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Swing (genre)

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Swing (genre)

For other uses, see Swing (disambiguation).
Stylistic origins Jazz, Dance music
Cultural origins 1930s United States
Typical instruments Clarinet, saxophone, trumpet, trombone, piano, double bass, drums, keyboards, electric guitars, acoustic guitars
Swing revival
(complete list)
Fusion genres
New Jack Swing, Electro swing
Regional scenes
Western swing

Swing music, or simply Swing, is a form of American music that developed in the early 1930s and became a distinctive style by 1940. 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 saxophones 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 phrase ‘swing feel’ where the emphasis is on the off–beat or weaker pulse in the music (unlike classical 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 rhythmic "groove" or drive.


1920s: Origins

The styles of jazz that were popular from the late teens through the late 1920s were usually played with rhythms with a two beat feel, and often attempted to reproduce the style of contrapuntal improvisation developed by the first generation of jazz musicians in New Orleans. In the late 1920s, however, larger ensembles using written arrangements became the norm, and a subtle stylistic shift took place in the rhythm, which developed a four beat feel with a smoothly syncopated style of playing the melody, while the rhythm section supported it with a steady four to the bar.

Like jazz, swing was created by African Americans, and its impact on the overall American culture was such that it marked and named an entire era of the USA, the swing era – as the 1920s had been termed "The Jazz Age".[1] Such an influence from the black community was unprecedented in any western country.[1] Swing music abandoned the string orchestra and used simpler, "edgier" arrangements that emphasized horns and wind instruments and improvised melodies.

Louis Armstrong shared a different version of the history of swing during a nationwide broadcast of the Bing Crosby (radio) Show.[2] Crosby said, "We have as our guest the master of swing and I'm going to get him to tell you what swing music is." Armstrong said, "Ah, swing, well, we used to call it syncopation—then they called it ragtime, then blues—then jazz. Now, it's swing. White folks yo'all sho is a mess."[3][4]

1930: Birth of swing

Compared to the styles of the 1920s, the overall effect was a more sophisticated sound, but with an exciting feel of its own. Most jazz bands adopted this style by the early 1930s,. but "sweet" bands remained the most popular for white dancers until Benny Goodman's appearance at the Palomar Ballroom in August 1935. Swing's birth has been traced by some jazz historians to Chick Webb's stand in Harlem in 1931, but they noted the music failed to take off because the onset of the Depression in earnest that year killed the nightclub business, particularly in poor black areas like Harlem. Fletcher Henderson, another bandleader from this period who needed work, lent his arrangement talent to Goodman. Goodman had auditioned and won a spot on a radio show, "Let's Dance," but only had a few songs; he needed more. Henderson's arrangements are what gave him his bigger repertoire and distinctive sound. The show was on after midnight in the East and few people heard it, but unknown to them, it was on earlier on the West Coast and developed the audience that later led to his Palomar Ballroom triumph. The audience of young white dancers favored Goodman's "hot" rhythms and daring swing arrangements. "Hot Swing" and Boogie Woogie remained the dominant form of American popular music for the next ten years.⅔

1935-1946: The Swing Era

The period between 1935 and 1946 is when big band swing music reached its peak and 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. Up until the swing era, Jazz had been taken in high regard by the most serious musicians around the world, including classical composers like Stravinsky; swing on the contrary, with its "dance craze", ended being regarded as a degeneration towards 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.[1]

In his autobiography W.C. Handy wrote, "This brings to mind the fact 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."[5]

Large orchestras had to reorganize themselves in order to achieve the new sound. These bands dropped their string instruments, which were now felt to hamper the improvised style necessary for swing music. This necessitated a slightly more detailed and organized type of composition and notation than was then the norm. Band leaders 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. During the swing era, string and/or vocals sections were also common. The level of improvisation that the audience might expect at any one time varied depending on the arrangement, the band, the song, and the band-leader.

The most common style consisted of having a soloist take center stage, and improvise a solo within the framework of his bandmates playing support. As a song progressed, multiple soloists would be expected to take over and individually improvise their own part; however, it was not unusual to have two or three band members improvising at any one time.

Many of the songs during the swing era were selections from the Great American Songbook. The music of the swing era is often regarded as one of the most influential precursors to traditional pop music, as it helped popularize many American "standards."

Peak and decline

Swing jazz began to be embraced by the public around 1935. Prior to that, it had had limited acceptance, mostly among black audiences. Radio remotes increased interest in the music, and it grew in popularity throughout the States. As with many new popular musical styles, it met with some resistance from the public because of its improvisation, fast erratic tempos, lack of strings, occasionally risqué lyrics and other cultural associations, such as the sometimes frenetic swing dancing that accompanied performances. Audiences who had become used to the romantic arrangements (and what was perceived as classier and more refined music), were taken aback by the often erratic and edginess of swing music.

German swing bands, virtually unknown to British and American swing band followers, thrived in the early 1940s in spite of an official Nazi campaign against "decadent Western music".[6] German authorities in fact created a Swing band called "Charlie and His Orchestra" to record hot Swing and dance music. Some songs included lyrics ridiculing and abusing the leaders and people of Allied nations. Records were dropped over "enemy" lines by parachute.[7]

In the US, by the late 1930s and early 1940s, swing had become the most popular musical style and remained so for several years, until it was supplanted in the late 1940s by the pop standards sung by the crooners who grew out of the Big Band tradition that swing began. Bandleaders such as the Dorsey Brothers often helped launch the careers of vocalists who went on to popularity as solo artists, such as Frank Sinatra.

Swing music began to decline in popularity during World War II because of several factors. Most importantly it became difficult to staff a "big band" because many musicians were overseas fighting in the war. Also, the cost of touring with a large ensemble became cumbersome because of wartime economics. These two factors made smaller three- to five-piece combos more profitable and manageable. A third reason is the recording bans of 1942 and 1948 because of musicians' union strikes. In 1948, there were no records legally made at all, 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 jazz styles such as jump blues and bebop.

1950s-1960s: Swingin' pop

Swing music saw a sort of a revival in the late 1950s and 1960s. Today, this music is sometimes referred to as easy listening. It was, in essence, an updated form of the big band swing music that had been popular in the 1930s and 1940s. This music, however, emphasized the vocalist more so than the instrumentation. Like the music of the Swing Era, many of these songs were also 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, Matt Monro, 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 had largely faded, replaced by the contemporary forms of rock music. While the vocalists of this period are often considered some of the greatest in American music history, some music fans and critics do agree that the "swing music" of the 1960s was a more commercialized, "schmaltzy" form that attempted to capitalize on the success of the timeless music and musicians of the famous Swing Era.

Cross-genre swing

Many of the crooners who came to the fore after the swing era had their origins in swing bands. Frank Sinatra used the swing-band approach to great effect in almost all of his recordings and kept this style of music popular well into the rock 'n' roll era.

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. Like Sinatra did, Mullican went solo from the Cliff Bruner band and had a successful 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 the pop music world 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 Venuti and Lang's jazz violin swing, the style emerging in its own right in Europe with Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli. The repertoire overlaps that of 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 'n' roll era hitmakers like Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, Gene Vincent and Elvis Presley also found time to include many swing-era standards into their repertoire. Presley's hit "Are You Lonesome Tonight" is an old swing standard and Lewis' "To Make Love Sweeter For You" is a new song but in the old style. Domino made the swing standard "My Blue Heaven" a rock 'n' roll hit. Among the critically acclaimed band leaders of the 1930s and 1940s whose performances included elements of both "Sweet Band" music and traditional swing music was Shep Fields.

1970s-1980s: Big band nostalgia

Though swing music was no longer a mainstream musical style at this point, fans of the big band swing music of the Swing Era were able to attend swing music performances at supper clubs throughout the 1970s and 1980s. These were known as "big band nostalgia" tours. They featured some of the famous bandleaders and vocalists of the swing era who were now, essentially, in semi-retirement. Notable individuals who participated in these tours included bandleader Harry James and vocalist Dick Haymes, as well as many notable musicians whom had been popular in the 1940s.

Late 1990s: Swing revival

Main article: Swing revival

In the late 1990s (1998 until about 2000) there was a short-lived "Swing revival" movement, led by bands such as Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Cherry Poppin' Daddies, Royal Crown Revue, Squirrel Nut Zippers, Lavay Smith & Her Red Hot Skillet Lickers, the Lucky Strikes, Hipster Daddy-O and the Handgrenades, and Brian Setzer. Many of the new bands of this period played a style of music — often referred to as neo-swing — that combined swing jazz with contemporary styles of music such as Rockabilly, Ska, and Rock music. The style also accelerated the revival of swing dancing, both in a traditional style, and in hybrid approaches which blended 1930s dancing with 2000-era dance styles.

In 2001 Robbie Williams released his fifth studio album consisting mainly of popular swing covers titled "Swing When You're Winning" which proved to be popular in many countries selling more than 7 million copies worldwide.

In 2006, the singer Christina Aguilera released her studio album "Back to Basics" when she mixed several different styles including swing, jazz and blues. The album was another commercial success for Aguilera's career.

In recent years Swing music has become fairly popular in Germany. Singers Roger Cicero, Tom Gaebel, and Thomas Anders have attained large followings both in their native country and world wide. Cicero’s style is predominantly that of 1940s and 1950s swing music, combined with German lyrics; he became Germany's participant for the Eurovision Song Contest in 2007.

Early 1990s to present: Swing House and Electroswing

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.

Electroswing 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

See also



  • Scaruffi, Piero. [2003] A History of Jazz Music, 1900–2000, ISBN 978-0-9765531-3-7

Further reading

  • Erenberg, Lewis A. Swingin' the Dream: Big Band Jazz and the Rebirth of American Culture (1998), a history of big-band jazz and its fans.
  • Gitler, Ira. Swing to Bop: An Oral History of the Transition in Jazz in the 1940s (1987), on the emergence of bop from big-band swing.
  • 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), a musicological study.
  • 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), a musicological study.
  • Tucker, Sherrie. Swing Shift: 'All-Girl' Bands of the 1940s (2000)
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