What Is Swing Music? - Definition, History & Artists

Instructor: Robert Huntington

Bob has taught music at all levels and holds a Master's degree in Choral Conducting.

Explore swing era music and some of its important artists. Begin by checking your familiarity with some swing era slang terms and then test your knowledge on the lesson with a quiz.

Fun Quiz

See if you can match the following swing era slang terms with their meaning.

Terms: Hep-cat, Canary, Killer-diller, Jam session, In-the-groove

Meanings: Improvised music making, flawless performance, popular swing musician, female vocalist, hot musical number

How did you make out? A hep-cat was a popular swing musician and a canary was a female vocalist. Killer-diller referred to a hot musical number and a jam session was improvised music making. If you answered these correctly then you were in-the-groove and had a flawless performance. Congratulations!

During the swing era, a whole new vocabulary of slang terms evolved and you've just become acquainted with only a few of them.

Rise of the Swing Era

The start of swing music is hard to pinpoint. The word 'swing' appears in the title of a famous Duke Ellington number from 1932 called 'It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)' and in another song from that same year called 'Moten Swing' by Bennie Moten. Many scholars see 'Star Dust' by Hoagy Carmichael, topping the charts in 1932, as the first true swing number. 'Star Dust' was composed in 1927 and first recorded in 1929. After words were added in 1931, the song rose to fame the following year. The repeal of Prohibition in late 1933 is seen as another factor in the rise of swing music.

Benny Goodman - King of Swing
Image of Benny Goodman

By 1936, band leader and clarinetist Benny Goodman had been dubbed 'The King of Swing' and the sale of Big Band jazz recordings was taking off. Goodman's rival was band leader and clarinetist Artie Shaw. Shaw's rise to popularity came with the song 'Begin the Beguine'. Band leader and innovative drummer Chick Webb took a children's song ('A-Tisket, A-Tasket') and with canary Ella Fitzgerald, turned it into a killer-diller. These two songs came out in 1938. The following year, another hep-cat named Glenn Miller came out with his big hit 'In the Mood'. By this same time, clergy and music critics were blasting swing music as disgusting because it was demoralizing and degrading young people.

What is Swing Music?

The jazz bands of the 1920s became the swing bands of the 1930s and 1940s. Swing was a subtle form of syncopation that emerged during the Depression. The Depression followed on the heels of the 1929 stock market crash and life became more restrained as thousands of Americans suffered economic hardship. Listeners sought music to uplift their spirits. The fine musicians who comprised these ensembles became creative and competitive with their song arrangements. Each band would strive for a unique sound, not unlike the rock groups of today.

Swing bands would feature a soloist. In addition to those already mentioned, some other key artists were drummer Gene Krupa, pianist Fats Waller, trumpeter Louis Armstrong, trombonists Les Brown and Tommy Dorsey, saxophonist Jimmy Dorsey, and vocalists such as Tony Bennett and Billie Holiday. A riff, or call-and-response style, developed as a way for a band to support a solo improvisation.

Glenn Miller
Image of Glenn Miller

In the Swing

When the United States entered World War II in 1941, the swing era was in its prime. Duke Ellington and his orchestra produced their theme song 'Take the A-Train'. The following year Glenn Miller came out with 'String of Pearls'. (Interesting fact: Glenn Miller enlisted in the Army Air Corp and disappeared during a flight to Paris in 1944.) That same year saw 'Sentimental Journey' sung by Doris Day accompanied by Les Brown and His Band of Renown. As America moved from the Depression into World War II, swing music helped keep spirits high.

An interesting trend during the swing era was for bands to adapt classical and popular music themes and perform them in dance tempo. Pianist Freddy Martin transformed Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-Flat, Rimsky-Korsakov's 'Flight of the Bumblebee' and Khachaturian's 'Sabre Dance'. Glenn Miller did the same with 'Little Brown Jug', 'Song of the Volga Boatmen', 'Londonderry Air', and Dvorak's 'Humoresque'.

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