If you think about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece about the Jazz Age, The Great Gatsby, you cannot help but think of flappers, wild and excessive parties, and strains of jazz music. However, if you were to put that music to paper and play it today, most musicians would agree that the tunes you were playing should be called swing, not jazz. Most people have no idea where jazz stops and swing begins and may even believe the two types of music are identical. In this post, we’ll explore the distinctions between the two musical genres so you can tell them apart in the future.
Jazz Came First
Beyond a shadow of a doubt, jazz music predates swing music. Jazz, which was commonly known as “Dixieland” in its earliest days while the term “jazz” was still being used predominantly in baseball, emerged before World War I. In fact, some historians argue that the earliest roots of the music were in evidence around the turn of the century in the very early 1900s.
Swing, on the other hand, emerged in the late 1920s, which is why Fitzgerald’s Gatsby is so often considered synonymous with jazz but set to musical scores that feature swing music instead. At that time, swing was evolving as a genre with its roots in jazz music.
Swing Bands were Big Bands, Unlike Jazz
Swing emerged from jazz naturally because in the late 1920s and early 1930s, people wanted to dance while they listened to their upbeat tunes. Swing emerged just as the Great Depression was hitting the country, and dancing was one of the few escapes most people had. Swing is generally considered more “dance-floor-friendly” than jazz and places a heavy emphasis on the rhythm section of the band. Swing bands are also much larger than jazz bands, in most cases, with lots of musicians and the traditional “big band” feel. Jazz bands tend to be smaller and fronted by cornets, trumpets, trombones, or clarinets.
Because jazz musicians may not even use musical scores and are expected to improvise as they play, jazz music does not necessarily lend itself to big band performances. While five or even seven musicians can work together seamlessly in a jazz performance, two or three dozen musicians (such as those in a big band) need a score or an arrangement in order to function.
Jazz Keeps Evolving Even Today
The “swing era” of music ended around the time World War II ended. A number of famous jazz musicians, including Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, and Ella Fitgerald, appeared with swing bands during the swing era, which further conflated the two musical genres in the public eye. One of the most obvious distinctions between jazz and swing is that jazz continues to evolve even today. Swing, on the other hand, is a distinct musical movement with a clear beginning and end. Sure, it “comes back” periodically as people enjoy big band performances and the easy, lively dancing that accompanies the sound, but the sound remains distinctive and largely the same. Jazz, on the other hand, has since evolved into modern jazz, classical jazz, hip hop, the blues, and many other genres that, like swing, are part of the comprehensive concept that is jazz music.
More than 50 years ago, John Coltrane, Jimmy Garrison, Elvin Jones, and McCoy Tyner packed up their instruments after a long day in the Van Gelder Studio and headed for home. They were tired, having recorded for hours in the studio space. They probably were a little light-headed, a little sick of each other, and maybe a little discouraged, since the session tapes from that day ultimately were shelved and eventually destroyed in the 1970s as part of a cost-saving measure at Impulse! Records. Clearly, Coltrane, who must have received a copy of that session since it turned up in his wife’s estate half a century later, wasn’t too impressed with the content since it never hit the airwaves and, as far as anyone knows, the recording was never played again.
Fortunately, Juanita Naima Coltrane, who was Coltrane’s wife from 1955 to 1966, shelved the tape herself. Although Juanita Coltrane died in 1996, 22 years later her family members found it while cleaning out part of her old estate. The family released the session tape and allowed the world to enjoy not one but two entirely unknown compositions as well as another five unheard renditions of other tracks. The album was released under the title Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album and consists entirely of takes from that day in 1963.
The owner of Van Gelder Studio, Rudy Van Gelder, was known for his fastidiousness when it came to recordings and production. It is no surprise to jazz historians that Van Gelder played a key role in the creation of the copies of the performances that day and the duplicate recording that ultimately preserved those performances. Van Gelder was known for his secrecy, including hiding multiple microphones throughout the studio to capture as much of the “warmth and intimacy of live jazz performances” as possible in his recordings. One historian, David Simons, writes, “If someone took a photograph in [Van Gelder’s] studio, he would move the microphones around first so no one could steal his secrets.”
The studio was home to many Coltrane recordings, as the musician was very fond of Van Gelder’s physical layout and recording process. Coltrane recorded the released Both Directions at Once there, as well as John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman and A Love Supreme. The newly released Both Directions album has been widely hailed as a showcase of “an epochal band in its prime” (as music critic Giovanni Russonello wrote) and a production that captures “the breadth and energy of [the group’s] live performances.” Thank goodness we only had to wait 50-plus years to hear it.
When you hear the name John Coltrane, you probably know you are hearing about a “jazz great,” but do you really know what made him stand out from the crowd? If you love jazz but have not been listening very long, then you might not be able to follow the conversation when the genre’s true aficionados really starting jamming. Check out our easy list to get a basic overview of what makes these five jazz greats just so special in the jazz books.
Mary Lou Williams
For starters, Mary Lou Williams was alive for nearly the entire initial lifespan of jazz, since she was born in 1910 and died in 1981. Of course, she did not start performing at birth. She entered the jazz arena playing in a swing band but continued throughout the evolutions of the music to stay at the forefront. She also is unique because she was one of the few musicians fully accepted by the classical world at that time.
Skill Set: composer, pianist
Miles Davis may be best known for his 1960s recording Bitches Brew. He is also known for the strangely exotic impact a rampant heroin addiction had on his music, his life as a hustler, and his raspy voice, which he acquired in 1955 after an operation to remove polyps from his larynx. Davis was instructed by his doctors to remain silent until he healed but could not avoid an argument and permanently damaged his voice. He was also called “The Prince of Darkness” after this time.
Skill Set: prolific composer, extremely flexible musician, bandleader, trumpet, flugelhorn, electric organ
Thelonious Monk’s music has been called “Picasso’s work set to music.” Although his work sometimes is misconstrued as overly simplistic and minimalist, it has many layers and often includes dissonance. His piano playing changed the way musicians in multiple genres approach the instrument, thanks to a percussive style that includes lots of silent gaps and hesitations in the music. One famed critic once called him “the elephant on the keyboard.” Monk would also occasionally stand up while his fellow musicians were playing and dance for a few minutes before returning to the piano. He also had a distinct look, including suits, hats, and sunglasses.
Skill Set: piano, composer
No list like this could be complete without Ella Fitzgerald, the First Lady of Song. Not only did Fitzgerald collaborate with other greats like Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, but she also performed with the Chick Webb Orchestra, often in Harlem. She was an incredible improviser and scat singer. She is known for “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” and “Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall”. Fitzgerald’s performance career lasted nearly six decades, during which she won 14 Grammy Awards, the National Medal of the Arts, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Skill Set: impeccable diction, vocal talent, swing, bebop, traditional pop, vocal jazz, blues, scat singing
After all that, we couldn’t leave John Coltrane off the list! Coltrane played truly spiritual jazz, and is known for his album, A Love Supreme. He was also at the forefront of the free jazz movement and collaborated with many other musicians throughout his career, including Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk. He is considered one of the greatest and most influential saxophonists in music history and was even canonized by the African Orthodox Church. He played the tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone, alto saxophone, and flute, and would sometimes keep an extra set of drums on stage so he could play those as well.
Skill Set: musician, bandleader, composer, clarinet, tenor sax, soprano sax, alto sax, flute
There are 150 statues of historic figures in New York City, according to the organization She Built NYC. Honestly, I would have thought there were more. However, if that 150 seems small, take a look at this number: 5. That is how many of those 150 statues depict women.
She Built NYC is changing that with the addition of seven statues of trailblazing women the group is installing around the city. Naturally, at least one of those women has a tie to jazz: Billie Holiday, whose statue will be installed in Queens.
Holiday, whose given name was Eleanora Fagan, was born during the earliest days of jazz in 1915. She was nicknamed “Lady Day” by friend and music partner Lester Young, and her last name, Holiday, was a derivative her father’s last name, Halliday. She picked the name Billie in honor of actress Billie Dove.
After being arrested for prostitution (along with her mother) at the age of 13, Holiday started singing in Harlem nightclubs when she was released from prison. She quickly developed a reputation for singing in a way that was similar to improvisational jazz and, by the time she was 20, had solidified that skill into a revolutionary style wherein she improvised melodies to fit the emotions of her songs. Although her fame continued to grow, she constantly dealt with negative experiences due to the discriminatory practices that were the norm at the time, including having to use the service elevator while her white bandmates used to the passenger elevator and not being allowed to enter the bar or dining room in hotels where she performed.
Probably Holiday’s most famous song, “Strange Fruit,” is based on a poem about a lynching in the south. She later said the imagery reminded her of her father’s death, as she believed he was denied treatment for his lung disorder because of his race. When her own recording label declined to record the song, Holiday ultimately secured a one-session release from her contract so she could record it elsewhere. The recording sold one million copies, Holiday’s biggest-selling recording.
She Built NYC selected Holiday for its Queens memorial because of her role in “elevating New York’s ‘swing sing’ jazz scene to international prominence while challenging racial barriers.” Holiday was one of the first black women to sing with a white orchestra and received multiple Grammy Awards posthumously. Her statue will be placed near Queens Borough Hall.
Jazz is more than a century old, and it’s looking better than any other centenarian I can think of. The musical movement that started before the First World War served as an ambassador of freedom and free thinking throughout the 20th century and spawned dozens of other freestanding musical movements that have impacted our culture in meaningful and positive ways, and it is still going very, very strong. It’s kind of like the music found the fountain of youth.
I believe that the durability and endurability of jazz as a music and a movement has a lot to do with the unique relationship between jazz musicians and their audiences. While on a classical stage, the musicians occupy rarified air and are viewed almost as a performance art piece to be observed, admired, and critiqued from afar, jazz musicians have historically been very nearly part of the audience and part of the party.
There were several reasons for this close proximity, including that in the early days of jazz, there were no recordings of the music. Every experience was original, unique, and unrepeatable. The musicians also tended to perform in crowded dance halls on small stages, and their success depended nearly entirely on audience appreciation. If they could not fill the room the first night, they probably wouldn’t be back for a second performance. This led many jazz musicians to work extremely hard to develop loyal followings and reputations for surprising and outrageous antics onstage long before the concept of “going viral” or “social media followers” had entered the equation.
For example, Louis Armstrong not only was an incredible musician, he was also known for his charisma onstage. He was known for telling “tall tales” about his past and claiming any number of outrageous exploits as well as insisting he was a freemason in a nonexistent chapter of the organization. He also tended to offer free “health advice” to everyone he encountered, including handing out packets of his favorite laxatives, which were his preferred method of weight control. This deeply ingrained relationship with his audience and intensely personal method of interaction with individuals he encountered made Louis Armstrong popular with audiences, club owners, and other musicians. Since many jazz musicians forged their careers on early partnerships with more established artists, his willingness to work with other musicians further cemented his popularity with audiences and their personal interest in his career.
Of course, today we can enjoy jazz in all its forms in many different ways. We can listen to recordings, radio, or online streaming. I would argue, however, that there is nothing quite like a live jazz performance because, just as it has always been, there will never be another live performance exactly like another. In these days of lip-syncing superstars and technological auto-tunes, jazz musicians still enjoy an up-close and personal relationship with their audiences. Every time I sing, I look at the people out there behind the stage lights and I feel their energy. It affects my rendition of the great hits and imbibes the entire experience with rich dimensions unavailable in most other musical genres today.
Jazz musicians are known for getting lost in the music. In fact, our own group, the Scat Cats, has, on more than one occasion, “woken up” from the trance of a really great practice session to find we had gone for hours longer than we realized. When you do that, you just have to shake your head and hope your significant other didn’t get too worried. It’s part of the musical experience, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world!
If you have jazz in your heart and time has a way of getting away from you, then you won’t want to miss a Kansas City landmark that is open nightly, all night, for one long jam session. In the 1920s and 1930s, Kansas City was immune from prohibition, thanks to political boss Tom Pendergast, who was crucial to the city’s flow of alcohol during this time. As a result, the city became a mecca for entertainers of all types, and jazz musicians led the way. At one time, there were more than 100 nightclubs, all featuring jazz music on and around Kansas City’s fabled 12thStreet, the nationally known home of jazz clubs, gambling parlors, and brothels. It was this dedication to entertainment and excess that partially insulated the area from the Great Depression.
While many of the clubs are shuttered now and the brothels are either “underground” or completely gone, the jam sessions remain intact at the Mutual Musicians Foundation, a union hall (and now historic landmark) that was central to the jazz scene in the Roaring 20s and remains open for all-night sessions to this day. Hanging out with other musicians in this venue is truly an escape from reality and almost like time-traveling back to the earliest age of jazz. Everyone loves the music and loves learning from each other – just like the greats did in the 1930s.
The union hall itself is a huge part of local history. It was originally called Local 627 and was home to the African-American Musicians Union, which was founded in 1917. The MMF was incorporated to manage the building and assets for Local 627 and continued to operate the building as a social club after the union merged with Local 34 in 1970.
In addition to hosting local and traveling musicians from all backgrounds who love and perform jazz, MMF also opens its doors to everyone on the weekends for all-night jam sessions. If you have never gotten lost in the music before, this is your best bet to get there. It’s an experience you will never forget.