The average person probably thinks of Swing music when you say the word “jazz,” and for good reason. Swing was very popular. In the 1930s, it was the most popular music. Big Bands, which were large orchestras with trumpets, saxophones, trombones, and a rhythm section, played it most of the time (which consisted of the drums, bass, guitar and piano). And they played music for dancing. Swing music is dance music above all else, which means it was:
Easy to understand, with clear melodies and a strong beat.
This also meant that it was very popular.
Swing is between two very important events in history. The Great Depression, which began when the stock market crashed in 1929, and World War II, which lasted from 1939 to 1945. So, the Swing Era happened during the Depression. It was a kind of protest against the unemployment and misery that the Depression brought about. It gave people a break from the daily grind of life.
Evolution: Swing came from New Orleans jazz, and Bebop was the next step. So let’s look quickly at all three types:
Part of New Orleans in the 1910s
Harmony Made Easy
Simple harmony or complex harmony? Rhythm with a two-beat feel or a flat-four feel?
Sound Chaotic Driving Rhythm
Complex and angular
What makes up swing music?
Let’s look more closely at these things that make swing music what it is:
As I said before, Big Bands play Swing music. Swing put more emphasis on written-out compositions and arrangements because of this. So band leaders used various arrangement techniques to keep the song interesting, such as:
Tutti (all horns playing a melodic line in harmony) (all horns playing a melodic line in harmony)
Soli (one section featured playing a melodic line in harmony) (one section featured playing a melodic line in harmony)
Yell Chorus (climatic tutti section at the end of the arrangement)
Riffs are short melodic and/or rhythmic patterns that are repeated.
Riffs that go back and forth (often between the horns and the rhythm section)
Solos (single person improvising – usually behind a relatively simple harmonic background) (single person improvising – usually behind a relatively simple harmonic background)
Swing Music was smooth, easy-listening and simple Harmony: Swing used simple chords and had a clear homophonic texture
Melody: Swing had clear, lyrical and memorable melodies
Rhythm: Swing had a solid beat with a strong dance groove. And, of course, it swung
Swing was almost entirely commercial and part of the mass entertainment industry. It was all about showmanship – which is epitomised by people like Cab Calloway and Fats Waller.
Hot vs Sweet
And there were also 2 different styles of Swing music.
”Sweet” Swing (people like Glenn Miller) – had less improvisation, was a bit slower, restrained with a slight swing feel, and was for the white upper class dinner parties.
“Hot” Swing (people like Duke Ellington) – was more daring, experimental, faster, with longer improvisations, stronger rhythmic drive, and a rough blues feeling.
Another interesting and important development happened with Swing improvisation. Up until the Swing Era ‘improvisation’ was essentially just playing the melody with some embellishments. The embellishments gradually became more adventurous, but they were generally always played with the melody in mind. Then, during the Swing Era, the sax player Coleman Hawkins changed the way jazz approached improvisation from melody to harmony (horizontal to vertical). Instead of just embellishing the melody, he created a whole new melody based on the song’s harmony by arpeggiating the chords and adding further chord alterations and substitutions to make his solo more complex. This approach was then further expanded upon by Bebop, which largely abandoned the original melody of the song to create brand new melodies based on an established chord progression – this was known as a contrafact.
In the early years of Jazz, and up until the Swing Era, the piano was still very much rooted in the rhythm section of the band. So generally the pianist played very rhythmically, and helped keep the beat. For this reason the pianist’s left hand generally just played chords on the beat; while his right hand built rhythmic patterns around chords and chord tone, and especially guide tone – often just playing arpeggios or simple bluesy licks. Some of the Piano techniques employed during the Swing Era were:
Left Hand = steady on-the-beat rhythm (Pumping)
Stride Tenths & Tenth
Three handed effect
Right Hand = Chordal (Chords, Arpeggio)
Rhythmic chord based patterns
Outlining chord progression
A good example of this is the Count Basie song Kansas City Keys.
Kansas City Jazz
As the name of that sound suggests, Count Basie played in Kansas City. And they played a particular type of Swing in Kansas City known as: Kansas City Jazz. KC Jazz is characterised by:
Heavy swing rhythm Bluesy feel (often using a 12 Bar Blues structure)
Songs that were based and structured around riffs
As the focal point of the song;
Played behind soloists; or
Playing multiple riffs playing at once as a kind of call and response.
And because KC Jazz songs were riff based, they were often played from memory by the band (rather than from sheet music). And this is where the term ‘head’ comes from, meaning the original melody of the song – that is, it’s all in your head, not written down on paper. This also contributed to the loose and spontaneous feel of KC Jazz. KC Jazz marked the transition from the heavily structured, arranged and written out Big Band style of Swing to the more fluid and improvisation style of Bebop.
Have a Listen to
I’ve listed some Swing Era Jazz musicians below. Check them out, though I’m sure you would already recognise many of them.
Fletcher Henderson Cab Calloway
Jimmie Lunceford Cab Calloway
Coleman Hawkins Lester Young
Nat “King” Cole