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.