The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz is one of the prime sources for facts about jazz and its artists. They also scored well with an opinion. Their lengthy definition of “swing,” starts as follows:
Swing -- a quality attributed to jazz performance. Although basic to the perception and performance of jazz, swing has resisted concise definition or description.
We shouldn’t be surprised that it’s hard to define the magic of an artistic concept. It’s true in any art form that what makes a work stand out is, in the end, undefinable. We can look at the parts and discover some truisms about them. Jazz musicians know that when they see a series of eighth notes, which normally divide a beat into two equal parts, they play the first one longer than the second. This is a clearly definable part of swing. We know that swing music is almost always in 4/4 time, that it involves a combination of instruments working together, and that it is the basis for a whole genre of music that employs the name. Nonetheless we still try to specifically define the concept, and it’s been a favorite question of mine in gathering interviews for the Jazz Archive.
It is a logical question to ask of jazz drummers, who along with the bassists are most responsible for making things swing.
Drummer Ed Shaughnessy, who drove Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show big band, stated the following about swing. He had a certain affinity for the word “infectious.”
MR: Are you able, in talking to students or anybody in fact, to put what swing is into words?
ES: I finally think I can do it. I struggled with it for a long time. But I really think I can do it. The thing is before I do it I want to say to you how often swing is used as a noun representing the type of music. Right? They’ll say the swing bands of the 30’s and 40’s, right? And they played swing. We’re going to deal with it as — really how would you describe it if I’m going to go about swing as a feeling? Would we say it’s still a noun but it’s... I mean if I say “it swings” that’s like an adjective, isn’t it? Okay. Well I just want to make this clear to anybody who watches this tape. Because what I find the problem is sometimes is that youngsters, and even oldsters, they mix up the terms “to swing” and lock it in exclusively to jazz music. Now I think bluegrass music swing like hell. It swings. Now what is that swinging I’m talking about? Without drums, right? It’s infectious. The main thing I think that swing means, for me, is that it’s an infectious beat that makes you want to move, whether it’s to dance or to sit and tap your foot or to tap your hands, but it makes you want to move in a sense, and in a response to it. It brings something out in you. It gets into you. Maybe it makes you happy. But mostly it makes you want to get with it. Infectious is the best word I can use. That’s why I don’t like the fact that someone, who is very hard-headed about anything other than jazz, like if I say to them sometimes, well you know some of James Brown’s funk rhythms would swing you out into bad health. “Well I don’t like rock & roll.” I say look man [scats] — I say if you could hear that and you can’t move yourself, you are dead, they should embalm you see? But that’s a form of swing, do you know what I’m saying? If you hear a bunch of Africans playing [scats] and they’re playing that twelve-eight stuff like the Watusi people do, and even if you don’t see them dancing, if you hear that it’s infectious. It gets you going too. So to me, any music, like bluegrass, or jazz, or funk music or Watusi music, it’s infectious and communicates to you rhythmically, and gets a visceral thing going. That’s what I think swing is about. And I don’t think it’s an exclusive property of jazz. I really don’t. However, some people will play jazz and it doesn’t swing. That’s the part that I think people should understand. To be swinging is a certain feeling. You can have jazz people playing but it ain’t swinging too good see. So I think — I’m not going to say the mistake — but I think the error sometimes is to feel that if you’re playing jazz it’s necessarily swinging. No it’s not necessarily swinging. You know? It might be a little cerebral, a little abstract, and you don’t feel very much of that visceral communication. It might be very good, it might be very technical, but it isn’t kind of getting to you. That’s the absence of swing. That doesn’t mean other things can’t be there. Improvisation can be there. Imagination can be there. And feeling can be there. But I’ve heard for instance a bass and a drummer, both of whom were very good well known, and they don’t play good together. They are not compatible. It never settles into a good, unified pulse. So it isn’t swinging too good. That’s a good definition, don’t you think?
MR: I like it, I love the word infectious.
ES: I’m not saying because it’s mine, but I mean infectious is really what swing is about. Hey, yes. [snaps fingers] When I see audience, and I’m playing and I see some of that, it doesn’t have to be everybody, if I see just a smattering of that, I think we’re getting it across. And if I see nobody moving, I don’t think we’re getting it across.
I often have had the enjoyable task of booking highly respected jazz artists to perform at the college, sometimes grouping them together in unrehearsed ensembles. It’s interesting to hear the musicians talk afterwards in private about how things felt. You might assume that musicians at the top of their game can make things swing at will, no matter who the personnel may be. This is definitely not the case and I often overhear talk about which bassist and drummer don’t work well together, or which bassist, drummer and guitar player really lock in and make things swing.
Swing of course is not just rhythmic — there’s a harmonic component to the music that was developed in the mid-1930’s. Pianist and composer Steve Allen (yes, that Steve Allen) addressed this part of the definition of swing:
MR: Can you define for me when you hear something that’s really swinging, why? Why does one thing swing and the next thing doesn’t?
SA: The dominant factor is rhythm I think. Well people would think of that right out of the barn, but that isn’t all there is to it. There are certain ways of voicing instruments, if you’re talking now let’s say about a big band, 14, 15, 16 pieces, there are certain kinds of harmonies sometimes, now it’s so common we don’t even notice it or comment on it, but sometime in the late 30’s you began to hear more chords. Even if it’s a simple chord, a C chord let’s say, where they added the sixth note of the scale instead of the tonic. [scats]. Let’s see C-E-G, to those three notes they added the A which is the sixth note in the group. And why that sounds hipper, or cooler as they would say today, it’s not easy to explain in purely scientific terms, but that’s the way it is. That had probably happened first, even before it happened with instruments it happened with voices. If you listen to trios or quartets, there were no five group singing groups that I know about in the old days, until the Hi Lo’s and a group like that came along, they didn’t get that complex with their harmonies. But we all remember the term “Barber Shop Quartet” [sings] down by the ol’ mill stream. That’s nice stuff, but the harmonies are as simple as possible. Only the necessary notes are there. There’s no enrichment or adornment. But then about 1937ish or so a group called The Merrimacks, if you can find any of their old recording, play them sometime with this comment, you’ll see what I’m talking about. They were the first people to add the sixth and to add other harmonic enrichments — where they got them I don’t know, you’ll have to dig them out of the grave and ask them I guess. But you can hear it in their old recordings. Then from The Merrimacks, that opened the window of opportunity, I’m very big with clichés today, and you had groups like the Pied Pipers, the Mellowlarks, Mel Torme had a great group, the Meltones I think they were called, in which the harmonies were more typical of what was also happening at that time in voicing the reed sections, the saxophone sections, of orchestras. When they only had four notes, they could still put in the sixth and some enrichments, but when they added a fifth saxophone, which now all the big bands had had for years, somehow that enlarged the harmonic possibilities and we associated that kind of harmonic hipness, with big band with jazz, with swing.
If you want to go to the piano to see what Steve was talking about with the sixth chord, simply play a C-E-G and add the A, the sixth tone in the key of C. For a more authentic swing voicing, put the C on top (play E-G-A-C in your right hand from the bottom up). Play a single low C on the bass end. That’s a good swing chord.
In addition to being a feeling, swing was the popular music of the day from the mid-30’s to the late 40’s. But in the mid-50’s instead of swinging, kids wanted to rock. Rock music straightened the swing eighth notes out, as saxophonist Jerry Dodgion so succinctly stated, in an almost off-hand remark:
JD: In those days [the late 40’s] the pop music was still jazz oriented more so. Then later on it became more rock & roll, even eighth note oriented. So it changes, it’s changing all the time. I
MR: Can I just back up? You just said “even note oriented.”
JD: Even eighth note.
MR: Yes. See I never heard anybody quite describe ... we know how swing eighth notes go and how rock & roll eighth notes go, but no one ever exactly said the music became even note oriented. That’s very interesting to me.
JD: Well some drummers, if you talk to some drummers, they might tell you that. Because that’s a basic thing. It’s an even eighth note as opposed to the twelve eight, smooth flowing.
My own two cents about swinging, or establishing any infectious groove, is that when instruments are in balance you have a much better chance of success. The All-American Rhythm Section of the Count Basie Band of the 1930’s and 40’s, is often held up as the standard bearer of the swing rhythm section. I’m convinced that one thing they did that made them so successful was balancing their own volume. This was in the days before amplification, where the drummer played in a volume to match the acoustic bass and the acoustic guitar and the acoustic piano. That self-imposed balancing transformed four instruments into one unit. The rhythm section itself was one instrument. Call it what you will.
My personal concept about this was reinforced in 1996 when on an archive trip I was able to hear, on successive nights, the Capp/Pierce Juggernaut Big Band and the Count Basie Orchestra, at the time directed by Grover Mitchell. The Juggernaut bought into the concept of “mic everything” (make the big band bigger). Powerful indeed, but in my opinion this band did not swing unless you call swinging getting beat over the head. The next night, on the same stage, the Count Basie Orchestra, in the original Count Basie tradition, swung their butts off. With a mic for the soloist only and the rest of the band providing their own balance. They used their experience and musicality to create the groove. The sound man had little to do.
Does this blog entry provide a definitive description of swing? Of course not. Swing is magic.