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Are We Swinging?

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In the past, it was considered almost blasphemy in the jazz community to intellectualize the quality we call “swing.” Those on the inside would say, “If you gotta ask, you’ll never know.” Now that jazz education has entered universities, there are books about swing, and teachers who’ve developed strategies to help students get a feel for it.

Swing is actually the name given to dance music that arose in the late 1920s and flourished into the 40s. It depends on a triplet subdivision, a characteristic with roots in the music of the Yoruba tribe in West Africa, and which continues to thrive in Afro-Cuban music today.

Swing music is arguably a second evolution of jazz music, and the background is fascinating. Traditional jazz came predominantly from New Orleans, and was championed by such musicians as Louis Armstrong, Kid Ory, Lil Harding, and Sidney Bechet. It emerged as a combination of ragtime and blues, with many other influences. Ragtime, known for its “ragged” rhythms, fast tempos and syncopated melodies, caused dancers to move frantically to keep up. Blues was another thing altogether. Slow and deliberately sexual, it depended on notes that were found between the cracks of the piano keys. Blending the two forms was extremely exotic to the mainstream white listeners of the time—exotic and treacherous!

This highly emotional music was emerging in a period of alcohol prohibition which drove people into speakeasies or illegal clubs. New York City alone had over 5,400 speakeasies during the Prohibition era. Since each speakeasy needed a jazz band, tens of thousands of jazz musicians worked every night in the major cities back then.

After Prohibition ended, mainstream society wanted to continue their relationship with Africanized music, or “jazz” as it was then called, but the dancing in the speakeasies was much too wild and sexual for public consumption. Hotel owners and club managers began hiring jazz orchestras that were much more sweet in their nature. The new bands had lush harmonies and smooth, lilting melodies, and solos were planned and timed. The dancing they encouraged was much more calm and elegant.

Successful early swing bands were led by musicians like Duke Ellington, Don Redmond, Fletcher Henderson, Chick Webb, Frankie Trumbauer, and Paul Whiteman, who is famous for his vow to “make a lady out of jazz.” Later, swing bands were epitomized by Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Jimmie Lunceford, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller.

The rhythm of swing bands is characterized by what’s known as “rhythmic netting.” The base layer is a smooth four-beat quarter note pattern. The next layer subdivides that pulse into eighth-note triplets, with a slight emphasis on the third beat of the triplet. The band creates a heavy pulse on the first and third beats of the measure, which invites the listeners to respond by shifting their bodies on the second and fourth. If you feel compelled to move on beats two and four, you’re more than likely “swinging”!


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