Swing and Harlem

Written (copyright) by Harri Heinila

As I was recently in New York, I talked about the birth of swing music with two Harlem-connected people. To my astonishment, these people denied the fact that swing music was born in Harlem! That was something I never would have believed to hear from people, to whom Harlem, swing music and The Lindy Hop are the thing. Indeed, nowadays you can find people in Harlem, who have not heard about swing music, but that is something else which is connected to decades old changes in Harlem, when most of Harlemites were no more interested in swing music and its main dance, The Lindy Hop.

To me, Harlem as the birthplace of swing is the fact that I cannot deny in any circumstances. Swing is something which still resonates in Harlem, when you walk down its streets, even if you cannot practically hear swing anymore as you could a long time ago when Harlem was the entertainment center of New York.

Although there are new initiatives to get The Lindy Hop and swing back to Harlemites’ favorites, basically, swing and The Lindy Hop never totally disappeared from Harlem.

According to Seppo Lemponen, who has researched the term ‘swing’, swing as a term is at the latest from the end of 19th century when the term was connected to music. At that time, the tune ‘ In the Hammock’ was published with the blurb “Swing Song. With just the right swinging motion.” After that, in the 1920s, Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton used that term occasionally. In the very beginning of the 1930s, the term ‘swing’ started to be used more frequently as connected to swing music. Duke Ellington’s legendary tune, ‘It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing’, was published in 1932, and Lemponen claims that tune brought swing term to common currency.

Also jazz historian Marshall Stearns uses the swing term in the connection with syncopated rhythm which he explains as swing in jazz sense. Stearns uses ‘swing’ as a term which describes the quality of jazz music: jazz swings. Even if so, he differentiates between Dixieland and the swing beat: The first mentioned is ‘two-to-a-bar’ and the last mentioned is ‘four-to-a-bar’. However, it stays unclear in his studies (The Story of Jazz and Jazz Dance) how frequently and how early the term ‘swing’ was used in the connection with jazz before Armstrong and Morton began to use it.

Swing as music was beginning in the middle of 1920s, when Louis Armstrong was part of Fletcher Henderson Orchestra between the end of 1924 and November 1925. Don Redman, the arranger of Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, said that Armstrong changed whole idea about their band musically. After Armstrong left, the orchestras, Fletcher Henderson, Don Redman, Chick Webb, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Teddy Hill, Jimmie Lunchford, and Cecil Scott, just to mention a few of Harlem connected orchestras, worked ‘swing formula’ more further. All that happened a long time before Benny Goodman officially started so-called Swing Era in August 1935. In addition to Harlem-based orchestras, there were Walter Page’s Blue Devils and Bennie’s Moten band with Count Basie in Kansas City, which also worked the swing formula as Walter Page started to play string bass in linear sense. String bass was taking the place of tuba as a rhythm instrument in the end of the 1920s. Both Kansas City and Harlem seemed to be connected in ‘swing formula’ development.

Also white orchestras like The Dorsey Brothers and The Casa Loma Band picked up the swing formula in the beginning of the 1930s, years before Benny Goodman.

Gunther Schuller, who has researched the birth of swing, claims that Fletcher Henderson Orchestra’s recording in 1931, ‘Hot and Anxious’, presented the composition and arrangement formula by Horace Henderson, which was worked to death in hundreds of Swing Era bands. The formula consisted of three primary elements, 1. A steady four-to-the-bar ‘chomp-chomp’ beat, unvaried and relentless in all four rhythm instruments, 2. Simple riffs whose melodic contours could fit any one of the three major steps (I, IV, V); and 3. The gradually receding ‘fade-out’ ending, preferably with bent blue notes in the guitar.

As Terry Monaghan has stated, Schuller’s main problem in his analysis is that he has researched the phenomenon only from records. For example, Coleman Hawkins said that Fletcher Henderson Orchestra was a lot of better in live than in records. Schuller’s analysis should have concerned also live-playing. Thus, it is possible that the mentioned formula was already worked earlier than 1931.

Anyway, it is clear that the swing formula was connected to big bands from the very beginning. Fletcher Henderson Orchestra consisted of eleven players in 1924 and twelve players in 1927. Other mentioned bands were from the same size range.

Thus, when The Lindy Hop was born in 1928, it emerged in the middle of the development of swing by big bands in Harlem. Howard Spring, who has researched the connection between the development of swing music and The Lindy Hop, even claims that The Lindy Hop affected the development of swing since the very beginning of The Lindy Hop.

Also two contemporary accounts stress that swing was part of the Harlem and New York jazz music culture in the end of the 20s and in the beginning of the 30s. Cab Calloway told the story how his first group in New York, the Alabamians, did not succeed at the Savoy Ballroom with their “old- time, unhip, novelty tunes with a little weak Dixieland Jazz.” According to Cab, their music “didn’t suit those jazzed-up people worth a damn” at the Savoy, and he states that “Jazz was swinging” in New York (The quotes are from Cab Calloway and Bryant Rollins: ‘Of Minnie The Moocher & Me’).

Mezz Mezzrow states in his autobiography, ‘Really The Blues’, which was written by Mezzrow and Bernard Wolfe, accordingly, “Well, the colored bands around New York had plenty of virtuoso musicians in them, but they didn’t play the New Orleans music that I was crazy about; they had entirely different pulse and flavor…”

So, It seems strongly that swing was part of The Lindy Hop from the beginning. That is why current attempts at connecting Dixieland jazz to The Lindy Hop as the original music of The Lindy Hop are not justifiable at least where the early development of The Lindy Hop is concerned.

The swing formula also changed when be bop came in the end of the 1930s. Be bop killed riffs, and a be bop drummer began to play the bass drum occasionally, instead of playing to every beat. That was called “droppin’ bombs”. The bass player was the one who still kept playing to every beat. The “be bop formula” also began to change swing at the latest in the 1950 when drummer did not play the bass drum to every beat, and the bass player was the one who still played to every beat as Sonny Allen, the Savoy Lindy Hopper from 1957-58, has stated. There, however, still were riffs in swing in the 1950s.

As swing changed in the 1950s, also The Lindy Hop changed but that is a different story.

This article is based on Harri Heinila’s forthcoming PhD dissertation about Harlem and Authentic Jazz Dance: How Harlem-Based Authentic Jazz Dance Changed African Americans’ position.


About authenticjazzdance

The author of the site is Harri Heinila, Doctor of Social Sciences, political history, and the former Postdoctoral Fellow at the Department of Political and Economic Studies at the University of Helsinki. He is interested in Authentic Jazz Dance: all jazz dances from different eras of jazz. E.g. Cakewalk, the Charleston, Black Bottom, The Lindy Hop, Mambo, Rhythm Tap. Heinila researches jazz dance, in particular, in the context of Harlem, New York. His doctoral dissertation, An Endeavor by Harlem Dancers to Achieve Equality - The Recognition of the Harlem-Based African-American Jazz Dance Between 1921 and 1943 is a groundbreaking study in the field of jazz dance and Harlem. His ORCID iD is 0000-0002-7783-9010 .
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