Jazz 101: The Swing Era


Today, we’ll be continuing our discussion of John Szwed’s “Jazz 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Jazz“, with a look into the era of swing.

In the last two articles, we talked about the early era of jazz. We looked at what was happening in New Orleans and beyond, including some of the major artists whose influenced stretched beyond their years.

Now, we’ll start to look at the next major transition for jazz. This transition takes place between the years 1925 and 1940. During this time, swing became immensely popular. It became so popular, in fact, that it remained the dominant cultural force until after World War II. Once again, we’ll take a broad overview of the era itself before looking at specific artists.

The Swing Era

“The history of the swing era can be divided into two parts: the first, a period of pre-swing from 1924 to 1932, and the second, from 1932 to the mid-1950s. The two can be distinguished by the size of bands and the relationship of their parts” (p. 127).

Big bands and marching bands had already been around for quite some time, and swing bands were originally modeled after them. But swing bands divided up their sections differently, allowing for a call-and-response pattern during play. “The saxophone sections were the real center of the swing bands: they were structured like choirs, with alto, tenor, and baritone saxophones” (p. 126).

By the early 1930s, swing became firmly established as the pop music of America. “Swing of one form or another unified American taste, reaching every class, age group, and race, despite segregation” (p. 131). There was seemingly no limit to the number of forms that swing could take. While the early era of jazz was more niche, swing was being developed for everyone. The stylists were taking the structure and sound of swing, and spreading it across the country.

Now we’ll discuss two of the most influential musicians of the swing era: Duke Ellington and Count Basie.

Duke Ellington

“Because Ellington’s career spanned so much of jazz history, his music reflects many styles and musical periods, his compositions number in the thousands, as do his recordings” (p. 136). While his output alone is impressive enough, it was really Ellington’s inventiveness and originality that made him stand out from the crowd.

While he started off as a ragtime pianist, Duke Ellington later moved into composing and arranging. “Ellington’s music was heavily influenced by his choice of idiosyncratic musicians, and by his practice of building arrangements around their individual styles” (p. 137). He saw no limits when it came to source material, and used everything from blues to West Indian folk dances for inspiration.

“Though he led one of the two great swing bands, his swing rhythm was like no one else’s. Rhythms bubbled under rhythms with Ellington, like the two hands of a ragtime pianist working with and against each other” (p. 138-9).

Count Basie

While Duke Ellington represented the more innovative side of swing, Count Basie represented the more conservative. “The bands that Basie led over the years presented pop songs or the blues in an unadulterated, dance-able manner” (p. 140). Early on, his bands adopted the conventions of swing. Later, they moved toward ensemble arrangements that phrased like a single instrumentalist.

But what many miss is what made Basie stand out. And that was his use of rhythm, as well as the instrumental conversations in his arrangements. While Basie played in his arrangements, he did so sparingly. He would sit at the piano, “punching in short rhythmic phrases with his right hand, commenting on what the band or soloist had just played…and everything he played spaced by long stretches of silence” (p.141).

“Altogether, the band was an incredible swing machine, the definitive swing band, and it sometimes appeared that ever band was trying to sound like Basie’s” (p. 144).

Final Thoughts

After World War II, the big bands of the swing era started to decline. Radio began to use recorded musicians over live ones, which sparked a strike from many of the big bands. “The resultant absence of musicians on record opened the way for singers to become dominant in pop music, and big bands never again regained their ascendancy in pop culture” (p. 145).

I hope you enjoyed our discussion of the swing era. I do find it interesting to learn the context on how popular culture made the shift from jazz to swing. But after the falling out of big bands, where was jazz to go?

We’ll look into this question next time, when we tackle the era of the 1940s, and look at jazz revivalism. This signaled a looking back to the past, and a kind of rebirth of jazz.



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