That Thing Called Swing

By Russell McMahon, Marketing Director

Plans are well underway for our new club night - Scantily Clad. We want to evoke the feeling, fashion and nostalgia of ‘The Swing Era (1920’s - 1940’s)’ on the dancefloors of today with a slightly new sound. It’s all about weekends, fancy get-ups and flaunting your most incredulous dance moves. Good vibes are a bona-fide guarantee. 

The music in question is Electro Swing. But what is it, and how did the genre come to be? To understand you need to look at its roots in jazz, swing, blues and ragtime.

Jazz Roots
The roots of jazz can be traced all the way back 400 years ago in the 17th century to the African slave trade. Millions of Africans were captured, traded and transported across the world as ‘possessions’. These people had a rich heritage of music. By 1750 there were a large number of these slaves, around 240,000, around in British-North America, a majority of which worked on plantations. A good percentage of these slaves were located in New Orleans. While working on these plantations the slaves would sing spirituals, work songs and blues while working to keep morale high. In the early 1900’s, decades after the abolishment of slavery,  New Orlean’s Jazz and Ragtime developed from a fusion of the blues, spirituals and various European musics. This is when jazz music began to be widely heard as musicians were free to perform and travel around sharing their music. Scott Joplin, a pianist who sold millions of ragtime sheet music to American’s who wanted to learn ragtime in their homes, is credited with being the first African-American to be a famous selected performer.

1920’s - 1940’s: The Swing Era
During ‘The Roaring Twenties’ African-American jazz music became very popular in America and was evolving into different styles, including swing. This was the time of ‘new breed’ Flappers, the ‘Jazz Age’, prohibition and, most noticeably, ‘The Great Depression’ - a time that can be parralelled to today. It wasn’t just America that embraced the genre. Swing was also developing on mainland Europe.

Swing took the sound of big band jazz and characterised it with that ‘swing feel’ through fast tempos, rhythmic ‘grooves and drive, along with a good range of different instruments, hence the term ‘big band’. In 1934 the United States was in the grip of economic crisis, where radio was the only mass medium. That Autumn, NBC started a Saturday night radio programme called ‘Let’s Dance’, and the sound known as swing which started in the Savoy Ballroom hall in Harlem was now broadcasting across the country. These sort of clubs became known as Speakeasy’s where white’s and black’s would dance together.It used to cost 50 cence on a weeknight and 75 cence on a Sunday to go to a swing night at the Savoy Ballroom, which was also referred to as ‘the home of happy feet’.

The reason this music captured so many listeners hearts in the ‘The Dirty Thirties’ was because it was a way to dance their worries of the time away, regardless of race, inventing dance moves like The Charleston and the Lindy Hop. Big artists of this age included Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong who helped expose this branch of jazz. Unfortunately its growth was slowed down by the time of WWII.

By the early 1940’s the ‘Swing Era’ in America was diminishing. One of the main factors that brought this about was that member’s of the big band’s were overseas fighting a war. There was also the recording ban of 1942 to 1948 because of a disagreement amongst large record companies over royalty payments. As of midnight on July 31st 1942, no member of the American Federation of Musicians Union could record for any record company. By 1948, because of this strike, swing evolved and branched out into other styles such as jump blues, bebop and ragtime. Meanwhile the American soldiers who were stationed over in Britain fighting the war introduced Britain to swing and it soon became a phenomenon amongst the British people, particularly hyped by the dancing style and this little number by the Glenn Miller Band. Along with this musicians started travelling more taking the styles with them. And so the genre continued to evolve  spread around the world.

1950’s - 1960’s: Post WWII
Throughout the 60’s swing music was kept alive converging with other genres that were popular during that time. Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole used swing in a lot of their recordings, while artists such as Jimmie Rodgers adopted swing into blues and country music creating a genre called ‘Western Swing’. Through the ‘Rock’n’Roll Era’ leading artists like Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley kept the swing style in some of their material.

1990’s - early 2000’s: Swing Revival
The 90’s saw a come-back of the swing scene in the US through the millenium. This revival was led by bands such as Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and Squirrel Nut Zippers. Jazz found itself emerging within a whole range of genres including hip hop and house by artists like Jurrasic 5 and Mr.Scruff. 

Mid 2000’s - Present: The Birth of ‘Electro’ Swing
To put it simply, ‘Electro Swing’ fuses swing, jazz and all its styles with contemporary electronic music production techniques. In short - “jazz meets club beats”. It gives contemporary electronic music that ‘swing feel’ and it’s widely open to interpretation, which is what makes it so adaptable and enjoyable.

It was in Europe, particularly within the more underground scenes found in Germany and France, where Electro Swing really started to evolve taking inspiration from swing music all over the world, with leading artists like Parov Stelar and Caravan Palace helping propel the genre and there are plenty more if you look around enough.

Other artists to check out: Gr4m4tik, Lyre Le Temps, Mop Mop, Movits, Goldfish, Kormac.