Swing music

Stylistic origins Jazz
Cultural origins 1930s United States
Typical instruments Clarinet, saxophone, trumpet, trombone, piano, double bass, drums, keyboards, electric guitars, acoustic guitars
Mainstream popularity 1930s to 1950s; 1990s
Swing revival
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 1935. 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 classic 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 and Count Basie was the dominant form of American popular music from 1935 to 1945, 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.

Benny Goodman, one of the first swing bandleaders to achieve widespread fame.
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, and later, in the 1940s, string and/or vocals sections. 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 her or 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.

Peak and decline

Frank Sinatra

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 evolved into new styles such as jump blues and bebop.

Cross-genre swing

Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli

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.

Late 1990s: Swing revival

Caro Emerald

Although ensembles like the Count Basie Orchestra and the Stan Kenton Orchestra survived into the 1950s by incorporating new musical styles into their repertoire, they were no longer the hallmark of American popular music. 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 — oftentimes 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. A similarly hybrid approach to musical genre can be seen with superswing music, a style that can be seen to have its origin in The Fabrics' 2002 classic 12" single on Switch Music, Cassawanka.

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 early 2010s: 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

  • Band leaders: Toshiko Akiyoshi, Count Basie, Charlie Barnet, Les Brown, Cab Calloway, Jimmy Dorsey, Tommy Dorsey, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Gordon Goodwin, Glen Gray, Erskine Hawkins, Fletcher Henderson, Woody Herman, Tiny Hill, Earl Hines, Harry James, Louis Jordan, Hal Kemp, Gene Krupa, Kay Kyser, Jimmie Lunceford, Glenn Miller, Red Norvo, Gloria Parker, Louis Prima, Buddy Rich, Fred Rich, Artie Shaw, Charlie Spivak, Chick Webb
  • Arrangers: Van Alexander, Ralph Burns, Toots Camarata, Benny Carter, Buck Clayton, Ray Conniff, Eddie Durham, Duke Ellington, Bill Finegan, Jerry Gray, Bob Haggart, Buster Harding, Lennie Hayton, Neal Hefti, Fletcher Henderson, Horace Henderson, Gordon Jenkins, Billy May, Jimmy Mundy, Sy Oliver, Nat Pierce, Johnny Richards, Edgar Sampson, Eddie Sauter, Billy Strayhorn
  • Clarinet: Barney Bigard, Benny Goodman, Peanuts Hucko, Artie Shaw
  • Saxophone: Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Herschel Evans, Lester Young, Johnny Hodges, Charlie Parker, Sam Butera, Charlie Barnet, Jimmy Dorsey, Glen Gray, Willie Smith, Otto Hardwick, Earle Warren, Vido Musso, Georgie Auld, Bud Freeman, Eddie Miller, Ernie Caceres, Tex Beneke, Al Klink, Tony Pastor
  • Trumpet: Louis Armstrong, Bunny Berigan, Billy Butterfield, Buck Clayton, Roy Eldridge, Ziggy Elman, Harry Edison, Harry James, Hot Lips Page, Louis Prima, Charlie Spivak, Cootie Williams
  • Trombone: Tommy Dorsey, Jack Jenney, Glenn Miller, Fred Rich, Jack Teagarden
  • Bass: Artie Bernstein, Jimmy Blanton, Bob Haggart, Milt Hinton, John Kirby, Walter Page, Slam Stewart
  • Vibraphone: Lionel Hampton, Red Norvo
  • Marimba: Gloria Parker
  • Piano: Count Basie, Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington, Earl Hines, Nat Jaffe, Jelly Roll Morton, Jess Stacy, Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson, Fats Waller
  • Drums: Sid Catlett, Sonny Greer, Jo Jones, Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, Chick Webb
  • Guitar: Oscar Aleman, Charlie Christian, Freddie Green, Django Reinhardt
  • Violin: Svend Asmussen, Stephane Grapelli, Ray Nance, Eddie South, Joe Venuti
  • Accordion: Art Van Damme, John Serry Sr.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Scaruffi [2003]
  2. Steven Lewis' Bing Crosby Internet Museum
  3. Argyle, Ray (2009). Scott Joplin and the age of ragtime. McFarland. p. 172. ISBN 0-7864-4376-6. http://books.google.com/books?id=STq94Q-pzwoC&pg=PA172. 
  4. Father of the Blues by William Christopher Handy. 1941 MacMillan page 292
  5. Father of the Blues by William Christopher Handy. 1941. MacMillan. page 292. no ISBN in this early edition
  6. The Dance Band Era. Albert McCarthy. Chilton Book Company. 1971. page 140. ISBN 0-8019-5681-1
  7. http://nfo.net/euro/ec.html#CHO retrieved September 2010


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)
  • Yanow, Scott (2000). Swing. San Francisco, California: Miller Freeman Books. ISBN 0-87930-600-9. 
  • Milkowski, Bill (2001). Swing It: An Annotated History of Jive. Bob Nikard, ed., and Alison Hagge, ed.. New York, New York: Billboard Books. ISBN 0-8230-7671-7. 

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