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The art of swing (commentary)


Submitted by Chuck Reider, Director of Reno Jazz Orchestra

What is swing, its history, and what is new?  The Reno Jazz Orchestra (RJO), after two great concerts featuring the music of Earth, Wind, and Fire, is bringing Diane Schuur to Reno and Tahoe Aug. 22-23. Schuur, winner of two Grammys in jazz, knows how to swing. So, let’s talk swing.

What is swing? Like trying to describe a color, it is difficult to put into words. It is best to listen and compare a march, like “Stars and Stripes Forever”, with Ms. Schuur’s recording with the Count Basie of “Deedles’ Blues.”  The march feel is “straight up and down” with notes (here, eighth notes) values are all equal.  

Swing brings a lilt to the same eight notes so the first note is a bit longer and the second a bit shorter, though written the same way. It is this small change, with other elements in swing music, that create the art of swing. Whether it is a Sinatra pop song or a Bob Willis country song, as Duke Ellington wrote “It Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got That Swing.”   

The swing feel began with jazz in the 1920’s with the genre called swing developing in the 1930s with larger ensembles like the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra. Henderson’s orchestra introduced horn sections: trumpets, trombones, saxophones that required written arrangements. These arrangements were smoother than the hot dance music of ragtime.  

When Louis Armstrong joined his orchestra soloists began to get featured more and backgrounds were written for the orchestra to support the soloist. The orchestra’s extended stay at the Roseland Ballroom in New York City influenced other bandleaders such as the great Duke Ellington.  

“The art of swing is a tradition the world has embraced.”

As swing became more popular, different styles emerged. From the Kansas City swing where Count Basie got his start to the Paul Whiteman Orchestra. 

Kansas City was known for riff-oriented songs that featured extended solos. These arrangements were not typically written down. Someone in the band would come up with a short musical line or riff to which the other sections would add more riffs which would become an arrangement. 

The Whiteman Orchestras could be up to 40 musicians and required written arrangements. The Kansas City style was hot while Whiteman’s music was sweeter and smoother.  

The heyday for swing was between 1935 and 1946 when it became the most popular music in America. Live radio broadcasts of big bands helped spread the word of swing and it was Benny Goodman’s 1935 spot on the Let’s Dance radio show that set the stage for swing’s popularity.  

Featuring Fletcher Henderson arrangements, younger white audiences flocked to Goodman’s Palomar Ballroom concerts. Artie Shaw, Glenn Miller, and Tommy Dorsey are just a few of the bands that became famous. 

The Savoy Ballroom hosted battle of the bands where the Chick Webb Orchestra held court. Advertising described the Goodman Webb battle as the musical battle of the century.  A packed house of 4,000 with another 5,000 outside decided which band swung harder and at the conclusion the Webb orchestra was victorious.  

Diane Schuur and the Count Basie Orchestra- Deedle’s Blues

The 1938 Goodman Carnegie Hall concert was a smash which afterwards members of the Basie and Ellington bands were invited to a jam session. Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and Peggy Lee all became national recording stars. 

However, many factors such as World War II began the decline of swing’s popularity.

The wartime draft took many talented musicians from the pool of available musicians for big bands. Travel restrictions, rising expenses and scarce resources curtailed live performances. In addition, in 1941 the American Society of Composers and Producers (ASCAP) demanded more royalties from broadcasters and when the broadcasters refused most of the music under ASCAP licensing could not be played.  

In 1942 the American Federation of Musicians banned new recordings until the musicians were paid royalties. Though union musicians could play on the radio there was no recording for over a year.  

Side note, with the new agreement in place the Musicians’ Union Trust Fund was instituted where the record companies pay money into the fund. The fund pays for live performances across the country to this day, including Reno!  

Though the golden era was over, swing was alive and well with many singers such as Sinatra, Bobby Darin, Nat King Cole and so many more recording and performing. In the 1980s to ‘90s I had the privilege of backing up so many of these artists in our casino showrooms. Big band jazz also was making a comeback.  

Duke Ellington Big Band, Munich 1963. Image: Hans Bernhard / Wikimedia Commons

In the early 1950s Duke Ellington reduced the size of his band to keep working but reconstituted the full band for his historic 1956 performance at the Newport Jazz Festival. The excitement generated almost caused a riot and the recording is Ellington’s top seller. This enabled him to keep performing with the full big band ensemble until his death.  

Count Basie, Stan Kenton and Woody Herman’s bands recorded and toured.

Swing is not just big bands. Western swing made famous by the king of western swing Bob Wills as well as Jimmie Rodgers and Moon Mullican continues today with Willie Nelson and Asleep at the Wheel.  

Gypsy swing made famous by guitarist Django Reinhardt and violinist Stephane Grappelli included gypsy songs and French popular music.  These bands have no brass but include guitar, bass, violin, clarinet and accordion.

Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Royal Crown Revue and a host of other groups started a swing revival in the 1990s with smaller bands and, of course, zoot suits. Michael Buble’, Harry Connick Jr. and Robbie Williams are contemporary singers who continue the swing tradition.  

Hip hop has elements of swing, and in Europe electro swing is popular.  

The art of swing is an American tradition the world has embraced. I strongly suggest checking out some of the artists described in my article. They may encourage you to experience one of our swing masters, Diane Schuur, performing with the Reno Jazz Orchestra Aug. 22 at 4 p.m. at UNR’s Nightingale Hall and Aug. 23 at 7:30 p.m. at Sand Harbor. For more information visit: https://renojazzorchestra.org/gigs.html

Chuck Reider is the Executive Director of the Reno Jazz Orchestra

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