Swing music emerged in the African American population in the early 1930s and led the years 1935-1945 to be called the “Swing Era.” Early jazz’s two-beat feel shifted into a four-beat feel and, along with rhythmic shifts and smooth syncopation, developed into swing.
Most swing music is played by big bands made up of brass and woodwind lead sections playing over a rhythm section of piano, double bass, and drums. Big bands sometimes include strings and vocalists. Early bandleaders were clarinetist Benny Goodman as well as Count Basie and Stan Kenton. In swing’s early days, Fletcher Henderson’s musical arrangements helped bandleaders expand their repertoire and reach wider audiences.
Swing music is played at a medium-fast tempo in a lilting, swing time rhythm with an emphasis on the music’s off-beat. Solo instruments commonly improvise. Swing music led to swing dancing and thus was not always seen as “serious” music.
Swing pianists were usually part of big bands and were a key part of the rhythm sections, where the pianists had more rhythmic freedom and could elegantly fill in gaps of horn arrangements rather than pound away like stride pianists.
Duke Ellington, originally a stride piano player, became an extremely influential swing composer and bandleader after starting his career at Harlem’s Cotton Club. He played the piano with a reserved style, serving each particular song and arrangement and using the piano to highlight the rest of the band and set its rhythm. Ellington composed many songs that are now swing standards, such as 1932’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing).” One of the earliest live swing performance recordings is Duke Ellington at Fargo 1940 Live.
Like Duke Ellington, Count Basie learned from Fats Waller and started his own 9-piece band in 1935. Basie played the piano with a light touch and was known for his three-note endings. He recorded with many famous swing and jazz musicians and crooners throughout his career, including Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, and Tony Bennet. Nat King Cole was a pianist first and a singer second. He formed the King Cole Swingers in the 1930s in southern California, setting the stage for the now-classic piano, guitar, and bass jazz trio. Frank Sinatra got his start in a big band led by Dorsey Brothers and, like Nat King Cole, continued to use a swing-band approach in many of his performances and recordings.
Swing music declined during World War II as it became hard to staff big bands and expensive to tour. This led to the formation of smaller, three- to five-piece combos.
Other styles of swing that developed include western swing and gypsy swing, which were similar and combined swing with blues and country music or gypsy songs. Jimmie Rodgers and Willie Nelson popularized western swing in the United States, and Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli spread gypsy swing in Europe. Many rock ‘n’ roll musicians – such as Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, and Elvis Presley – incorporated swing elements and swing-era songs into their repertoires. Pianist Art Tatum’s exquisite technique and harmonic knowledge, coupled with the fast tempos at which he played, set the standard for bebop musicians in the 1940s and 1950s.
There was a strong swing music and dance revival from 1998-2000, thanks to Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, and Brian Setzer.
Today, pop musicians continue to incorporate swing elements into their music: in 2001 Robbie Williams released an album of swing standards, Swing When You’re Winning, and Christina Aguilera’s 2006 Back to Basics album has many songs with swing, jazz, and blues elements. German-lyric swing music has become popularized in Germany by Roger Cicero and Thomas Anders. Modern swing hybrid genres include “swing house” music – think Louis Prima – and the electroswing of Caravan Palace and Parov Stelar, which is popular in Europe.