Bop: An Oral History of the Transition in Jazz in the 1940s. Reprint edition, 2003. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195050703
- Hennessey, Thomas J. 1994. From Jazz to Swing: African-American Jazz Musicians and Their Music, 1890-1935. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press. ISBN 0814321798
- Schuller, Gunther. 1991. The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz, 1930-1945. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195071409
- Stowe, David. 1996. Swing Changes: Big-Band Jazz in New Deal America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0674858263
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