It Don’t Mean A Thing

2011Symposium_1_2In all of American popular music, there has been two distinct “feels;” straight feel and swing feel. The swing feel became popular in the 1930s and 1040s with the big bands of Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, the Dorseys and others. Until then, jazz styles including dixieland and ragtime, had a straight feel to them. In the golden era of song that coincided and followed the swing era, swing feel continued to be important, and is still employed by jazz musicians performing “standards.” With the pop music of the 1970s and later, swing feel became less popular, and with the exception of brief resurgences of swing music and big bands, it has become inconsequential to contemporary popular music. The feel of popular music is decidedly straight in both hip-hop and techno/dance genres, which are the two idioms that define current popular music.  The feel of both goes beyond just straight feel. The hip-hop influences have made syncopated sixteenth note rhythms common, rich with interesting pushes and active rhythmic motions between the beats. In the techno dance influenced music, the sound is much more open, with exposed back beats with more subtle sixteenth rhythms and sustained pads on keys. The prominence of these two popular music styles has resulted in a sharper differentiation between pop music and jazz than perhaps ever before in American popular music history. The “swing feel” that once was equally at home in jazz and popular music is now only found in jazz and standards.

Teaching swing feel to students who rarely if ever have heard can be challenging. Like most musical styles, it cannot be learned simply by reading or hearing about it, it must be listened to and internalized until it flows naturally out of the musical mind and into performances. Because swing is rarely found in music that students are used to hearing, getting the swing feel “in their ear” requires listening sessions of music that are unfamiliar and in some cases unwanted by students not specializing in jazz studies. It is essential to carefully select songs that will capture students’ attention and hold their interest. Songs with silly or unusual words often work well. I have had success with “A Ticket, A Tasket” and “Java Jive.” Instrumental songs , even such greats as “In The Mood” by Glenn Miller, are less popular with my students. Without words, students loose interest much more easily. I particularly like “Java Jive” because it contains a balance of swing rhythms, syncopations, and quarter notes on the beat. The variety keeps students grounded, allowing them to go back and forth between more familiar syncopations and less familiar swing rhythms.

Movement is invaluable in teaching the swing feel. It is fun to watch even reluctant listeners unable to resist moving their

Doc Severinson

Doc Severinson

bodies while listening to jazz, and it is fascinating to watch the differences in these movements between jazz that swings and jazz that does not swing. Though not a steadfast rule, most students tend to move up and down on jazz with a straight feel, such as Latin Jazz, and side to side on jazz with a swing feel. I use the natural differences in how they move to teach the difference between straight and swing feels. Remember, sometimes the best way to know what something is, is to know what it is not. Some teachers advocate teaching a triplet rhythm as the way to perform swing eighth notes, but one only has to use notation software to hear that a strict interpretation of eighth note triplet figures of quarter and eighth do not result in a satisfactory swing feel. The gap between a strict triplet rhythm and a true swing feel can only be accomplished by imitating accomplished jazz musicians, and involving the body in interpreting first music that is heard, and then music that is performed. As in most cases, it is the body, not the mind, that provides understanding of rhythm and feel. Tempered by the preceding remarks, you might find an article by J.E. McDonnell helpful. It contains a step-by-step approach to teaching swing feel in large instrumental ensembles using functional syllables and triplet rhythms.

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