Point of View
We asked prominent Australian
music educator/big band leader,
to answer the following question...
What makes it Swing?
by John Morrison
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”.
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
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.
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
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”
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?”
2008 John Morrison
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