The Rise, Fall, and Revival of Swing Music

In the late 1920s, a number of innovative jazz musicians made an exciting discovery: by ignoring the 2/4 time signature popular with dance bands and playing in 4/4 time, they could up the tempo of a piece while simultaneously allowing for a greater rhythmic freedom. Spurred on by this discovery, musicians like Louis Armstrong began cultivating a new style of jazz, one that emphasized rhythm on the off-notes, one which would ultimately evolve into the pop culture juggernaut known universally as swing music.

By 1930, the swing sensation was sweeping the nation. Bandleaders such as Earl Hines, Duke Ellington, and Cab Calloway integrated swing into their repertoire, and a 1932 tour of Benny Moten's Kansas City Orchestra was met with rave reviews all across the country. The Great Depression had proved a hard blow to the music industry, with many popular bands forced to fold, but others stepped up to meet the challenge and embrace swing as the next big thing. In 1935, Benny Goodman became the first big bandleader to achieve nationwide fame, and the young people of America were quick to embrace the rhythms that were so different from the ones enjoyed only a decade previously. However, swing was not without its critics. Many found the structure of the genre to be contrary to "serious jazz", claiming that it stifled the improvisation that had given jazz its soul in the first place, and that it was nothing but a money-making ploy by the recording industry. This was strongly refuted by several of the leading big bands, particularly those like Goodman's that integrated elements of classic Dixieland jazz into their performances. Swing was jazz, just another variation of it.

The decline of swing music in the mid-1940s can be linked to a combination of royalty disputes, wartime restrictions, and a departure from "dance" music in general. The founding of the American Society of Composers and Producers (ASCAP) in 1941 placed extremely strict limits on what radio stations were allowed to broadcast, which was soon followed by a nationwide push for higher royalties; as a result, very little new music by the leading big bands was produced, with record labels releasing older recordings while they addressed the demands of the musicians. Vocal artists continued to record, however, and their new offerings filled the void left by the big bands, with many such as Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra becoming household names. In addition, the wartime restriction on traveling made it difficult for big bands to tour as they once had, and a new excise tax on nightclubs and other "dancing" venues prevented many performers of swing music from finding work. Musicians began to form smaller ensembles, which gave them greater freedom to develop and perform their own styles, which gave rise to new forms of jazz such as bebop and jump blues. By the end of the 1940s, swing no longer dominated the popular music charts, and the era of the big bands was over.

The end of the big bands, however, was not the end of swing. Times and tastes were changing, and the genre evolved to reflect this. Popular jazz vocalists such as Ella Fitzgerald and Dean Martin were backed by orchestras who kept the swing beat alive, while former big band leaders such as Lionel Hampton, Benny Goodman, and Duke Ellington experimented in other genres and with smaller ensembles. A renewed interest in big band jazz in the mid-to-late 1950s also contributed heavily to keeping the genre from fading into memory. The most notable of these swing revival movements occurred in the late 1980s through the 1990s, when the success of the California-based Royal Oak Revue catapulted swing music back into mainstream popularity and led to the birth of the neo-swing movement. Combining traditional swing style with the influences of rockabilly and ska, artists such as the Squirrel Nut Zippers, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, and the Brian Setzer Orchestra electrified popular music and led to a renewed interest in both big bands and swing dancing. The fervor had died down a bit around the turn of the millennium, but having found its audience again, swing was here to stay.

Interested in learning more about the original and neo-swing artists? Check them out in our catalog!

- by R. Lindsey