Introduction Swing Jazz. Does swing equal jazz? Is swing the same as big band music? Is swing exclusively dance music? Is there any such thing as pure swing? Benny Goodman, a famous American jazz musician, clarinetist, and known as the “King of Swing” once said that swing music “remains something you take 5,000 words to explain then leaves you wondering what it is. ” (Pener and Morris 1-10) There are so many genres and subgenres of music – and more specifically jazz – that one could never fully explain how each came to be.
However, many involved with the new and old eras of swing jazz are intrigued by the bewilderment it causes musicians and dancers alike. In order to better understand Swing Jazz Music as a whole, I set out to research its definition, history, greats, relationship to swing dancing and the swing revival. Definition of Swing When asked ‘what is swing? ’ Louis Armstrong once said, “If you don’t know, don’t mess with it.
(Pener and Morris 7) In short, swing music is a form of jazz that developed in the 1920’s and matured through various different artists through until the late 30’s and early 0’s, in which swing became the most popular musical style in America. The earliest use of the term “swing” was to describe the effect when all parts of a composition blended perfectly together. (Starr and Waterman 115) Defining swing music has proven to be confusing and challenging to both musician and fan. The word “swing” is derived from African American English.
It was first used as a verb to describe the rocking and rhythmic momentum of the music. (Starr and Waterman 120) However, the term wasn’t used as a noun until around 1935 (the start of the swing era) – which is when it became an excepted proper noun to describe the musical genre. There are three different uses to the word swing; the Swing Effect (as it relates to other genres and subgenres of music), Swing Style (as it relates to the style of music), and the Swing Era (embraced by a mass audience as a musical genre 1935-1945). The Swing Effect is better described as the description of how the type of music was played.
For instance, some ways bandleaders would get the music to ‘swing’ would be to get front line musicians to play off each other which produced rhythmic harmony between them. This also happened through allowing the front line as a whole to blend their parts synchronously with underlying rhythm/harmonic forces of rhythm section and allowing for spontaneity among soloist and improvisation. It was ultimately the alterations made to classic jazz that brought swing into the view. The Swing Effect became Swing Style when big bands (“jazz orchestras” as they were first called) became more popular during the later 1920’s.
The Swing Style was used to describe quite bluntly, during the later 1920’s. The Swing Style was used to describe quite bluntly, the type of music, but not yet the genre. The Swing Era was the peak of the life of swing, lasting from approximately 1935 to 1945 as this genre of music was embraced by a mass audience in America. Through research, swing has been found to mean something different to everyone. Artie Shaw, bandleader, was found to say that “swing music is not a verb … it is an adjective … it isn’t a type of music, it’s a way of playing music. ” (Pener and Morris 7-8).
Conversely, many argue that defining swing should begin with the movement that entertained America in the two greatest trials: Depression and WWII. As more than just a musical concept, swing music even helped to pull the American music industry of the Great Depression. History of Swing Contrary to popular belief, swing music is not exclusive to jazz and in its earliest form existed within folk styles and even African American spirituals. (Starr and Waterman 118) However the main roots of swing came from the birth of jazz – which was essentially African and European musical elements being put together.
The birthplace of jazz was New Orleans – one of the few cities in America at that time that accepted African music. Jazz had two phases – New Orleans and Chicago. Around 1922 there was a migration of musicians and generally blacks to the north in order to look for jobs. This introduced jazz to northern America and essentially brought Louis Armstrong to Chicago. The swing styles from New Orleans to Chicago changed in that the number of instruments increased, repertoire broadened to more popular song and dance pieces, and the tempo generally moved at a faster speed. “What Jazz Has To Do With It”) The politics of swing is believed to have brought America together through the hard times. Although the American society remained segregated along racial lines even as the country spent billions of dollars and thousands of lives fighting WWII, swing music and big bands brought “a youthful energy back to American music”. The musical and cultural influence of swing music gave optimism to a nation rising from economic depression and WWII. (Starr and Waterman 125) The Greats – Both Black and White Relationships between black and white musicians and fans began to change throughout the swing era.
Although black musicians still had difficulty getting equal airtime, times were progressing and even fans were racially mixed in the audiences at venues. Black dance bands still faced economic and social disadvantages, but overall the swing era represented “a step forward in cultural communication across racial boundaries. (Starr and Waterman 125) Benny Goodman was a dance band leader and a jazz clarinetist who was born in Chicago and worked as a freelance musician during the depression years. He was a skilled jazz improviser and a strict bandleader that insisted on perfect precision when it came to his musician’s parts.
He was said to have brought “a kind of neatness, smoothness, and control … without losing the swing feeling of the music”. (Starr and Waterman 128) William “Count” Basie was a big band leader and jazz pianist most related to the blues side of jazz. Born in New Jersey and gaining his early experience as a bandleader in Kansas City (K. C. ), Count Basie perfected his improvisational skills through competitive all-night jam sessions called “cutting session” in K. C. These sessions gave a chance for musicians to test their musical skills and endurance against one another. Starr and Waterman 135) An important influence that Count Basie brought to K. C. as a piano player was the boogie-woogie blues rhythmic piano playing. It was a popular fad during the big-band era and an easy form of entertainment, especially in the “southwest” America where the walking bass of the left hand and the improvisational right hand had a powerful style to be heard over rowdy crowds. Another African American jazz composer and musician was Duke Ellington, a pianist who formed his first dance band while attending high school.
Ellington was known as an experimenter with musical forms, combining them in unusual ways and creating complex tones. (Starr and Waterman 135) He called his music “American Music” rather than jazz. He also was very in touch with his band which in turn created amazing stability within the band that supported his experiments. He took pride in getting to know his individual players’ strengths and weakness and often wrote parts or pieces for particular musicians such as “Concerto for Cootie” (“Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me”) for Cootie Williams (rhythm and blues trumpeter). (“Duke Ellington”)
As a jazz musician, arranger, composer, and bandleader in the swing era, trombonist Glenn Miller was one of the best-selling recording artists from 1939 to 1942 and led one of the best known big bands. Famous recordings such as “In The Mood”, “Tuxedo Junction”, “Moonlight Seranade”, and “Pennsylvania 6-500” were among chart-topping hits that changed the music industry forever. Perhaps best known for his numerous compositions, the distinct sound he developed into swing music used high-pitched instruments to carry the melody with another instrument play thing the same thing an octave lower.
Glenn Miller is said to be the most enduring figure of the swing era, with reissues of his recordings achieving gold record status 40 years after his death. (Glenn Miller Biography) Swing Music vs. Swing Dancing Which came first, swing dance or swing music? The first public references to the Lindy Hop were in 1928 which was just before the music started to change. Whether the music or the dancing set the tone for the change into the swing era, the answer may never be known for sure. As the swing of swing became more stable, dancers found themselves taking ideas from musicians and musicians from dancers.
Frankie Manning, Savoy lindyhopper, said that he “would often ‘catch’ ideas from the band while dancing and the drummer or soloists would ‘catch’ his steps”. (Visel, Hart, and Walkenhorst) Collaborations like these would often reinforce the beat or add drum shots. In the same way, while dancers got into position for aerials or lifts, tempos would generally increase to allow an easier flight as there would be no beat behind it. The adrenaline and adaptation of both performers (musician and dancer) supported each other in an exhilarating experience that is called swing dancing.
The different views on The Lindy Hop are whether it was a good thing and improved race relations or if it was a sellout to European-American culture. Some believe that the commercialism of Harlem catered to white tourism only. Swing music declined during and after World War II, at which time the odd rhythms of the Be-Bop presented themselves (this was not as easily danced to). As subgenres of jazz continued to develop, swing dance became widely known as Jitterbugging and was even present during the next phase of American music: Rock and Roll. Swing Revival
Between the late 1990’s and early 2000’s came a renewed interested in swing, blues and dance music from the swing era of the 1930’s and 1940’s. This new swing revival brings a contemporary rock or ska sound to the jazz base of the music which is called retro swing (or neo-swing). Specific bands who experimented with the swing sound and began the retro-swing movement would be Royal Crown Revue and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. Most revival bands based their sound on a modern rock and roll rhythm section and very small brass section (such as a trumpet, saxophone and trombone).
The swing revival is based on the newest original style of swing music from the late 1940’s and early 1950’s that was known as the “jump blues”. However the revival bands focus more on an arranged sweet style than the 1930’s improvisational hot style. Media has been heavily involved in the come back of swing – in everything from films (Swing Kids, The Mask), movie soundtracks (Swingers) and even mainstream television commercials. Conclusion Music and dance that have been called America’s most important contributions to the world are being revived through our generation. We are owning our heritage… and in the process we are also discovering that the real roots of swing are as fresh and compelling and full of life as ever, and that the music and dance can grow and inspire artistic creation”. (Pener and Morris 5) Swing music never went away; it’s something that you can hear and feel and even do. Johnny Coppola, a famous trumpeter was once asked to define swing music. He said that “each pulse of truly swinging music contains in it an open, joyous space of possibility … just about any kind of music can swing … a good marching band can swing. Bach played right can swing. (Pener and Morris 7) Throughout history, swing jazz music changed from the simplest of African beats, to New Orleans and Chicago Jazz, to blues swing, to big band swing. It has had huge impact on America economically, musically and socially and will continue to do so. As Bill Elliot, founder of the neoswing Bill Elliott Orchestra of the recent Swing Revival says“… that’s the beauty of swing. It’s always capable of swinging back”. Print Starr, Larry, and Christopher Waterman. American Popular Music. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. Pener, Degen; Forward by Scotty Morris. The Swing Book. 1st ed.
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