What Is Swing Music?

A Jazz Era of Big Bands and Dancehalls

Couple swing dancing, low section
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The term “swing” has broad associations. For one thing, it refers to a particular lilting rhythmic style that is based on a triplet subdivision of the beat. This propulsive effect was introduced by stride pianists in the 1920s and has been a common feature of jazz through the decades.

However, swing also refers to the style of jazz that was popular from roughly 1930 until around World War II. Swing music was mostly performed by big bands and reached broad audiences over the radio, on records, and in dance halls nationwide.

Big Bands

Before the 1930s, small ensembles, usually consisting of a trumpet, trombone, clarinet, tuba or bass, banjo or piano, and drums, performed jazz. Each instrument had a specific role in the ensemble, and aside from the melody, parts were often improvised. This sectionalized approach carried over into the big bands of swing music. But instead of a small ensemble, swing music featured a section of three or four trumpeters, three or four trombonist, five saxophonists who often doubled on clarinets, a piano, a bassist instead of a tuba player, a guitarist, and a drummer.

Swing band arrangements were in large part composed, often of simple, repeated material, or “riffs,” that alternated between contrapuntal lines and intense unison rhythms. Improvisation also had a featured role, and soloists would play while the rest of the band, aside from the rhythm section, dropped out or played arranged background lines.

Popularity of Swing Music

One explanation for swing music’s popularity is that its driving intensity and abandon represented pleasure and freedom in a time when the country was steeped in hard times. The Great Depression caused Americans to suffer, and dancing to swing music was a way for people to forget their worries. During the 1930s, swing came to symbolize joy and ease, the weight of which was reflected in Duke Ellington’s piece, “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing).”

Important Swing Musicians

  • Count Basie: Regarded as one of the finest bandleaders in jazz, Count Basie led his orchestra for almost 50 years. His band was known for playing simple, often bluesy arrangements where the focus was on the easy rhythmic feel, an aspect of swing that bands of the area strove to achieve.
  • Gene Krupa: Krupa rose to fame in the 1930s while playing drums with Benny Goodman’s band. He had a flamboyant style, evidenced on recordings such as Goodman’s “Sing, Sing, Sing.” He is considered one of the most influential drummers in jazz, not only for his playing, but also for his role in standardizing jazz drumming technique.
  • Buddy Rich: Rich’s powerful and fast drumming made him one of the most famous big band drummers. He played with Artie Shaw, Benny Carter, and Frank Sinatra. He also led his own successful big band into the 1980s, years after the heyday of swing.
  • Freddie Green: Known for defining the role of guitar in a big band setting, Freddie Green enjoyed a 50-year career with Count Basie’s orchestra. His style of guitar playing was noted for its harmonic precision and the way it interlocked with the drums.
  • Tommy Dorsey: Dorsey’s signature lyrical trombone playing made his big band one of the most popular during the swing era. His band featured Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa, Frank Sinatra, and many other top musicians.