Swing, Then and Now


Down Beat, long recognized as the leading jazz periodical in America, describes the modern Swing movement better than anyone:


Dancing the night away, Retro style.
It's Sunday night at the Aragon Ballroom on Chicago's North Side, and all the hep cats in their black-and-white spectator shoes and reave-sleeved zoot suits have slipped onto the dance floor to swirl, twirl, and rub up close against their bobby-socked dates. Stars twinkle on the dome ceiling and the balcony that surrounds the majestic hall's enormous, round dance floor. On stage, a young man from Detroit prances like Cab Calloway and sings like Wynonie Harris. With a watch chain drooping almost to his heels and a conductor's baton in his hand, he jukes and jives with the energy of a Kansas City swing tornado, and the crowd is hopelessly swept up in his storm. The couples dance so maniacally that the men soak all the way through their suits and the women give up worrying about their hair and makeup. But the scene I'm describing is in the present---Sept. 14, 1997..."

This strange musical retrograde movement isn't merely restricted to Chicago clubs or Down Beat aficionados, either: just as wing-tips, three-piece suits, martinis, cigars, and other trappings of an older era have suddenly re-asserted themselves in the cultural mainstream, so has the jazz with that archaic sound which today's youth with record-owning grandparents are quick to recognize as Swing. The cultural effect has been sudden and intense: "After I started dancing, I went out and bought a bunch of CDs," remarks a twenty-two year old Swing fan in Down Beat. "I got Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and that guy who plays the trombone...Glenn Miller. Before that I only listened to country music." Another youngster tells the magazine that "it's coming back so big. I went to California, and it was huge there. Maybe it's because it's so much fun."

Fun is a driving theme in both original Swing music and today's Retro interpretation, but just because today's bands influence youngsters to buy some old "Best Of" collections doesn't mean that these two musical forms with the same name are necessarily the same thing. Modern Swing has made some serious strides in a different direction these fifty years after the original kind was popular, such to the point that the two need to be examined separately for contrast, rather than considered as two particularly similar art forms.

Retro Movement Swing

Understanding that today's Swing music isn't entirely grounded in old jazz is a crucial first step in analysis. "They are influenced not just by jazz," Down Beat mentions, "but punk, ska, rockabilly and a lot of testosterone." Modern musical vestiges in new Swing are pervasive, most notably in instrumental setup. The once-vital, but currently un-hip clarinet has been replaced by the louder, brassier tenor sax. Drumming no longer merely keeps time, but is instead featured with breaks and solos, as is the custom with rock bands. Most prominent among today's Swinging instruments is the guitar: "Basically, I come from rock & roll," says Brian Setzer, an ex-modern Swing musician. "I didn't want a retro swing band, I wanted something new, and that meant putting my guitar in the front of the band." Swing songs featuring vocalists increase dramatically in this decade as well, and the lyrics steer away from old, sentimental subjects, instead concerning themselves with brighter, bouncier material, and more often than not highlighted with scat-singing.

Ensemble size in Retro bands has shrunk to a more manageable number. Most modern Swing bands have a standard rhythm section of bass, guitar, drums, and piano, a few horn soloists (seldom featuring an entire section of one family, such as "choirs" of trumpets or saxophones) and a vocalist. Advances in amplification technology more than make up for the reduced size of the band, providing plenty of kick for the smaller Swing ensemble, and modern Swing bands have the advantage of being more mobile than their Swing era counterparts. A final and vital characteristic of the Retro movement is the increased emphasis on loud volumes and quick tempos: these smaller bands deliberately Swing harder than their predecessors.

All of these isolated characteristics point in a clear direction: the basic trend in the retro movement is toward the creation of a Swing sound that is a fusion of old jazz and the modern rock band. The reasons for this are more or less to keep Swing from becoming just a novelty to today's audiences. To captivate the attention of today's listening public, there must be a modern "hook" so that music from another era can actually be considered "ours" today. Familiar band arrangements, tempi, and volume serve to further this affect, making Swing accessible and identifiable as something simultaneously old and new.

Classic Swing

Original Swing and today's variety are hardly twins. While not many people could confuse a vintage Artie Shaw recording with a hyperactive Royal Crown Revue performance from this decade, the popular perception of Swing music is that it was very much the same then as it is now. As the teenager quoted in Down Beat said, the emphasis is on fun, and modern audiences cannot think of Swing without imagining crowds of dance-mad youngsters going crazy to a blaring band. What the other young man from Down Beat who bought so many CDs will find, however, when he listens to them, is that the Swing of yesteryear was considerably slower, statelier, and more dignified than its imitatiors today.


An advertisement for the pivotal "battle."
On January 16, 1938, the same night as Benny Goodman's famous Carnegie Hall concert, an epic Swing event occurred: the "Battle of the Bands" at the Savoy, New York's most famous Swing club. The two well-known bandleaders, Count Basie and Chick Webb, had reputations to fit the setting. What distinguished the two bands from one another was opposing sounds: Webb's band might well have been popular today, described as a "sensational whirlwind barrage," with "breakneck tempos" and "novelty effects." Basie's swing, on the other hand, was more moderate and blues-oriented, and the tone of the concert was described by one spectator as "solid swing versus sensational swing." The voting was close, but in the end, even though Webb's raucous beats packed the dance floor and made everyone's head nod at the impressive speed and rhythm, the audience chose Basie's calmer style as the winner.

The contest's outcome indicates larger preferences of the Swing-listening public. While songs such as "Traffic Jam" by Artie Shaw did exist and became popular, the most widely-appreciated works were far more controlled in tempo and volume. "The Great Band Era," a record compilation of favorite Swing tunes, includes a disk dedicated to band "theme songs," songs that served as the musical representation of the band and were the most popular or requested songs in the band repertoire. Of these twelve selected themes, only two are have even particularly moderate tempos. Most, such as Miller's "Moonlight Serenade" or Goodman's "Goodbye" are slow with a "Sweet" sound that was widely admired at the time: these are the "cheek-to-cheek" dancing numbers that represent a largely sentimental form of music.


Jitterbuggers were often despised by Swing musicians.
The dramatic dancing of the Swing era is much-imitated today, but actual jitterbugging was considered vulgar and rude. Where jitterbugging went, chaos and knife fights sometimes followed, leading many clubs to ban such dancing outright. Swing musicians, most notably Benny Goodman, were outspoken critics of the wild dancers, saying that they disrupted the band and ruined the artistic effect of the music, and Jazz magazines targeted the enthusiasts, as well. According to Down Beat, the jitterbugger

"...places himself in a conspicuous place and annoys the leader by constantly shouting out his requests such as "Dinah" and "Tiger Rag," etc. He claps his hands (usually dragging or rushing the tempo), dances a sort of mad dervish dance on one foot, or trucks while his head is held to one side, eyes are rolled up in the corners, eyebrows raised so that the forehead is furrowed with premature wrinkles...these are his best 'sent' expressions."

The sweaty, over-excited scene that is modern Swing dancing would have been unacceptable in many dance halls to a great many bands. Slow dancing or crowding about the podium to simply listen appreciatively were much preferred to jitterbugging, the wild grandfather of today's slam-dancing.

Swing and Evolution

It turns out that nearly nothing popular today as Swing mirrors Swing as it was completely faithfully; historical accuracy has been abandoned, though sometimes only in a small degree, in almost all of the modern retro bands. Modern tastes demand modern touches, and because this is an ancient form of musical expression, some old aspects of Swing have actually grown truly outdated and can't be used seriously in current music. It's important to remember, though, that Swing was a constantly-evolving genre in its own day, and received enormous criticism for its "updating" of what were then considered "classic" pieces. Swing bands today, with their bandleader vocalists and drawn-out guitar solos, resemble rock bands in order to gain an audience, and because, as far as Swing is concerned, evolution has always been the way of things.

Talking about the music, however, will only take us so far: the differences between old and new and the overal evolution of Swing should become clearer after listening to the following sound clips and bands. After all, that's what the music was intended for.