Swing music

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Swing music, or simply swing, is a form of American music that dominated in the 1930s and 1940s. Swing uses a strong rhythm section of double bass and drums as the anchor for a lead section of brass instruments such as trumpets and trombones, woodwinds including saxophone and clarinets, and sometimes stringed instruments such as violin and guitar, medium to fast tempos, and a "lilting" swing time rhythm. 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, Cab Calloway, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Glenn Miller, Count Basie, Woody Herman, and Artie Shaw.

Swing has roots in the late 1920s as larger ensembles began using 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 having a soloist take center stage, and improvise a solo within the framework of his bandmates playing support. Swing music began to decline in popularity during World War II because of several factors. By the late 1940s, swing had morphed into traditional pop music, or evolved into new styles such as jump blues and bebop jazz. Swing music saw a revival in the late 1950s and 1960s 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]

The 1920s saw parallel trends in jazz and popular music that would later converge into the swing style. 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. The rhythm section consisted of a tuba 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 tuba. Further innovations in small ensemble playing led to development of the Chicago style identified with Louis Armstrong. A stint with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra familiarized him with arranged ensemble playing that differed from the New Orleans style, in which saxophones became the dominant sound among the reeds. Armstrong brought those ideas back to his smaller ensembles; the soloist played over an ensemble relegated to a supporting role in the background. The string bass also lent itself to playing in a 4/4 rhythm rather than the 2/4 rhythm dictated by the tuba. The new format gave the soloist the opportunity to play with more rhythmic freedom, creating a sense of rhythmic pulse that happened between the beats as well as on them, i.e. swing. But playing with swing remained the province of the soloist, not the ensemble.

The late 1920s saw increasingly sophisticated arrangements used by bigger ensembles. Some arrangements used call-response between horn sections to build the melody. Territory dance bands in the southwest often went in the direction of blues-based simplicity, using riffs in a call-response pattern to build a strong, danceable rhythm. The rhythm-heavy big band tunes for dancing were called "stomps." The requirement for volume led to continued use of the tuba over the string bass with the larger ensembles, which dictated a more conservative approach to rhythm based on 2/4 time signatures. Meanwhile, bass players were developing their technique to the point where they could hold down the bottom end of a full-sized dance orchestra.

In the 1920s Big Band music became more prominent. Big Band was a form of music played by an orchestra in the Tin Pan Alley style mixed with jazz rhythm. The growth of radio broadcasting in the 1920s, often featuring new phonograph records, contributed to Big Band's popularity. Paul Whiteman is often credited with creating the Big Band era. With his orchestra he wanted to create what he called "symphonic jazz" by mixing classical and jazz music.[1][2] The Duke Ellington Orchestra gained popularity from its stand at the Cotton Club in Harlem during the late 1920s. In addition to the Ellington Orchestra's sophisticated musical arrangements, it was among the first of the big bands to use a string bass, opening up the possibilities of 4/4 time and all that flowed from it.

1930s: Birth of swing[edit]

When Louis Armstrong was asked on the Bing Crosby radio show what swing was, he said, "Ah, swing, well, we used to call it syncopation — then they called it ragtime, then blues — then jazz. Now, it's swing. Ha! Ha! White folks, yo'all sho is a mess."[3]

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 arrangements by Fletcher Henderson, a bandleader who needed work. The show 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. The audience of young white dancers favored Goodman's rhythm and daring arrangements.

"Hot swing" and boogie-woogie remained the dominant form of American popular music for the next ten years. Standards like "Moten Swing" by Bennie Moten and the Kansas City Orchestra were important in the development of swing music and the move towards a freer form of orchestral jazz.[4][5][6] 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.

1935–1946: Swing era[edit]

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

1935 to 1946 swing was the most popular music in America. This period is known as the swing era.

With the wider acceptance of swing music around 1935, larger mainstream bands began to embrace this style of music. Orchestras had to reorganize themselves in order to play the new sound. A larger number of musicians required more detailed, organized composition and notation. Therefore, bandleaders spent more time on arrangements to reduce the chaos that might result from as many as 16 musicians improvising.

A typical song played in swing style would feature a strong, anchoring rhythm section in support of more loosely-tied wind, brass. During the swing era, string or vocal sections, or both, were also common. The level of improvisation that the audience might expect varied with the arrangement, song, band, and band-leader. The most common style consisted of a soloist taking center stage and improvising while his bandmates played support. As a song progressed, multiple soloists would take over and improvise their parts. It was not unusual to have two or three band members improvising at any one time.

Many of the songs of the swing era were from the Great American Songbook, and thus swing influenced traditional pop music by popularizing standards.[7] Bandleaders such as the Dorsey Brothers often helped launch the careers of vocalists like Frank Sinatra.

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."[8]

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 new styles 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."[9] 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 included swing standards in their repertoire. 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]

Main article: Swing revival

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.[10]

A Swing Revival occurred during the 1990s and 2000s led by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy,The Cherry Poppin' Daddies 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. ^ Popa, Christopher (November 2007). "Big Band Library: Paul Whiteman". www.bigbandlibrary.com. 
  2. ^ Berrett, Joshua (1 October 2008). "Louis Armstrong and Paul Whiteman: Two Kings of Jazz". Google. Yale University Press. 
  3. ^ Argyle, Ray (1 April 2009). "Scott Joplin and the Age of Ragtime". Google Books. McFarland. 
  4. ^ Lawn, Richard (2013). Experiencing Jazz. Routledge. p. 161. ISBN 978-0-415-69960-0. 
  5. ^ 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. 
  6. ^ 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. ^ Wernick, Forrest (21 September 2011). "How to Swing in Jazz Music and Improvisation | jazzadvice.com". www.jazzadvice.com. 
  8. ^ Handy, William Christopher (1941). Father of the Blues. MacMillan. p. 292. 
  9. ^ Gilbert Millstein (April 19, 1953). "The New York Times". 
  10. ^ 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)