Whether you’re a jazz aficionado or just getting into the genre, it’s good to know how jazz changed during the swing era. In fact, if it weren’t for the swing era, jazz as we know it may never have existed. Big bands and charismatic conductors shifted the jazz scene from dive bars and brothels to ballrooms and America’s radio waves. The swing era, which saw its heyday between the 1920’s and the 1940’s, thrust jazz into the position of America’s premiere, most unique, and most identifiable music genre.
The beginning of the Swing Era in jazz was centered around the famed Harlem Renaissance in the 1920’s. Even though booze was banned by Prohibition, it flowed freely in popular night spots, and people wanted to dance. This is where now legendary artists like Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Louis Armstrong stepped in. Their music was infectious, and spread across the United States like wildfire, quickly making jazz and swing the most popular genres in America.
Along with the music, Swing Era jazz bandleaders started to pay attention to style as well. Duke Ellington and Count Basie, especially, were known as much for their class and entertainment skills as their music. Because they were funny, classy, and for the most part safe, mainstream white America heard their music on the radio and accepted jazz musicians as legitimate stars in the music world – an unprecedented turn for American culture.
From the 1930’s into the 1940’s, swing jazz got even more popular. Even people who weren’t exactly “hip” to jazz in the 1920’s started dancing along. This was certainly due in part to increasing numbers of white bandleaders, including Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller. Even so, the infectious “swing” style, which put accents on the 2nd and 4th beats to make it nearly impossible not to move when they heard it, remained pretty much unchanged. During World War II, the record industry stopped in its tracks to shift resources to the war effort. All the while, swing jazz stayed on the radio, improving morale abroad and at home.
In the late 1940’s, figures like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis rose in the jazz scene, innovating the music until it was no longer ”swing", but "bop". Less accessible, and next to impossible to dance to, jazz became an artistic pursuit instead of a recreational one, and faded into relative obscurity. The greats of the era, like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, kept playing music, but did it on a smaller scale.
The Swing Era was the height of one of America’s most unique art forms. It introduced jazz to millions of people, and had almost everyone dancing along for over two decades. On a more permanent and appreciated level, it also innovated the music itself to give it the beat, style, and elegance that we associate with jazz today. It is safe to say that, without the Swing Era, jazz would be much different-and much less fun.