A How-To Guide: Swing
The term “swing” has more meanings, connotations and references, (to quote an Aussie saying) than you can poke a stick at!
“Swing” music came to the forefront and attention of the world during the early twentieth century when New Orleans musicians, mostly self-trained picked up instruments discarded by battle-weary soldiers at the end of the American Civil War.
Being self-taught and approaching music with an African and sometimes Cajun roots allowed them to express music in a less regimented and rule-based manner than that of European classically trained musicians. As such, the infusion of French/European cultural and musical influences (quadrilles, marches and even ragtime) all combined with African music (spirituals, djembe drumming and slave worker songs) to create early jazz music.
The music of the 14-19th centuries was (as far as we can ascertain) all based on straight rhythmic feels, that is to say, it didn’t “swing” as we know the term today. Having said this, Beethoven did experiment with the concept in his Piano Sonata Op.111 No.32 in C minor (Allegro) and Diabelli Variations Op.120 (1823) Variation No.16 although he never notates it with any triplet infused notation or reference point.
What is “swing” and how can we learn to re-create it?
The only true way to understand and play a “swing” feel is to listen to performers that are masters in this art form and to embark on a routine of playing along with and studying every accent, tonal nuance and time feel in the detail of the music as much as possible. There is no other way. We often notate and refer to it using the crotchet with quaver triplet notation but it is so much more than this. That’s like saying that stars in the night sky are shiny, twinkling balls…it doesn’t cut it when it comes to a true description.
The way I describe the swing feel to students is by getting them to say “Doo-Va” with an accent on the “Va”. The “Doo must be longer than the “Va”
The student is then asked to repeat this over and over until I feel that they are close to the feel and then I get them to reproduce this on their instrument.
From here I talk about the importance of accents and other tonal inflections and nuances and then demonstrate these to the student but taking a phrase and playing it in
1. a straight quaver feel and then
2. the swing feel complete with accents and other nuances.
I have found that nobody mentions or teaches this essential ingredient of swing feel these days and it is the one aspect of swing feel that must be authentically placed and used.
A swing feel without correct and authentically placed accents are like toast without butter…bland and unsatisfying. Again, this can only be learnt by careful and studious listening to great swing players.
I have even heard teachers and players say things like, “there’s no right or wrong when it comes to playing jazz music-it’s all about freedom and doing what you feel is right”. Hogwash! There are as many disciplines and rules in jazz music and in particular, the swing feel as there are in Baroque or Classical styles of music.
The rules of swing feel
1. The feel must be interpreted within the context of the idiom and era that the piece or music originates from.
2. The feel must contain strategically and authentically placed accents and other tonal nuances or it will sound lifeless and scripted.
3. Never try to swing over a straight feel. Don’t swing over a rock, funk, pop, straight-eight Latin feel…it never sounds good.
4. Vary the swing feel by adding dynamics and various weights of accents to the passage.
5. Never keep the swing feel and accents regulated and predictable. You will “kill” the swing feel dead in the water if you don’t add variety to the feel.
There are many others but they pertain to actual idiomatic and style-specific scenarios such as:
Big Band Swing, Dixieland Swing, Chicaogian Swing, Hip-Hop Swing, Country Swing and others.
Where Do You Start?
Practice saying “Doo-Va” with the “Doo” 90% longer than the “VA”. Place a slight accent on the “Va” and repeat this over and over until the words flow and feel natural to say.
Next, try placing the accent only on selected repeats of the “Va” rather than on every “Va”.
With lots of listening to the swing greats and practice both vocally and on your chosen instrument, you should be able to re-create and pretty authentic swing feel.
Everyone can Swing!
It’s true! Everyone has the ability to “swing” but some will grasp the concept much quicker and be able to re-create it easier and more natural than others.
The one thing that will always remain true is that those that aren’t swinging naturally and masterfully can always be detected by an experienced jazz fan or musician.
It is for that reason that when I write my student-based/educational swing pieces I add as much detail in this regard as possible. I agonise over where to place the accents and articulations so that the student has the best chance of sounding authentic when they play my pieces. 8)
So above all else when it comes to swing feel:
LISTEN, PRACTICE and KEEP TRYING.
Video Demonstration: “Cooper’s Capers” (Andy Firth)
1. Straight as written.
2. With swing feel added.
List of Great Swing Players
Andy Firth Recordings with swing styles:
Books with swing styles:
I encourage everyone to listen to this excerpt…it will blow your mind!