What makes music swing?
Swing music is an 8 count rhythm meant for dancing, not listening. It’s characterized by use of a swing rhythm that accentuates the back beats of 2,4,6, and 8.
This differs from the European-based, straight rhythm that divided the beat evenly into equal eighth notes with the down beat (1, 3, 5 and 7) receiving the accent. Straight time sounds like this…
John Philip Sousa - Washington Post March
By comparison, swing music sounds like this (note the eight count phrasing and the emphasis on the back beat - the 2's, 4's, 6's and 8's and how it creates a drive and sense of energy)
Jump Session - Slam Stewart and Slim Gaillard
So, if it's jazz, does it automatically swings? No.
Some cerebral jazz isn't meant to be popular music for dancing and it's rhythms are non-swinging or even abstract. Here are a couple examples that probably won't set your toes to tapping:
Take Five - Dave Brubeck
Mingus Fingers - Charles Mingus
Getting Back To Music That Does Swing
Again, we're talking about an eight count phrasing with the accent on the back beat. For an even more obvious example, listen for the claps in Ella Fitzgerald's Sugarfoot Rag.
Sugarfoot Rag - Ella Fitzgerald
Another key characteristic of swing music is the use of syncopation by holding the first part of the beat longer and shortening the second half. This creates a feeling of 1 and-2 and-3, as can be heard in these two clips.
A Smooth One - Benny Goodman and Charlie Christian
Corner Pocket - Duke Ellington w/ Count Basie
Swing also makes use of riffs, or short melodic ideas used repeatedly in call-and-response patterns between different instruments in a band (often a brass instrument such as trumpet and trombone against a reed instrument such as the saxophone or clarinet. Here the call and response is between brass and piano.
Perdido - Johnny Hodges
Here, the call and response is between vocalists and the band -- note how each part is equally important. In the post swing era, tastes would change and ballad crooners like Frank Sinatra would be backed by muted background bands that were designed not to distract; but in swing music, the musicians are the kings and a vocalist was, at best, merely another melodic line.
Foo a Little Bally Hoo - Cab Calloway
Lastly, swing has always been about controlled improvisation. Musicians play each note with its own degree of emphasis and careful timing (some longer or shorter, quieter or louder, or as accented hits or silent breaks. In this way, every note takes on individual importance, and gives the dancer something to work with - to interpret.
Basin Street Blues - Wycliffe Gordon
Hopefully I haven't left you with the impression that the Big Band Swing era is gone and all we're left with are scratchy old recordings. Clearly these musicians (and Wycliffe you heard above) would beg to differ...
Milenberg Joy - Gordon Webster (NY)
Man From Mars - Jonathon Stout and the Campus All Stars (Ca.)
Even Virginia's own Acme Swing Manufacturing from Charlottesville is serving up their own swinging modern takes of swing era songs for local dancers.
Bei Mir Bis Du Schoen - Acme Swing Manufacturing
Hopefully this gives you enough music theory to start thinking about what makes music swing.
What Have I Been Hearing Around Virginia Why Doesn't It Make Me Want to Swingout?
We've all been to dances w/ people standing around saying they're "just not feeling like dancing". Whether its DJ'ed music or a live band, it doesn't mean the musicians are bad, more correctly just that their music doesn't swing and they're not the right fit for lindy hop dancers.
Here are some examples and answers to your question of "why doesn't this make me want to swingout?"
Go Daddy-O - Big Bad Voodoo Daddy
Sure, it's rentlentlessly high energy, but every beat is accented equally; similarly there's no syncopation or variation, it just hammers on and on.
Crazy Little Thing Called Love - Michael Buble
Once again there's that rock and roll beat that makes you want to do the silly uncoordinated "that girl" dance. Not very swinging.
Nursery Rhyme Shuffle - Bobby Blackhat
Bobby Blackhat frequently plays in straight time rather than swing time and, although this clip does hit the back beats, listen to the metronome precise, non-syncopation of the eight notes. Its just dry, emotionless, and doesn't give you anything to dance to beyond the empty 8 count rhythm.
Come Fly With Me - Skylark Jazz Band
Come Fly With Me was recorded by crooner Frank Sinatra in 1958. Skylark does a good job of capturing that feeling; however, as mentioned earlier, the world had changed. The swing era wound down in 1946 when U.S. soldiers returned home to interests other than dancing and music could easily be heard at home without having to go to dance halls. The musical style had moved on -- the focus was now the singer, not the backing band and instead of a fellow dancer we were holding a fancy cocktail and snapping our fingers in place.
Come Fly with Me - Charles Darden
Nope, still not swinging. However, much of the crooner music is suitable for a Foxtrot, which utilizes a slow-slow-quick quick rhythm that has a gather (pause) between the 4 and 5. You can easily spot lindy hoppers who've been trained on Sinatra tunes because their swingouts will split in half at that 4-5 count and lose all momentum at precisely the moment where lindy hop is building it.
That's why Sinatra doesn't swing.
I Want To Hold Your Hand - The Beatles
This Beatles clip is proof that just because "it's older than me, so it's got to be swing" is a falsehood. The Beatles were never swing, they're mod rock and rollers.
Carolina Girls - General Johnson & The Chairmen of the Board
Carolina or Beach shag is a slotted swing dance using east coast swing footwork (triple step, triple step, rock step) and is meant to emphasize a leader's footwork rather than turns, spins, or moves that highlight the follow. Tempos are usually in the 100 to 125 bpm range and originally designed for dancing in sand rather than on a dance floor.
Tik Tok - Ke$ha
See above. Enough said.
If you're organizing or DJ'ing a lindy hop dance, you obviously need music that swings so hopefully none of this will be new. However, for anyone who's curious, there's plenty of information out there. For starters check out: http://www.swingdjs.com
or check out a nicely done children series of Youtube videos called Does It Swing?