Swing music

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Swing music, or simply swing, is a form of popular music developed in the United States that dominated in the 1930s and 1940s. The name swing came from the 'swing feel' where the emphasis is on the off–beat or weaker pulse in the music. Swing bands usually featured soloists who would improvise on the melody over the arrangement. The danceable swing style of big bands and bandleaders such as Benny Goodman was the dominant form of American popular music from 1935 to 1946, a period known as the swing era. The verb "to swing" is also used as a term of praise for playing that has a strong groove or drive. Notable musicians of the swing era include Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Woody Herman, and Artie Shaw.

Swing has roots in the 1920s as larger dance music ensembles began using new styles of written arrangements. A typical song played in swing style would feature a strong, anchoring rhythm section in support of more loosely tied wind and brass. The most common style consisted of theme choruses and choruses with improvised solos within the framework of his bandmates playing support. Swing music began to decline in popularity during World War II because of several factors. Swing influenced the later styles of traditional pop music, jump blues and bebop jazz. Swing music saw a revival in the late 1950s and 1960s with the resurgent Count Basie and Duke Ellington orchestras, and with pop vocalists such as Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, and Ella Fitzgerald.

Swing blended with other genres to create new styles. In country music, artists such as Jimmie Rodgers, Moon Mullican and Bob Wills introduced many elements of swing along with blues to create a genre called western swing. Gypsy swing is an outgrowth of Venuti and Lang's jazz violin swing. In the 1970s, and 1980s, fans of big band music attended swing music performances at supper clubs. In the late-1980s (into the early 1990s) a trendier, more urban-styled swing-beat emerged called new jack swing, spearheaded by Teddy Riley. In the late 1990s and into the 2000s there was a swing revival, led by Squirrel Nut Zippers, Brian Setzer, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, and Lavay Smith. In Canada, some of the early 2000s records by The JW-Jones Blues Band included swing revival elements.

1920s: Roots[edit]

Developments in dance orchestra and jazz music during the 1920s both contributed to the development of the 1930s swing style. Starting in 1923, the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra featured innovative arrangements by Don Redman that featured call-response interplay between brass and reed sections, and interludes arranged to back up soloists. The arrangements also had a smoother rhythmic sense than the ragtime-influenced arrangements that were the more typical "hot" dance music of the day.[1] In 1924 Louis Armstrong joined the Henderson band, lending impetus to an even greater emphasis on soloists. The Henderson band also featured Coleman Hawkins, Benny Carter, and Buster Bailey as soloists, who all were influential in the development of swing era instrumental styles. During the Henderson band's extended residency at the Roseland Ballroom in New York, it became influential on other big bands. Duke Ellington credited the Henderson band with being an early influence when he was developing the sound for his own band.[1] In 1925 Armstrong left the Henderson band and would add his innovations to New Orleans style jazz to develop Chicago style jazz, another step towards swing.

Traditional New Orleans style jazz was based on a two-beat meter and contrapuntal improvisation led by a trumpet or cornet, typically followed by a clarinet and trombone in a call-response pattern. The rhythm section consisted of a sousaphone and drums, and sometimes a banjo. By the early 1920s guitars and pianos sometimes substituted for the banjo and a string bass sometimes substituted for the sousaphone. Use of the string bass opened possibilities for 4/4 instead of 2/4 time at faster tempos, which increased rhythmic freedom. The Chicago style released the soloist from the constraints of contrapuntal improvisation with other front-line instruments, lending greater freedom in creating melodic lines. Louis Armstrong used the additional freedom of the new format to create a sense of rhythmic pulse that happened between the beats as well as on them, i.e. swing.[2]

In 1927 Armstrong worked with pianist Earl Hines, who had a similar impact on his instrument as Armstrong had on trumpet. Hines deviated from contemporary conventions in jazz piano with a melodic, horn-like conception of playing freed from building rhythmic patterns around "pivot notes" and a freer approach to rhythm that often accented the lead-in instead of the main beat, building a sense of anticipation to the rhythm, and sometimes mixing meters. He was also daring in his approach to phrasing, sometimes using "stops" or musical silences to build tension.[3][4] Hines' style was a seminal influence on the styles of swing-era pianists Teddy Wilson, Art Tatum, Jess Stacy, Nat "King" Cole, and Jay McShann.

Black territory dance bands in the southwest were developing dynamic styles that often went in the direction of blues-based simplicity, using riffs in a call-response pattern to build a strong, danceable rhythm and provide a musical platform for extended solos.[5] The rhythm-heavy tunes for dancing were called "stomps." The requirement for volume led to continued use of the sousaphone over the string bass with the larger ensembles, which dictated a more conservative approach to rhythm based on 2/4 time signatures. Meanwhile, string bass players such as Walter Page were developing their technique to the point where they could hold down the bottom end of a full-sized dance orchestra.[6]

The growth of radio broadcasting and the recording industry in the 1920s allowed some of the more popular dance bands to gain national exposure. The most popular style of dance orchestra was the "sweet" style, often with strings. Paul Whiteman developed a style he called "symphonic jazz," grafting a classical approach over his interpretation of jazz rhythms in an approach he hoped would be the future of jazz.[7][8] Whiteman's Orchestra enjoyed great commercial success and was a major influence on the sweet bands. Jean Goldkette's Victor Recording Orchestra featured many of the top white jazz musicians of the day including Bix Beiderbecke, Jimmy Dorsey, Frank Trumbauer, Pee Wee Russell, Eddie Lang, and Joe Venuti. The Victor Recording Orchestra won the respect of the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra in a Battle of the Bands; Henderson's cornetist Rex Stewart credited the Goldkette band with being the most influential white band in the development of swing music before Benny Goodman's.[9][10] As a dance music promoter and agent, Goldkette also helped organize and promote McKinney's Cotton Pickers and Glen Gray's Orange Blossoms (later the Casa Loma Orchestra), two other Detroit-area bands that were influential in the early swing era.

Early swing[edit]

As the 1920s turned to the 1930s, the new concepts in rhythm and ensemble playing that comprised the swing style were transforming the sounds of large and small bands. Starting in 1928, The Earl Hines Orchestra was broadcast nationally from the Grand Terrace Cafe in Chicago, where Hines had the opportunity to expound upon his new approaches to rhythm and phrasing with a big band. The Duke Ellington Orchestra had its new sounds broadcast nationally from the Cotton Club, followed by the Cab Calloway Orchestra and the Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra. In the musical laboratory that was Harlem, the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra featured the new style at the Roseland Ballroom and the swing powehouse Chick Webb Orchestra started its extended stay at the Savoy Ballroom in 1931.[11] Bennie Moten and the Kansas City Orchestra showcased the riff-propelled, solo-oriented form of swing that had been developing in the hothouse of Kansas City.[12][13] Emblematic of the evolving music was the change in the name of Moten's signature tune, from "Moten Stomp" to "Moten Swing." Moten's orchestra had a highly successful tour in late 1932. Audiences raved at the new music, and at the Pearl Theatre in Philadelphia in December 1932, the doors were let open to the public who came crammed into the theatre to hear the new sound, demanding seven encores from Moten's orchestra. [6]

With the early 1930s came the financial difficulties of the Great Depression that curtailed recording of the new music and drove some bands out of business, including the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra and McKinney's Cotton Pickers in 1934. Henderson's next business was selling arrangements to up-and-coming bandleader Benny Goodman.

1935–1946: The swing era[edit]

Benny Goodman, one of the first swing bandleaders to achieve widespread fame.

"Sweet" dance music remained most popular with white audiences but the Casa Loma Orchestra and the Benny Goodman Orchestra went against that grain, targeting the new swing style to younger audiences. In 1935 Goodman had won a spot on the radio show "Let's Dance", but he had only a few songs to play. He increased his repertoire with the help of the Fletcher Henderson arrangements. Goodman's slot was on after midnight in the East, and few people heard it. It was on earlier on the West Coast and developed the audience that later led to Goodman's Palomar Ballroom triumph. At the Palomar engagement starting on August 21, 1935, audiences of young white dancers favored Goodman's rhythm and daring arrangements. The sudden success of the Goodman orchestra transformed the landscape of popular music in America. Goodman's success with "hot" swing brought forth imitators and enthusiasts of the new style throughout the world of dance bands, which launched the "swing era" that lasted until 1946.

A typical song played in swing style would feature a strong, anchoring rhythm section in support of more loosely-tied woodwind and brass sections playing call-response to each other. The level of improvisation that the audience might expect varied with the arrangement, song, band, and band-leader. Typically included in big band swing arrangements were an introductory chorus that stated the theme, choruses arranged for soloists, and climactic out-choruses. Some arrangements were built entirely around a featured soloist or vocalist. Some bands used string or vocal sections, or both.

As with many new popular musical styles, swing met with some resistance because of its improvisation, tempo, lack of strings, occasionally risqué lyrics, and frenetic dancing. Audiences used to romantic arrangements, and what was perceived as classier and more refined music, were taken aback by the rambunctiousness of swing music. Until the swing era, jazz was respected by musicians around the world, including by classical composers like Stravinsky. But swing was sometimes regarded as light entertainment, more of an industry to sell records to the masses than a form of art. Some musicians, after failing at "serious" music, switched to swing. In his autobiography, W. C. Handy wrote that "prominent white orchestra leaders, concert singers and others are making commercial use of Negro music in its various phases. That's why they introduced "swing" which is not a musical form."[14]

1940s: Decline[edit]

Swing declined for many reasons.[citation needed] It became difficult to staff a big band because many musicians were overseas fighting in the war. It was also more expensive to tour with a big band with many players, especially taking into account wartime economics. There were the musician strikes of 1942 and 1948. In 1948, no records were made legally[citation needed], although independent labels continued to bootleg records in small numbers. When the ban was over in January 1949, swing had morphed into traditional pop music or evolved into newstyles such as jump blues and bebop jazz. This was much to the chagrin of artists such as Benny Goodman: "Bop. To me it's a circus. For all I know those guys might think they're playing soulful music. Basically, it's all wrong. Not even knowing the scales."[15] Bebop was created to counter the popularity of swing music[citation needed], by being more fast-paced and difficult to dance to.[citation needed] Many jazz musicians and fans enjoyed bebop more than swing. Swing also had to compete with rock and roll in the 1950s.

1950s–1960s: Swingin' pop and cross-genre swing[edit]

Frank Sinatra

Swing saw a revival in the late 1950s and 1960s. Today, this music is sometimes referred to as easy listening. It was an updated form of big band swing music that had been popular in the 1930s and 1940s. This music emphasized the vocalist more than the instrumentation. Like the music of the swing era, many of these songs were selections from the Great American Songbook. This brand of music was made popular by arrangers such as Nelson Riddle and pop vocalists such as Frank Sinatra, Bobby Darin, Dean Martin, Judy Garland, and Nat King Cole, as well as jazz-oriented vocalists like Ella Fitzgerald and Keely Smith. Many of these singers were also involved in the "less swinging" vocal pop music of this period. By the late 1960s, this form of swing was replaced by rock music.

In country music Jimmie Rodgers, Moon Mullican, and Bob Wills combined elements of swing and blues to create a western swing. Mullican left the Cliff Bruner band to pursue solo career that included many songs that maintained a swing structure. Artists like Willie Nelson have kept the swing elements of country music present into the rock 'n' roll era. Nat King Cole followed Sinatra into pop music, bringing with him a similar combination of swing bands and ballads. Like Mullican, he was important in bringing piano to the fore of popular music.

Gypsy swing is an outgrowth of the jazz violin swing of Venuti and Lang. In Europe it was heard in the music of guitarist Django Reinhardt and violinist Stéphane Grappelli. Their repertoire overlaps 1930s swing, including French popular music, gypsy songs, and compositions by Reinhardt, but gypsy swing bands are formulated differently. There is no brass or percussion; guitars and bass form the backbone, with violin, accordion, clarinet or guitar taking the lead. Gypsy swing groups generally have no more than five players. Although they originated in different continents, similarities have often been noted between gypsy swing and western swing, leading to various fusions.

Rock music hitmakers like Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, Gene Vincent and Elvis Presley inlcuded swing standards in their repertoire. Presley's hit "Are You Lonesome Tonight" was a swing standard and Lewis's "To Make Love Sweeter For You" was a new song in the old style.[citation needed] Domino made the swing standard "My Blue Heaven" into a rock and roll hit. Shep Fields was among the band leaders of the 1930s and 1940s whose performances included elements of both "Sweet Band" music and traditional swing.

1970s–2000: Big Band nostalgia and swing revival[edit]

Though swing music was no longer mainstream, fans could attend "Big Band Nostalgia" tours during the 1970s and 1980s. The tours featured bandleaders and vocalists of the swing era who were semi-retired, such as Harry James and vocalist Dick Haymes.[16]

A Swing Revival occurred during the 1990s and 2000s led by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Squirrel Nut Zippers, Lavay Smith, and Brian Setzer. Many of the bands played neo-swing which combined swing with rockabilly, ska, and rock. The music brought a revival in swing dancing.

In 2001 Robbie Williams's album Swing When You're Winning consisted mainly of popular swing covers. The album sold more than 7 million copies worldwide. In November 2013, Robbie Williams released Swings Both Ways.

In 2006 Christina Aguilera's album "Back to Basics" mixed swing, jazz and blues. The album was another commercial success.

In recent years, swing music has become popular in Germany. Roger Cicero, Tom Gaebel, and Thomas Anders have attained large followings both in their native country and worldwide. Cicero's style is predominantly that of 1940s and 1950s swing music combined with German lyrics. He was Germany's entry in the Eurovision Song Contest in 2007.

1990s to present: swing house, electro swing and swing pop[edit]

Another modern development consists of fusing swing (original, or remixes of classics) with hip hop and house techniques. "Swing house" was particularly popular during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Influences incorporated into it include Louis Jordan and Louis Prima. Electro swing is mainly popular in Europe, and electro swing artists incorporate influences such as tango and Django Reinhardt's gypsy swing. Leading artists include Caravan Palace and Parov Stelar. Both genres are connected with a revival of swing dances, such as the Lindy hop.

Notable musicians[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Fletcher Henderson". Musicians.allaboutjazz.com. Retrieved 2017-05-21. 
  2. ^ Harker, Brian C., 1997, Early Musical Development of Louis Armstrong, 1921 - 1928, unpublished PhD Dissertation, Columbia University, 390 p. plus Appendix
  3. ^ Cook, Richard (2005), Jazz Encyclopedia, London: Penguin, ISBN 978-0-14-102646-6.
  4. ^ Kirchner, Bill, ed. (2000), The Oxford Companion to Jazz, New York: Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0-19-518359-7.
  5. ^ Russell, Ross, Jazz Style in Kansas City and the Southwest, Berkeley, CA, University of California Press, 1972, 291 p.
  6. ^ a b Daniels, Douglas Henry (January 2006). One O'clock Jump: The Unforgettable History of the Oklahoma City Blue Devils. Beacon Press. p. 144. ISBN 978-0-8070-7136-6. 
  7. ^ Popa, Christopher (November 2007). "Big Band Library: Paul Whiteman". www.bigbandlibrary.com. 
  8. ^ Berrett, Joshua (1 October 2008). "Louis Armstrong and Paul Whiteman: Two Kings of Jazz". Google. Yale University Press. 
  9. ^ Goldkette on The Red Hot Jazz Archive Retrieved 22-05-2017.
  10. ^ Nye, Russell B., 1976, Music in the Twenties: The Jean Goldkette Orchestra, Prospects, An Annual of American Cultural Studies 1:179-203, October 1976, DOI: 10.1017/S0361233300004361
  11. ^ "Chick Webb". Retrieved 2017-05-27. 
  12. ^ Lawn, Richard (2013). Experiencing Jazz. Routledge. p. 161. ISBN 978-0-415-69960-0. 
  13. ^ Driggs, Frank; Director, Marr Sound Archives University of Missouri-Kansas City Chuck Haddix (1 May 2005). Kansas City Jazz: From Ragtime to Bebop. Oxford University Press. p. 119. ISBN 978-0-19-536435-4. 
  14. ^ Handy, William Christopher (1941). Father of the Blues. MacMillan. p. 292. 
  15. ^ Gilbert Millstein (April 19, 1953). "The New York Times". 
  16. ^ Parker, Jeff. "Jazz History Part II". www.swingmusic.net. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Erenberg, Lewis A. Swingin' the Dream: Big Band Jazz and the Rebirth of American Culture (1998)
  • Gitler, Ira. Swing to Bop: An Oral History of the Transition in Jazz in the 1940s (1987)
  • Hennessey, Thomas J. From Jazz to Swing: African-Americans and Their Music, 1890–1935 (1994).
  • Schuller, Gunther. The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz, 1930–1945 (1991)
  • Spring, Howard. "Swing and the Lindy Hop: Dance, Venue, Media, and Tradition". American Music, Vol. 15, No. 2 (Summer, 1997), pp. 183–207.
  • Stowe, David. Swing Changes: Big-Band Jazz in New Deal America (1996)
  • Tucker, Sherrie. Swing Shift: 'All-Girl' Bands of the 1940s (2000)