Swing Era: Style

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Swing Style

Swing became so specifically defined that it is often thought of as a genre of its own, a separate trajectory from the jazz which preceded and followed it. Many of the distinctive characteristics of Swing involved the way the music was communicated and absorbed. Benny Goodman's "I've Got Rhythm" illustrates Swing's unique take on a jazz standard. The unique stylistic aspects of Swing consumption, including dress and dance, are best observed in photographs from the era.

In addition to these characteristic elements, Swing style was also unique in that the genre was conscious of itself as a unique genre of music set apart from other forms of jazz and other artistic aspects of American life. This self-consciousness manifested itself in written musical criticism both as the genre developed (Swing That Music, 1936), and in hindsight (Blues People, 1963).

Examination of stylistic musical criticism reveals that the notion that African-American musical forms provided a "raw material" which could not be fully recognized without the intervention of white swing musicians or white scholars studying swing was not new to the "white jazz biopic" of the late '40s and early '50s. Such dismissals had been a part of swing from the genre's birth. Singer Rudy Vallee's condescending introduction to Swing That Music, Louis Armstrong's 1936 memoir and explanation of the new swing genre, is uncomfortably parallel to the introductions commonly attached to slave narratives.

In the excerpt from his book, Armstrong reflects upon the role of such critical acceptance, a parallel to commercial acceptance, in the formulation of Swing as a distinct genre.

Leroi Jones' dramatic narrative of the growth of Swing out of early jazz also highlights the self-consciousness of its relationship to other forms of jazz, and to other art forms in general, which is intrinsic to Swing. Such comparisons often serve to support racist assumptions, such as the critical elevation of Swing, the sub-genre popularized and consumed to the greatest degree by white Americans, over African-American produced jazz.

Simultaneously, the growth of importance of written criticism as a shaping force during the Swing Era shifted emphasis from the stage of artistic performance and analysis within the music itself to art or discourse created in analysis of the music. This shift often manifested itself in racist dismissal of talented African-American jazz musicians. Discussion of music became the accepted method of social analysis, and music itself was less often seen as a skillful method of analysis and more often reduced to its stylistic musical elements.

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