Swing Time

Swing photo by Hans Bernhard (Schnobby) via Wikimedia Commons.




The toughest times in our nation’s history were lightened by pure silliness, unapologetic frivolity, and melodies that made you want to dance.

I tap my fingers, waiting. This is a tough time, too. Yes, I know, Omicron would keep us off the dance floor even if dance floors still existed. Instead of conspiring to sneak flasks of bathtub gin into restaurants, we drink, often heavily, at home. But surely we could come up with a little music to lift our spirits?

The top trending song, per Billboard, as I write this: SB19’s “Bazinga.”

Every day, I think the load gets heavy.

Throw it away, the world unloads hostility.

Is there a way to break the curse and stop it now?

This is where we are. Yet in 1940, the top song was Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood.” I dare you to listen to the first few bars and not feel like the world is sunlit and as fizzy as champagne, as full of promise as a roadster pulling up in front of your house, picnic hamper in the back, and your date jumping out to hold the door for you.

Have we forgotten how to cheer ourselves up?

And what was it about that music, anyway?

Swing was jazzy improv, but it was set against an orchestral background. Just the right mix of spontaneity and structure—a balance we have forgotten, obsessed as we are with either “Freedom!” or coercion. Crowd-pleasing, swing was a bit too commercial (verging on kitsch?) for innovative jazz artists, and they moved on. But it was happy, and beautiful, and right now I could do with a little uncomplicated kicking up of the heels.

Besides, at the risk of sounding defensive, there was plenty of musical improvisation in swing. “And now Sammy and I are gonna cook up a blues together,” Count Basie might tell the audience. After a few lackluster opening songs, Benny Goodman’s spontaneity saved the 1938 Carnegie Hall concert, and the result is now legend.

I cannot write that without listening, again, to that concert. Its big sound fills my office, and my mood lifts, and every fiber of muscle in my body longs to pop up from my boring task chair and move. I hate thinking that this is because swing music is simple. Surely it was not simple to play? But the melodies are clear and light, and the beat is strong, and the body responds.

Swing gave us back a little joy after the market crashed. Swing kept up our spirits as we entered a grim war. What is accessible is not always dumb or devoid of talent; sometimes it is just something we can all share. There is less and less of that, these days, and we need it desperately. If someone I disagreed with about politics pulled me onto the dance floor for Duke Ellington’s “Take the A-Train”? I just might go. Afterward, dizzied from the spins and laughing at the pure fun of the music, I just might like him better.

That sounds naïve. Inane. Dangerously kumbaya. I am not suggesting that a few bars of “In the Mood” could rewrite the ideologies that divide us. But to swing is to “move by grasping a support from below and leaping.” Sometimes we need something to grab, a promise of elevation, a way to break free from gravity’s worries and play together. Another definition: “to cause to move vigorously through a wide arc.” We have been so bloody constrained, these pandemic years. “To cause to face or move in another direction,” for a change. “To cause to sway to and fro,” caught up in the moment. Even used as a noun, swing still feels like a verb—it is all about movement, through the air or back and forth or to a different direction, to a new place or a new idea, toward freedom, toward joy.

Musicians shy away from defining swing.

“Lady, if you gotta ask, you’ll never know,” Fats Waller said.

“I’d rather tackle Einstein’s theory,” Cootie Williams retorted.

Louis Armstrong sketched a deliberately vague trajectory: “Ah, swing. Well, we used to call it syncopation—then they called it ragtime, then blues—then jazz. Now, it’s swing. White folks, yo’all sho is a mess.”

He was not wrong. Syncopation busts up the beat, surprising the listener with a different emphasis, lengthening and shortening to create anticipation, propelling the music forward. But ragtime and blues music use it differently. Big band swing smooths out the syncopation, plays more lightly with the mood it creates, backs up the melody with a full orchestra. As a result, individual musicians can make their own creative mark without breaking off as definitively from the rest of the orchestra. A simple base melody, that strong, propulsive rhythm, and the swell of orchestral sound will carry us through. Thus tethered, the musicians can soar—but a second later, we are all together again, nodding like bobblehead dolls, tapping our feet without even realizing it.

All jazz can swing; in fact, the ability to pull a listener’s whole body into the music pretty well defines the term. But the music we call swing feels a little safer, a little bigger and smoother and dancier. In The World of Swing, Stanley Dance writes about the kinetic quality of the music, how it felt like flying. No accident that “Take off” was the signal to start a solo. “Soaring” is the word that comes to mind, because there was such ease to it.

Jazz drummer John Morrison wrote about swing rhythm’s instinctive appeal, how primal it is, how it practically commands our bodies to move. “There’s an inherent, subliminal thing in the beat that makes it bounce like a ball,” he said. “It doesn’t land like a hammer.” Used with simple, happy, lyrical melodies, it becomes irresistible dance music, and the call and response in the musicians’ individual riffs is so expressive, it keeps you grinning. Sure, it is sweet and showy. But the showmanship is grounded in serious talent, and the romance is real.

I am feeling alone, victim to my own idiosyncratic burst of nostalgia-for-what-I-never-experienced, until I read that Harmony Holiday, who writes Black Music and Black Muses on Substack, has just declared 2022 The Year of Duke Ellington. The man managed to sound “chivalrous but not frivolous,” Holiday points out, and the romantic sensibility he awoke is transcendent enough to help us “banish reflexive cynicism” and restructure our society. “We have no choice,” she writes. “It’s either shift to a more pleasing and honest frequency, or be overridden.”


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.