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Jazz and Swing Music - what's the difference?

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?

Jazz came before swing. Jazz was born in New Orleans. It was a hybrid fusion of folk songs and hymn music.. It blended the music of marching bands with ragtime. 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. Piano and double bass were often added to the developing sound.

Swing naturally evolved from jazz 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.

Listen to as much Swing Jazz (genre) music as you can (Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Cab Calloway, Fletcher Henderson, Artie Shaw, Jimmie Lunceford, the list goes on…). Because to truly understand and play swing, you have to internalise the rhythm. You have to really ‘feel’ it. And the only way to do that is to listen to anything and everything swingin’. Remember: It don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing.

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