The Subtleties of Swing

by Paul Hofmann

“It ain’t the melody, it ain’t the music
There’s something else that makes the tune complete
It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing
It makes no diff’rence if it’s sweet or hot
Just give that rhythm everything you got.”

From “It Don’t Mean A Thing”
— Duke Ellington and Irving Mills, 1932

For casual listener and serious musician alike, perhaps the most attractive feature of jazz (along with the art of improvisation) is its essential swing rhythm — the admittedly hard-to-define syncopation that in musical terms usually falls somewhere between a triplet and a sixteenth note. As Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once remarked about something quite different (pornography): “I know it when I see it.”

We jazz lovers and players surely recognize swing when we hear it, even in its different permutations — from the heart-on-your-sleeve (‘hot’) exuberance of Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Erroll Garner, Thelonious Monk, Cannonball Adderley and Lee Morgan, to the more introspective (‘sweet’) musings of Lester Young, Teddy Wilson, Miles Davis, Stan Getz, Ahmad Jamal and Paul Desmond.

Stylistic considerations aside, different manifestations of swing — even the exuberant variety — have a common element: subtlety. “What’s so subtle about Louis Armstrong?” you may ask. Ah, there’s the rub. For all its inherent energy, jazz, when played by master musicians, reveals a maturity — really, an elegance (something supremely epitomized by pianist Hank Jones, a man now in his late-80s and still playing some great music) — that is easy to overlook.

Indeed, the balancing act the serious jazz improviser is concerned with is somewhat akin to walking a tightrope: namely, his or her ‘reining in’ the syncopations. I often liken this to “straightening out the beats.” In other words, being careful — beat by beat — not to lapse into musical phrases whose exaggerated rhythms might turn into parodies of the real thing, producing a decidedly second-rate swing. Again: I know it when I see (hear) it! As do so many of you, I’m sure.

Of course, even jazz legends sometimes reveal musical weaknesses — and not just the occasional overuse of certain stylistic devices, but even the sporadic missed note and rushed phrase. These rare weak spots aside, a consistently cautious use of triplets does seem to help the overall swing factor immensely.

Why do I say this? Generally speaking, an improviser’s choosing in the main to limit his or her solos to eighth notes — and sometimes quarter notes, in the hands of masters like pianist Sonny Clark — often yields musical results that simply end up sounding more relaxed. If this seems like a paradox, consider that even the tune “It Don’t Mean a Thing” contains no triplets; just swung eighth and quarter notes. Truly, less is more (or can be). As Dizzy Gillespie once said (paraphrasing): “It took me a lifetime to figure out what not to play.”

This and other subtleties of swing are nuances that jazz performers of all eras have focused on, from the earliest days of the music when trumpeters like Freddie Keppard and Louis Armstrong created a style derived in part from ragtime’s more formal syncopations. The Swing Era followed, with Count Basie both setting and maintaining a new rhythmic standard, in large part due to the legendary drumming of Jo Jones.

As post-World War II jazz morphed into bebop and hard bop, ‘Modern Jazz’ now featured a newly baroque musical language that, in the hands of masters like Bird, Bud Powell, Fats Navarro and Philly Joe Jones, somehow managed to be both flamboyant and civilized at the same time. New developments in modal jazz (notably from Miles Davis) and free jazz (from Ornette Coleman) began to occur almost simultaneously, but the solid sense of swing remained — while Ellington’s and Basie’s revamped 1950s big bands continued the emphasis on traditionally-swinging rhythm sections, propelled by the great drummers Sam Woodyard and Sonny Payne.

Even ‘New Thing’ musicians like Don Cherry and Eric Dolphy were deeply rooted in swinging music, as are some of today’s more notable young jazz performers; trumpeter Nicholas Payton, pianist Brad Mehldau and organist/pianist Larry Goldings immediately come to mind. I think this is particularly encouraging given our vantage point of the twenty-first century, as jazz long ago ceased being America’s popular music. (Indeed, was it ever? Sometimes I wonder…)

Given the wide range of jazz, it’s no wonder this music splintered into various factions decades ago (recalling the “moldy fig” debates of the 1950s). Everyone seems to gravitate toward a favorite form (or two, or three), and of course this is only natural. Jazz styles aside, to the untrained ear the precise placement of each phrase’s notes may not always be easy to determine; yet in a very real sense if the music ‘feels right,’ it’s probably swinging!

While it may take a discerning ear, the high standards for swing are still in evidence; the subtleties remain, and hopefully will for as long as this music is enjoyed.

“What’s swinging in words? If a guy makes you pat your foot and if you feel it down your back, you don’t have to ask anybody if that’s good music or not. You can always feel it.”

— Miles Davis, 1955