Swing and Jazz: What is the difference?:
December 16, 2016
Jazz fanatics and serious musicians aside, a common question that often gets asked is: What is the difference between swing and jazz? It’s not surprising that the question gets asked so much. Especially for the uninitiated or those new to the scene, things can get quite confusing. There isn’t just jazz. There is Hot Jazz, Trad (or Traditional) Jazz and Dixieland (all essentially the same thing!). Then you have Swing, Big Band, RatPack, BeBop and Modern Jazz. To the untrained ear, all these styles sound vaguely similar. They all have a ‘jazzy feel’. So, what are the differences between swing and jazz?
Differences between swing and jazz
Some people will see swing and jazz as two separate entities. Some people see swing as a sub-genre of jazz. To others, ‘swing’ was just the natural evolution of jazz through the 1920s and 1930s: Jazz Story: Hot Jazz-Swing-Bebop. When you try to explain the differences between the two, you can give a fairly simple answer and a very complicated answer. That’s because the differences between jazz and swing are essentially cultural as well as musical.
The Origins of Jazz
If that still all sounds a bit confusing, one thing is beyond any doubt. Jazz came before swing. Jazz was born in New Orleans. As with any genre of music, jazz didn’t just appear. It was a hybrid fusion of folk songs and hymn music. It took its cultural roots from the West African ancestry of its initial protagonists. It blended the music of marching bands with ragtime. The form of music emerged at the start of the twentieth century. Its name was coined for the term used for the USA’s southern states – Dixieland.
Typically, the lead instruments in early jazz were the cornet or trumpet, trombone and clarinet. Rhythm and harmony came in the shape of a banjo, tuba or drums. With traditional jazz, the lead instrument plays the main melody and then improvises on it. Meanwhile, the other instruments will offer their own variations of it. This creates the unmistakable sound of jazz. Jazz moved from the streets to the speakeasies and dance halls of the 1920s. Piano and double bass were often added to the developing sound.
Jazz evolves into Swing
Swing naturally evolved from jazz as the 1920s ended as the 1930s began, in part to make jazz more ‘dance floor friendly’ for larger audiences. Because of this, the rhythm section became more important. More emphasis was now being placed on the double bass, drums and piano. The ‘front line’ of a swing band were normally trumpet, clarinet and trombone and the saxophone.
Many swing bands were led by standout individual instrumentalists but the focus with swing music was on the band. As the bands had many members (hence the term ‘big band’) more regimentation was necessary. Whereas jazz musicians very rarely played from written musical scores, swing bands would work from scores and arrangements. The lead instrumentalists would be left to improvise over the support of the band.
Swing became synonymous with dancing, of course. Still, to this day, there are few genres of music that can get a dancefloor full and moving so quickly as swing can. Live swing music makes for perfect party entertainment.
Indeed virtually any event will truly swing to the sound of swing! From weddings to product launches or office parties, Silk Street Swing is a versatile band that will play both classic swing and modern swing. Make an enquiry today!