The first time I went to Herrang – which all those years ago was pretty much our only way of getting to quality Lindy Hop classes – I found a musical paradise. There was SO MUCH INCREDIBLE MUSIC that I’d never heard the like of before – and I came back home with songs like Jeep Jockey Jump and One O’Clock Jump ricocheting around in my brain. At that time, I had no idea what these songs even were – the word “swing” just suggested some guy called Glenn Miller, and Glenn Miller meant exactly one thing – In the Mood. I’d barely even heard of Count Basie… but I absolutely had to find out more.
I’ve always loved music, and I’ve always had pretty varied tastes, ranging from classical to blues, pop, punk, folk, disco, rock, heavy metal, rockabilly… there’s very few genres of music where I don’t like any of it. And equally, there’s nothing where I’m addicted to the entire genre.
Swing music though stands out – to me it offers this incredible combination of accessibility, sophistication, excitement, joy, simplicity and depth. I’ve never known anything like it. I never seem to tire of hearing the best swing songs over and over again – instead, I just hear new things which I’d never heard before – understand new subtleties – and time and time again, I start listening to a familiar track that I know backwards with new knowledge and a fresh pair of ears, and marvel as it takes on a new identity. While I do still revisit a lot of the music I used to listen to before I started listening to Swing, I don’t listen to it nearly as much as I used to, and always I come back to swing with a sense of relief and freedom.
The musicians playing the best of the old swing music had honed their craft to such a high level – had attained such incredible skill that they could effortlessly work together to improvise some of the most extraordinary music of all time. Crucially for us – much of it was aimed squarely at swing dancers. It was made for dancers, played to dancers, and all these decades later, we’re still dancing to it – because there’s something about it which, after all this time, speaks to us, energises and excites us and invites our participation and collaboration in ways that no other music can.
Much, too, is made of Swing’s Afro-American origins, being, as it is, an evolution of early Jazz – itself a product of the collision between West African Culture brought to American by the slave trade, and existing North American culture and music – itself chiefly of European origin. Those West African influences and musical practices play a massive part in the music what it is – they bring such an incredible wealth of rhythmic complexity and sophistication, and – also important: a demand for audience participation – that makes the music so incredible for dancing. Much of West African music had little or no distinction between “performer” and “audience” – and that same feeling is brought through to a great deal of early jazz and swing music. I’ve linked to the video on the below before, but it’s a good illustration – a recreation of an early Kansas City nightclub environment with a wonderful level of audience interaction and participation, and a breathtaking saxophone duel that drives each player to greater and greater displays of musical skill.
That said – I don’t want to downplay the European aspects of the music – the European harmonies, melodies and music – all the elements are vital to making the music what it is. I’ve recently come to regard jazz and swing as a miracle fusion between different cultures – a shining example of the great things that can be produced by a combination of wildly different artistic philosophies and ideologies. It’s sad and horrifying to think about what happened in the meeting of those cultures, and it’s also sad to think that perhaps without that hardship and adversity, we would not have these amazing musical forms – but in some ways, I feel that makes it extremely important to appreciate the result.
This is not, in the end, about the differences. It’s about what people can accomplish together.
This music is a gift across the ages – while much has been lost, the fact that so much of it still survives, and is at our disposal, and that so much is still being rediscovered, is something that I will always be grateful for.