The History of Swing Jazz

One of the most influential styles of jazz to emerge from the early half of the 20th century was known as “swing.” Swing Jazz quickly caught fire and spread amongst all racial demographics in the era leading up to World War II, and produced some of America’s most renowned musical figures and leaders. This style is extremely important to the evolution of popular music in the U.S., as it bucked some of the more sacred and traditional elements of mainstream popular music and pushed it into edgier, more creative territory.

Origin of Swing Jazz

The roots of swing jazz can be traced back to the “Dixieland” jazz style created by the black musicians of New Orleans, which featured fast, chaotic rhythms, a “four beat” structure that differed from the slower “two beat” feel of popular music at the time. It marked extensive use of individual improvisation, whereby a single musician would create a unique “solo” in the middle of the number, based on the musical framework established by the song’s author.
“Mainstream” jazz, at the time, was typically slow, a “two beat” rhythm, and fit a more composed, conservative style of dancing that was often found in ballrooms. It usually featured singers that sang sweetly in tenor tones about romance and other “safe” topics. As a rule, these musical ensembles stuck to written charts and featured large string orchestras.

Jazz Revolution

Revolutionary bandleaders and musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, Benny Goodman, Cab Calloway, Count Basie, Buddy Rich, Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington began to favor the swing style around 1925-1930 and soon changed their bands by discarding the string orchestras. They wrote accelerated compositions that relied heavily on a strong rhythm section (double bass and drums) to drive the feel and groove of the work, and emphasized individual improvisation within the framework of a written chart. Their songs used the “swing” notation, giving them a lilting, syncopated air. Brass sounds (such as the trumpet and the trombone) and woodwind (such as the alto saxophone, the tenor saxophone, and the clarinet) became popular.

Swing was mainly limited to African American radio stations and was frowned upon by the establishment until Benny Goodman, a well-known and well-liked bandleader, adopted the style and played it at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles in 1935. It was quickly embraced by the younger patrons and became the “hot” style of music all over the country. Prior to that event, swing jazz had been generally viewed as morally or socially unacceptable. Because its roots came from African-American groups, the white majority dismissed it as its racy lyrics, lack of strings, and fast tempos were deemed to be a sign of cultural degradation. Nevertheless, swing jazz became the single most important and popular form of music over the next ten years before disappearing into history in the early 1950s, making room for the emergence of rock and roll.

Check out some of the quintessential swing compositions: “Sing, Sing, Sing” by Benny Goodman and His Orchestra, “Take the A Train” by Duke Ellington, and “In the Mood” by the Glen Miller Band.