I’m sitting in Frankfurt Airport, chilling out after the wonderful intensity of Chase Festival, and I’m feeling inspired to jot down some thoughts about the allure of swing music. I mean – this music, above all, is the reason I dance… and given just how long I spend dancing to it, collecting it, DJing it, describing it, talking about it – I really ought to be able to tell people what’s so great about it. So here goes.
Outside of dancers and specialists, if you say “Swing” to most people, they might say Frank Sinatra. They might say Glenn Miller and In the Mood. They might be thinking of the crooners – Sinatra, or the more modern Michael Bublé, or even – god help us – Robbie Williams. If they’re a little more knowledgeable, they might talk about Benny Goodman and Sing Sing Sing… but I think most commonly, they’re just thinking “old”. They’re thinking “twee”, “prim and proper”. They’re thinking music that’s passed its sell-by date, done, dusted, the music that their parents or grandparents listened to, that’s long been superseded by more modern, more trendy, hip, cooler stuff.
That’s not what you’re going to hear from a swing dancer. You’re going to get a different story.
Every generation has its musical revolution (or revolutions) – think rock ‘n roll – think punk – thing hip hop… but the swing era gave us what was arguably the biggest popular musical revolution of the twentieth century – and it was one that changed the face of popular music forever. Many of the musical structures and conventions that you’ll hear in popular music to this day were innovations born of the swing era.
Swing was the music that my great grandparents did *not* want my grandparents to listen to. It was new! It was disreputable. It was exciting. It was subversive. Despite its origins in the slave trade, and in generations of suffering and racial division, it emerged as a triumphant, upbeat, uplifting, exuberant and happy form of music. It was often bawdy, about sex (even the songs about food were generally about sex), about alcohol, about drugs… nobody could do euphemisms like the jazz, blues and swing musicians.
Never forget that it was the hardcore underground club music of its time. Deriving its complex rhythms from West African tribal drumming, with infectious melodies and harmonies, it was played by the most highly skilled concentration of musicians in the history of popular music, all focussed on improving themselves, improving the music, working with each other, outdoing each other, and above all – at least from our perspective – creating incredible music aimed straight at dancers – music that got under people’s skin, into their heads, and made them want to dance the night away like crazy people…
There have been so many musical developments since the swing era, and an unimaginable amount of music has been recorded and performed – so many different styles and genres, so much of it great… but there’s never been anything like swing, and perhaps there never will be.
And this is the music we dance to.