Yeah, But Does It Swing?
posted: 11/17/08 @ 05:17:am
Originally featured in the Tucson Jazz Society newsletter
Duke Ellington said “It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing”, and ain’t that right? But what exactly is swing? It’s definition is as varied as the word “jazz” itself. "Swing" is a stylistic period in jazz history, the Benny Goodman era, big bands, etc. "Swing" is also used to refer to the rhythmic feel used in “straight ahead” jazz - characterized by a fragmented eighth-note triplet feel where the first two beats of the triplet are tied, and the remaining triplet beat acts as the upbeat - the classic “bang-spang-a-lang-spang-a-lang” groove that fuels 90% of all “classic” jazz. "Swing" also describes a type of music that was popular in the late 1990’s at the height of the martini/cigar boom. “Neo Swing” was a result of Punk/Ska and Rock oriented bands of “swing opportunists” learning how to play simple jazz chord progressions and scat sing Betty Boop phrases. Zoot suits were snapped up from vintage clothing stores along with two-toned shoes and gangster hats. This music, while popular with the college crowd never gained much credence with the jazz audience, and the vast majority of the music produced did NOT swing.
So, what is swing? Here's my definition: “Swing is the unquantifiable life-force that exists in music of all styles. It is the perfect melding of rhythmic synchronicity, melodic forward motion and harmonic function that produces a state of euphoria in both the performer and listener.” You can’t weigh it on a scale, but when it’s present, it’s very heavy indeed. If you think of it this way, swing is not style specific. Yeah, Count Basie swings—but so does Led Zeppelin, just in a different way.
What about music that doesn’t swing? Can listeners tell? Apparently not everyone is capable of making the distinction. There are many technically adept, melodically clever, entertaining performers out there that have built their careers on their audience’s lack of discernment. If someone plays a lot of notes, gesticulates wildly, or has an expression of soulful purpose on their face, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re swinging. By my definition, swing creates a sense of euphoria in both the performer and listener. Have you ever left a concert with that walking-on-air feeling? Like you’ve just experienced a glimpse into something that was bigger than the world as we know it? Whether it was BeBop or Berlioz, chances are it was swinging. Have you ever been to a show and even though you didn’t understand the music, you found yourself bobbing your head, or tapping your foot? The swing was there. Have you ever gone to a concert, fully expecting to be knocked out by a favorite performer, and left feeling disappointed, maybe even drained from sitting there for 2 hours? More likely than not, they were not swinging.
Musicians can tell right away if something is swinging or not (at least musicians that can swing—sadly, some don’t). But how can a non-musician develop “swing sensitivity”? The first step is to reserve judgment, sometimes the listener brings their biases to a concert, both positive and negative. If music is truly swinging, it will eventually make it’s way through the filtering mechanism, but you can save a lot of time by leaving your preconceptions at the gate. Next, make sure you can listen to the music without distraction. If you or your concert going friend talk alot, you won’t get a chance to hear what’s going on. If you sit near a blabbermouth—ask them to shut their trap, or move. Try closing your eyes for an entire song—you’ll be surprised how distracting looking at a band can be. Check in with your body, does it want to move? Tap a foot? Snap your fingers? (Just not too loud please, that really bugs musicians...). Do you feel relaxed, buoyant, energized? Or do you feel tight, uncomfortable, maybe even impatient? The more you tune in with how music makes you feel, the greater your ability to determine if you’re listening to something that swings or not.
Swing is not exclusively a property of music, it is the essential experience of being in the flow of life. It applies to all aspects of human experience, and in many ways is responsible for the health (or lack of it) we feel in our daily lives. Have you ever had a rotten day, but then came home and put on your favorite CD and suddenly felt enlivened? Whether you chose AC/DC or Lionel Hampton, the swing gets it’s way into your being and suddenly everything feels better. As a musician, I have had many personal experiences with the power of swing. Playing music that doesn’t swing not only puts me in a bad mood, it has proven to be detrimental to my overall state of health. I come home with my blood pressure too high, my muscles tight from fighting to maintain a groove with a band that couldn’t swing if you hung them from a rope—it’s worse than a bad day at the office because most people don’t expect to go to the office and swing!
Fortunately, the opposite is also true. Many times I’ve gone to a gig sick as a dog, only to come home feeling like a new person—the music had lifted me above my physical condition. In times of personal or global tragedy, music that swings can be the only thing that moves us beyond the pain. When you’re broke, the swing reminds you of how rich you truly are. When you’re tired, the swing gives you the energy to continue. If you’re lonely, the swing connects you with that all-inclusive source of universal love that confirms that you are never alone. It’s a beautiful thing.
It can be argued that one person’s swing is another person’s Pat Boone. It’s not possible that everyone will agree on what swings and what doesn’t, that is until you learn to look beyond your preferences. If swing is truly the life-force in music, then it is also present in music that we may dislike for various reasons. It is not my intention to cultivate your appreciation for other styles, or artists that you may not care for, but it is conceivable that with attention, you may be able to hear the swing come through—even in the most unlikely places. Charlie Parker dug Country music and Stravinsky, Miles Davis dug Sly & The Family Stone and Ravel, and... hey, I can even dig Pat Boone!