When you hear ‘swing’, your head may conjure images of hip-twisting, fast footwork, and a frantic push and pull dance. But what is swing music exactly?
In this guide, we’ll give you a definition of swing music, examples of it and its most notable musicians, and take a look at the history of swing music.
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Definition: What is Swing Music?
Swing music is a type of jazz that began in the 1920s and became all the rage, defining the culture and leading to the swing era by 1935.
It was the first type of jazz to see commercial success and to overcome the prejudice of jazz’s association with brothels and prohibition-era speakeasies.
Swing’s name came from the emphasis on the off beat, which led to its infectious high-energy and incredible danceability.
Swing Music Characteristics
Common to swing music is a walking bass line. The quarter note pulses set the foundation for the groove. The rhythm is laid out with a ride cymbal ticking off a triplet feel. The hi-hat emphasizes the 2 and 4 beats. Drum brushes on the snare add to the sexy, slinky vibe.
The piano holds the rhythm down and often introduces the theme, a melodic riff that’s the heart of the tune.
A call and response between the woodwinds and the brass escalate the energy of the music, driving the chase of the theme that drove the dances that sprung up in ballrooms all over, echoing and participating in the explosion of swing’s creative expression.
9 Examples of Swing Music
Even with its conventions, swing is jazz, and jazz has always existed to be experimented with and to showcase a musician’s talents and interpretations. From the beginnings of swing to its revival in the 90s, here are some various and iconic contributions to the genre.
“Sing, Sing, Sing (With a Swing)” by The Benny Goodman Orchestra
One of the most iconic and recognizable songs of the swing era, “Sing, Sing Sing” has appeared in nearly fifty movies, television shows, and video games.
Written in 1936 by Louis Prima and performed with the New Orleans Gang, “Sing, Sing, Sing” has lyrics, which are a call to sing, swing, and enjoy the music, however, Benny Goodman’s instrumental is one of the most famous versions of this song.
“Take The A Train” by Duke Ellington and His Orchestra
“Take the A Train” is a strutting, slinky, flashy number with frolicking piano and drum brushes.
Composed by Billy Strayhorn, the song’s title was inspired by directions Duke Ellington wrote for getting to his place by subway.
Throughout the years, this piece has been performed both as an instrumental and with lyrics. Vocalists lending their talents and sometimes scat singing have included Joya Sherrill, Ray Nance, and Ella Fitzgerald.
“Chattanooga Choo-Choo” by The Glenn Miller Orchestra
A song celebrating the luxury and excitement of rail travel, “Chattanooga Cho-Choo” opens with driving, oscillating horns, and a rhythm reminiscent of a locomotive. The song lightens into a flirty swirl of horns, crooning vocals, and along-for-the-party backing vocals.
A hugely successful song, it was featured in the 1941 movie, “Sun Valley Serenade” and went on to be the first song to receive a gold record.
“Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” by The Andrews Sisters
From the Abbott and Costello movie Buck Privates, “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” was written by Don Raye and Hughie Prince and recorded by The Andrews Sisters in 1941.
The song is about a trumpet player drafted into the army, who loses morale, but his understanding superior drafts a full band, boosting the spirits of the whole company.
As fun to sing along with as it is to dance to, it’s a jumpy, hyper song with crystal clear vocals punctuated at times with a throaty, bluesy growl.
“Woodchopper’s Ball” by Woody Herman & His Swinging' Herd
Recorded in 1939, “Woodchopper’s Ball,” or “At the Woodchopper’s Ball,” as it’s sometimes known, was composed by Joe Bishop and Woody Herman. It sold a million records, becoming their most popular song.
It's a bluesy, jazzy number featuring swinging clarinet, saxophone, and muted trumpets and trombones.
“Jumping at the Woodside” by Count Basie and his Orchestra
A jazz standard, “Jumping at the Woodside,” is a signature tune for Count Basie and his Orchestra.
Starting with a rhythmic piano riff, the song quickly comes to a rolling boil, leaving the lead sax to simmer, steam, and cook.
The title comes from The Woodside Hotel, a popular hotel in Harlem for jazz musicians and Negro league baseball players to stay while in New York during segregation.
“T’Aint What You Do” by Billy May & His Orchestra
Recorded by several artists, “T’Aint What You Do (It’s the Way That You Do It)” is a spirited, semi-inspirational jazz song written by Melvin “Sy” Oliver and James “Trummy” Young. Ella Fitzgerald, Harry James and Jimmie Lunceford originally recorded the tune in 1939.
The song had a comeback in 1982 when it was covered by the band Fun Boy Three with Bananarama.
“Begin the Beguine” by Artie Shaw and His Orchestra
A famous song that transcends the confines of the genre, “Begin the Beguine” was written by Cole Porter and was first introduced to the world in 1935 in the Broadway musical, Jubilee.
The song didn’t fully gain popularity or prominence until Artie Shaw recorded it in 1938. Relegated to the “B” side of his band’s “Indian Love Call” album, “Begin the Beguine” became one of the most popular recordings of the swing era.
Beguine is a type of music and dance, and the lyrics, when included, are nostalgic for a time and place and the music that made it magical.
“Zoot Suit Riot” by Cherry Poppin’ Daddies
Due to a resurging interest in swing music and dance, the ska punk band Cherry Poppin’ Daddies put together a compilation album of all the swing songs from their first three albums. The album was called “Zoot Suit Riot.” The title song was all over the radio in 1998.
The song is loosely based on the Zoot Suit Riots of 1940s Los Angeles. The music draws from 40s jump blues. It is a rebellious song drawing from the serious subject matter, but swings hard and drew many an exhausted grunge fan to the dance floor.
Top 5 Swing Musicians
Historically jazz musicians have been celebrated for their musical genius, their ability to play their instruments like no one else before them, and for the aural visions they bring to life both in live performances and recordings. Here are some musicians whose swing contributions cannot be overstated.
Duke Ellington’s last words were, “Music is how I live, why I live, and how I will be remembered.” Decades later Duke Ellington is indeed remembered as a musician who pioneered the popularity of big band jazz.
A pianist whose mother insisted he dress well, Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington led his band for over 50 years, penning thousands of compositions.
His most famous songs include “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” “Caravan,” and “Take the A Train.”
William James “Count” Basie was born in 1904. A pianist, organist, and composer, Count Basie formed the Count Basie Orchestra in 1935.
The nickname and title “Count” was bestowed upon him by a radio announcer who wanted to ensure he was placed alongside jazz nobility like Duke Ellington. Famous for broadening the big band sound with an emphasis on the rhythm section, he led his band for nearly 50 years.
Count Basie’s most notable songs include “One O’Clock Jump,” “Jimmy’s Blues,” and “Jumpin’ At The Woodside.”
Beginning in 1936, Benny Goodman, known as the “King of Swing” was the leader of one of the most popular swing bands in the country. Leading one of the first integrated jazz groups in a time of segregation, Benny Goodman helped start many careers.
Raised in Chicago, Goodman became an accomplished clarinetist at an early age. He took inspiration from Chicago jazz clarinetists who had come from the New Orleans scene.
Among Benny Goodman’s most popular songs are “Moon Glow,” “Glory of Love,” “Don’t Be That Way,” and “Sing, Sing, Sing (With a Swing).”
Tommy Dorsey was a trombonist whose smooth tone earned him the nickname “Sentimental Gentleman of Swing.”
His brother Jimmy played clarinet and saxophone. The Dorsey Brothers broke up in 1935. Tommy went on to lead his band until he died in 1956.
Three of Tommy Dorsey’s songs were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, “I’ll Never Smile Again,” “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You,” and “Marie.”
Born Alton Glenn Miller in 1904, Glenn Miller played as a freelance trombonist for a few bands during the late 20s and early 30s. His work as a musician and composer had him working for and alongside all the greats of the time. An arrangement he developed for Ray Noble of lead clarinet over four saxophones became intrinsic to his big band sound.
After a short-lived first band, Glenn Miller found success with Glenn Miller and His Orchestra from 1938 to 1942, with 16 number-one records and 69 top-ten hits in just four years.
Glenn Miller volunteered to entertain World War II troops with his music in 1942. In 1944, on his way to Paris, Glenn Miller’s plane disappeared over the English Channel, leading to many conspiracy theories.
Glenn Miller’s contributions to swing include “In the Mood,” “Chattanooga Choo-Choo,” “Moonlight Serenade,” and “Tuxedo Junction.”
The History of Swing Music
Where did swing music come from? What did it do while it was here? What has it been up to lately?
The Beginnings of Swing
Dance music bands of the 1920s, influenced by musicians like Louis Armstrong, Benny Carter, and Coleman Hawkins, began experimenting with written arrangements and rhythm. Call and response helped provide the danceable rhythm and laid a foundation for soloists to feature prominently.
Radio broadcasting and recording were growing and allowed bands to have a national audience in a way that wasn’t possible before, really expanding the potential for national music culture.
The Swing Era
Between 1935 and 1946, big band swing was the most popular music. Swing wasn’t just for listening. It was also for jitterbugging. Popular swing dances included The Lindy Hop, The Shag, The Big Apple, and The Suzy Q. “Hot” swing was rowdy, and the dancing and the energy of the performance were just as raucous.
Music popular with young people, especially music that involves innuendo-laced lyrics, hip shaking, and breaking established conventions always has detractors. Swing met with some resistance, but it had already flooded the culture.
With swing, jazz became more mainstream and more popular with white audiences. Incredibly talented white and black musicians were the rock stars of the day.
The Decline of Swing
During the 40s, war-time restrictions on travel stopped many touring ensembles dead in their tracks. Musicians were also being pulled away to war due to the draft.
There was also upheaval in the music industry. The American Society of Composers and Producers demanded higher royalties but broadcasters refused. In 1942, the American Federation of Musicians began a strike, banning recording music until record companies paid royalties.
Vocalists like Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, and Peggy Lee began to take the attention away from the musicians. Swing hits were often performed and recorded as instrumentals. The focus shifted to singers and to music created to support them. Swing music began to lose ground.
Revivals of Swing
Swing, especially in its purest form, was never the same after its decline, but the 1970s and 80s saw “Big Band Nostalgia” tours and swing revival groups like Manhattan Transfer.
In the 90s, especially after the release and popularity of the movie Swing Kids, there was a swing revival headed by bands such as Royal Crown Revue, Squirrel Nut Zippers, The Brian Setzer Orchestra, Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. The swing of this era blended with ska, rock, and rockabilly.
Swing music never regained the popularity it had in the 30s and 40s. Whenever it has resurged, it primarily has to do with the allure and craze of swing dancing, which is not as prominent a part of the culture as it was in the 90s and 2000s but continues to this day.
What is Swing Music? Final Thoughts
Even if people don’t listen to Benny Goodman or Duke Ellington anymore, their names and influence live on.
Swing music may never have the popularity it once did, but it shaped how we relate to musicians and what we expect from them.
Swing was about total immersion in musical life, not just playing or listening to a tune, but inhabiting it, and that spirit has not left.