Thursday, October 25, 2007

Jazz 101: Swing

Once upon a time (and this is not a fairy tale), jazz was popular music. It was the first popular music, if by that you mean music that everyone was dancing to, talking about, listening to on records, and gathering around the radio to hear. When Benny Goodman and his band performed live on the New York radio show "Let's Dance," people in California tuned in.

Our class at MacPhail with Kelly Rossum continued with a discussion of swing, examples of swing recordings from the 1930s and '40s, and a discussion of jazz standards. Why do musicians play standards? Kelly plays them to honor tradition, to pay his respects to people and things that have gone before, and to add his own interpretation to the pile. (A standard, he said, has been performed for at least 20 years.) He won't play a standard unless he knows something about it: the lyrics, the melody, the composer's life, where it came from. Everything he learns adds to the chord changes (the sequence of chords meant as accompaniment for a song, used as the basis of a jazz improvisation), and it adds to his own satisfaction in playing a tune that's been around for ages. So that's why old standards can sound brand-new.

Kelly wrote examples of swing notation on the board, then explained that you really can't write down what swing is in a musical sense—a big problem in jazz education. Basically, swing is a feel. Different artists play it differently; they arrive there differently. When we asked, "How did you get to swing as a performer?" he said "Like this," then erased the board.

Mark Gridley, author of Concise Guide to Jazz, our textbook for the class, defined swing (in part) as "the feeling projected by a jazz performance which successfully combines constant tempo, syncopation, swing eighth notes, rhythmic lilt, liveliness and rhythmically cohesive group playing." When trumpeter Cootie Williams was asked to define swing, he said, "I'd rather tackle Einstein's theory."

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