Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


SWING, in music

The manipulation of time in performance, according to the performer's skill and personality, the mood he/she is in, the nature of the song or tune being played or sung and many other factors. Swing is part of the essence of jazz and blues, hence an influence on all pop music. The first great master of swing was Louis Armstrong, who placed a note slightly before the beat or after it, stretched phrases or notes across the beat, sometimes seemed to ignore bar lines altogether; this is one reason why his records beginning in 1925 astonished everyone: others were doing it, but none with such mastery. Lester Young's first recorded solos 'Shoe Shine Boy' and 'Lady Be Good' in 1936 are wonderful examples of swing. For bigger bands, the best arrangers -- Don Redman and Fletcher Henderson (who were turned on by Armstrong), Benny Carter, Sy Oliver, etc -- wrote 'charts' that could swing if the right musicians were playing them; a great deal depended on lead players in each section (see Big Band Era). The white Casa Loma Band was very popular but underrated ever since. Duke Ellington and Jimmie Lunceford were also reliable for swing in the 1930s, Count Basie from '36; then in '40 Ellington's bassist Jimmy Blanton revised the playing of that instrument with his own definition of swing. By then the word was common: earlier musicians spoke of it as 'getting off' or 'taking a Boston', and a swinging ensemble was 'in the groove': sometimes it happened, sometimes not; the band had to be in the mood.

During the Swing Era from 1935 jazz-oriented dance bands suddenly became big, hence the Big Band Era (see that entry). There are many stories about Fats Waller (usually, or Armstrong) being asked what swing was, replying, 'If you don't know what it is, don't mess with it', or 'If you gotta ask, you'll never know'. A danceable medium tempo is best for swinging, pace the popular conception of loud, fast 'killer dillers' (but one reason Tommy Dorsey was so successful is that his band, unlike Glenn Miller's, could swing even at slow tempos). Billie Holiday, the greatest of jazz singers, usually sang after the beat, the last word of a phrase fractionally late, the essence of languor; passionate, resigned or humorous, depending on the song (e.g. 'Back In Your Own Back Yard' and 'On The Sentimental Side', recorded the same day '38). Thelonious Monk was his own rhythm section, swing built into his tunes: a good illustration of what swings and what doesn't is take one of 'Hackensack', produced in London in 1971 by Alan Bates with Monk, Art Blakey and Al McKibbon, issued in the complete set 1985 on Mosaic, later on Candid: Monk re-enters in the wrong place, intentionally or not, after Blakey's solo, and stays there; the rest of the take without Monk's unique beat is recognizably his tune, yet sounds like something a cocktail pianist might invent.

The original home of rhythmic subtlety was in jazz and blues; in former times African-Americans were thought to have 'natural rhythm', but the truth is always more interesting than racism. Blacks kept the aspect of music as a means of social intercourse as well as of self-expression from Africa, aspects which had been played down in European music; Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin were great improvisers, but today's concert pianists don't do it at all. (But classical music swings when orchestra and conductor are 'in the groove': Wilhelm Furtwangler was hard to follow as a conductor, but he was improvising on the podium: his recording of Schumann's Fourth Symphony is a great soaring arc of song. One of the reasons Jascha Horenstein's BBC broadcast recording of Bruckner's Eighth is one of the most exciting ever made is that the band sounds as if it is transported into another sphere rather than reading notes off the page.) Blacks had less to lose from self- expression, while hundreds of years of European Protestantism on top of 2,400 years of Aristotelian consciousness had left whites uptight. Slaves in America were not allowed to learn to read in most of the South; dependent upon the spoken word for communication, they were forced to live in the 'now', which is where you have to be to manipulate time, while whites felt guilty about the past or anxious about the future, rarely living in the present. Hence Bix Beiderbecke was the first great white jazz musician, but his Midwestern, middle-class family didn't even listen to the records. Further, rhythm is at the centre of African music (harmony in European music): the performer who is swinging is commenting on the beat, which is somewhere else; hence to some extent swing is a polyrhythmic phenomenon. Whites learned quickly; Jews and Italians were especially prominent among white jazz musicians in the USA from the 1920s; in the UK a significant number of good jazz musicians have been Scottish: Benny Carter, whose UK band in the 1930s included many Scots, said it was because 'wherever they are, there's happiness'. The first European jazz musician of consequence was Django Reinhardt, a Gypsy.

Country music (bluegrass, honky tonk, western swing) often showed rhythmic swagger (see Hank Williams, Bob Wills). There were many good white jazz musicians from New Orleans (many playing with Bob Crosby), then others who learned by listening and practising. The improvement in the playing of white rhythm sections can be heard on records throughout the '30s and '40s; the album Sing And Dance With Frank Sinatra '50 produced by Mitch Miller has the 'swing band' rhythm section playing very well but sounding rather four-square; just a few years later at Capitol under Nelson Riddle the whole orchestra including strings plays with far more panache. (The earlier album was said to be overdubbed, which makes a difference: it is much better to have the musicians listening to each other rather than to headphones.) Among white singers who swung, Connee Bosewell was from New Orleans while Mildred Bailey, Lee Wiley and Kay Starr were all of Native American ancestry; the Italian Sinatra made songs his own by phrasing over the beat, but many pop singers remained tied to the beat: neither Shirley Bassey nor Joan Baez is known for her swing. Critical reservations about Linda Ronstadt's versions of Sinatra's type of songs are famous, which does not mean that she does not bring other virtues to more suitable material, while Sinatra was not very good at singing Ronstadt's country-rock material either: folk-based musics require an entirely different, resigned attitude towards time.

Rock is based on the blues, where melodic/rhythmic elements are set against each other more subtly than in jazz; the blues-drenched Van Morrison in his 'Into The Mystic' '70 has each line of the lyric beginning after the beat and ending before it, while the bass figure seems to ignore it: a gentle rocking results. A good rhythm section in any genre doesn't play precisely on the beat, hitting the listener on the head with it; the classic Elvis Presley tracks of early 1956 imparted urgency by rushing the beat, while the Rolling Stones' drummer Charlie Watts was once criticized for consistently playing behind the beat, perhaps the essence of the best rock. The Stones swung on their best albums (but Mick Jagger never did); Morrison's bands nearly always swing, as did those of Ry Cooder, Little Feat, Bob Dylan (at least through Street Legal), other classic rock and much of country rock: on Emmylou Harris albums the musicians listen to one another rather than to the beat; Save The World by Richard Dobson and Smokin' The Dummy by Terry Allen have fine backing bands.

In all genres, live gigs can be better than studio dates; an audience helps, like the 'second line' in New Orleans and dancers during the Swing Era, but jumping up and down is not dancing. Much pop today has been sterilized by the influence of disco's drum machine and other studio toys; a good musician can swing against a metronome, but a collection of metronomes does not swing, and musicians learning to play by imitating a metronome can never swing. Pop drummers in recent years are simply banging on things, having no idea, while too many records have been overproduced: Bonnie Raitt albums often had rhythmic swagger, but Nine Lives '86 did not. Production and technology are easily overdone; in a wall of sound there is no swing because there is no space and the music cannot breathe: Phil Spector and Motown were not good models in the long run. Rhythm & blues had a rhythmic looseness which led to rock'n'roll; where R&B roots are alive good music results, as in Rockin' Jimmy and the Brothers of the Night, an excellent bar band recorded as such; but pop-rock has dominated popular music for far too long, so that each generation of young people is now more familiar with studio technology than with the roots of the music.