The first thing to say in an article like this is that there is more contradiction and disagreement about the word “swing” than perhaps any other word in the English language. You may get a glimpse of that from reading the quotations at the end. I have compiled this information as my own take on this vexing question and I hope that it will help shed some light on the topic for other curious swing kids.
Swing is a type of jazz that evolved from the original Dixieland jazz that first appeared in New Orleans at the beginning of the 20th century. Big band swing became the most popular music in the United States from 1935 to 1946 and so that period became known as the Swing Era (also frequently referred to as the Big Band Era). During that time the most popular evening activity for young people was going to dance halls to have fun socialising and strutting their stuff. The dance halls were big and options for amplification were limited, so in order to be audible the bands grew in size (15-20 musicians) and contained loud acoustic instruments such as trumpets, saxophones, trombones, clarinets, and drums.
Since the music was aimed at keeping the dancers out on the floor pumping their feet, rhythm was the most critical element of any good dance orchestra. A rhythm section usually consisted of a drummer, a guitarist, and a double base. They kept the band moving ahead like a juggernaut on rails, with “four heavy beats to a bar and no cheating”, as Count Basie would say. Rather than a hard hit, a swing beat had more of a strong pulsing flow. Usually there was little or none of the back-beat that would later become one of the main characteristics of rock and roll music.
The rest of the band would usually "swing" the melody. That is to say they would play it with a triplet subdivision of the beat into crotchets and quavers (quarter notes and eighth notes), which some dancers interpreted by incorporating a triple-step in two beats. The rhythm of a *swung* triple-step goes long-short-long, which sounds and feels quite different to a *straight* triple-step of short-short-short or cha-cha-cha, as done in one particular Latin dance. A couple of other examples of swung footwork in swing dancing are the Stomp-off and the Kick-ball-change.
You can examine a comparison of swung vs straight melody by listening to Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw’s versions of Stardust. Both men played the clarinet and led their respective bands, but Benny swung the melody and Artie played it straight.
"The distance between me and Benny, was that I was trying to play a musical thing, and Benny was trying to swing. Benny had great fingers; I'd never deny that. But listen to our two versions of 'Star Dust.' I was playing; he was swinging." - Artie Shaw
Sometimes the melody section would also hang back slightly behind the rhythm section. This would create the feeling of a loose, easy, relaxed style that appealed to the hep young things of the day. An illusion this technique may have created can be gleaned from a quote by Duke Ellington, “Swing music is when it sounds like the music is getting faster, but it isn't”. Most modern music, by contrast, is modelled more on a Latin music trend, which is to advance the melody slightly ahead of the rhythm to give it a more energetic feel.
Although most swing songs featured musicians taking solos and often incorporated call and response between different elements of the band, the singers and soloists were generally not highlighted in such a way as to distract from the driving rhythm. Singers were just another instrument in the band and tended to blend in, rather than stand out. However, all of that started to change after the second world war.
In the late 40’s and early 50’ many big band musicians became dissatisfied playing for dancers and wanted to show off their unique technical ability and creativity to an audience of delighted listeners. Woody Herman was quoted as saying "Jitterbuggers would dance to windshield wipers if nothing else was available" (As a jitterbug of the new millennia, I disagree with Woody). Soloists became the focus of a performance and “more interesting” musical stylings were developed that could not be followed reliably by dancers. Hence, Bebop was born and it spelled the demise of wonderfully complex social dance styles such as Balboa, Collegiate Shag, and the Lindy Hop.
People still wanted dance music, of course, and thanks to new amplified guitars, small bands playing simple blues rhythms with an accentuated backbeat could keep them rocking and rolling all night long. But, as dance music lost some of its layers and subtlety, so too did the dance, and kids have been jumping up and down obtusely ever since. Although I have to admit, modern Hip Hop dancing is pretty cool ;)
It must be mentioned here that swing is not just a noun used to refer to a type of music. Many people think of swing as an adjective or a verb used to describe a cohesive rhythmic "feel" in a jazz context. It has also been referred to as an elusive quality that some people use to describe music they like, e.g., “That really swings!”
If you are looking for some great old swing music here are some names to get you started: Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Cab Calloway, Charlie Barnett, Chick Web, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Artie Shaw, Slim Gaillard, Django Reinhardt, Fats Waller, Erskine Hawkins, Fletcher Henderson, Lionel Hampton, and Jimmie Lunceford.
If you are looking for some great recent recordings, performed for modern swing dancers, in an authentic swing-era style then check out Jonathan Stout, Glenn Crytzer, Gordon Webster, The Mint Juilip Jazz Band, Falty & the Defects, The Careless Lovers, The boilermaker Jazz Band, and the Blue 4 Trio. You can find many of their swing albums available to buy from their websites or the friendly people at www.cdbaby.com and you could also try www.bandcamp.com.
For those looking for a great live dance band in Australia, keep your eyes out for this fantastic new group in Brisbane, the Rhythm Society Dance Orchestra
Quotes from musicians who were a part of the swing era:
“If you play a tune and a person don't tap their feet, don't play the tune." - Count Basie
"I, of course, wanted to play real jazz. When we played pop tunes, and naturally we had to, I wanted those pops to kick! Not loud and fast, understand, but smoothly and with a definite punch." - Count Basie
“You get that right tickin' rhythm, man, and it's ON!" - Fats Waller
"This is so nice, it must be illegal." - Fats Waller
"I think at one time every drummer wanted to play like Krupa or wanted to win a Gene Krupa drum contest. This is the big inspiration for drummers and naturally it has to be the same way for me." - Buddy Rich
"I play a percussion instrument, not a musical saw; it needs no amplification. Where it's needed, they put a microphone in front of the bass drum. But, I don't think it's necessary to play that way every night." - Buddy Rich
"But primarily, the drummer's supposed to sit back there and swing the band." - Buddy Rich
"I never had much interest in the piano until I realized that every time I played, a girl would appear on the piano bench to my left and another to my right." - Duke Ellington
"Playing 'Bop' is like playing Scrabble with all the vowels missing." - Duke Ellington
"Don't push it. Just let it fall." - Duke Ellington
"Man, if you have to ask what it is, you’ll never know." - Louis Armstrong
There is two kinds of music, the good, and the bad. I play the good kind. - Louis Armstrong
"[Bebop is] Chinese music." - Louis Armstrong
"By giving the public a rich and full melody, distinctly arranged and well played, all the time creating new tone colors and patterns, I feel we have a better chance of being successful. I want a kick to my band, but I don't want the rhythm to hog the spotlight." - Glenn Miller
Note: Personally I feel this is why Miller's later work veered away from dance audiences to become more for a listening crowd. Some of his most famous numbers, such as In The Mood, are avoided by modern swing-dance DJs for this reason. However, some of his lesser known dance numbers are among the hardest driving swings songs ever recorded.
"Black and white players hadn't appeared together in public before Teddy Wilson and I began working with Benny Goodman." - Lionel Hampton
Note: I've included this quote to briefly touch on the fact the swing music played an important role in progressing the world towards a brighter future.
It's the same old syncopation, ... Once again it sweeps the nation, ... Rhythm had its seasons, Summer, Fall and Spring. And they started dancing, now they call it Swing. -- Billie Holiday, 1937
"Swing is an adjective or a verb, not a noun. All jazz musicians should swing. There is no such thing as a swing band in music." - Artie Shaw
"Somebody asked me once, ‘Do you think that swing will ever come back?’ And I said, ‘Do you think the 1938 Form will ever come back?’" - Artie Shaw
"It's just swinging. If we don't swing, it isn't jazz. That's all. That's all we've got is swinging. How are you going to swing if you don't swing hard? How can you swing easy? Even if you play soft, you have to swing hard. Jazz is going to sell itself; it doesn't need any names like 'hard bop.'" --Art Blakey
“Some folks say that Swing won't stay, and it's dying out. But I can prove it's in the groove, and they don't know what they're talking about.” -- from the song Wham! composed by Eddie Durham