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We asked prominent Australian jazz drummer/
music educator/big band leader, John Morrison
to answer the following question...

John Morrison

April 2008

The Question:
What makes it Swing?


Response by John Morrison share this - email, favourites, social bookmarks and more

The word “Swing” has been synonymous with jazz since Louis Armstrong was heard to occasionally inspire his fellow band members by calling “Swing Out” before the final chorus of the song. Since then we have had the “Swing Era”, “Swing Bands”, “The King of Swing”, “Swing Dancing”, and all manner of things “Swing”.

The subject matter here is related to the aspect Duke Ellington was referring to in his “timeless” hit -“It Don’t mean a Thing if it ain’t got that Swing!” and this was without doubt what Louis Armstrong was talking about when he used it too.

“It’s a feel. It’s a groove. It’s a floating, rhythmic pulse that has forward motion” I hear you say. The swing feel may be as difficult to define as jazz itself, indeed many say if you can’t feel it – you will never understand it because it can’t be put into words. Cootie Williams once said to an inquiring journalist: "Define swing? -I'd rather roll a peanut up Pikes Peak with my nose!”

During my teaching I regularly find myself facing aspiring high school aged jazz musicians who want to know “how” to swing. They want more than a definition and they certainly don’t want an excuse for why it can’t be explained. I needed to explore ways for young musicians to experience the feel of swing in their playing that would inspire them to want to play that way. Give them a real taste for it!

During 1985 I was studying in New York with master percussionist Frank Malabe who taught me many wonderful Afro-Cuban rhythms. I struggled through the material wishing that I had grown up in Cuba until we eventually moved onto the African 6/8 Bembe rhythms. This rhythm felt much more natural and familiar to me. When I asked him why, he said simply “You are a jazz drummer. This rhythm is the origin of the swing feel”. Suddenly the old music dictionary’s simplistic description of jazz being western harmony fused with African rhythm finally had some real meaning. I knew now what African rhythms we were talking about. Frank described the Bembe as being a very uplifting, happy, celebratory dance that makes you feel “good”. It floats and makes you want to jump up and dance to it. “Like swing”, I said. “It IS swing”, he said.

From this beginning I searched ways of bringing this to life for my students. It involved clapping, singing and dancing in a big drum circle. I took them on a journey into African tribal culture that became more of a baptism rather than a class. They learned that moving your body freely and expressively is the most complete way to immerse yourself in rhythm. It always has been.

Try it! Let’s get practical. Stand up where you are and begin marking time with your feet at about 120 BPM. One you are settled into the pulse clap the following clave.

(The 6/8 pulse is felt in two beats per bar with your feet.)

Once comfortable with this, go to your CD player and put on something like “So What” from Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue album and clap the clave along to it. Remember to move (dance) your feet to the pulse (the “walking” bass line). Notice the way your clapping feels “locked” with the comping from the piano. Try singing the clave pattern with the track.

Let me say right now that this is a VERY simplistic introduction to this concept and the only way for any of it to make sense is to “experience” it. Just reading these words will do little to help you understand how it works.

One of the first things you will notice is that the clave “forces” you to have a relaxed or “laid back” feel to the last eighth note. This is one of the often misunderstood aspects of the placement of this beat. The placement is dictated by the “phrase” aspect of the clave – it’s NOT about the triplet. It’s a “rhythmic phrase” not just a series of subdivisions. These “rhythmic phrases” have a melodic aspect to them that goes right to the core of the African drumming culture.

If you have ever wanted to understand the magic of Elvin Jones, clap the Bembe to some of his recordings and you will notice that he is “all over it”

I hope some of this material might help other jazz educators looking for ways to get young rhythm sections to swing. To the experienced jazz player who has the joy of swing in their playing, there is no way to define the elation that your soul experiences when it’s really “happening”. Your whole body just sinks into a place where you are numb to the world around you. It’s music after all.

“So you want me to define Swing. Where is that peanut?”

John Morrison

© March 2008 John Morrison


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