Have the Beantown Swing Orchestra come to your school to teach about the culturally and historically significant form of music known as big band swing. Our mentors are dedicated to promoting this timeless music to younger generations, working with New England middle- and high-school students and educators to achieve the following:
With its uplifting and unifying powers, classic big band swing is the perfect form of music to introduce to today’s youngsters. In the 1930s, swing music provided an escape from the Depression with its fun, danceable beat and cheerful lyrics. In an era of segregation, it brought black and white people to the dance floor with no thoughts about race or other differences. And it was enjoyed by teens who idolized and appreciated the instrumentalists for their musical abilities. In today’s world of negativity, bullying, mindless pop songs, and addictive screens, kids can benefit once again from a healthy dose of swing.
Swing as Pop Music
Big band swing was a form of jazz that was commercial pop music and enjoyed by millions during the 1930s and 40s. After World War II, jazz never reached mainstream popularity again. Many of the elements that made swing so successful were lost with the music itself. These include:
Swing Era songs were generally cheerful and happy. Above all, musicians smiled when playing and looked like they were having fun and connecting with the music. This was contagious and made the audience enjoy the experience that much more.
Band members relied on each other to sound good as a whole. There was more emphasis on playing as a tight, swinging ensemble and less on individual, self-indulgent solos.
Songs were generally short but intense. A lot was said in a three-minute arrangement and it required musicians to be focused and on top of their game.
The music was sophisticated with its melodic variations and four-part harmonies, but still predictable enough that listeners could follow it and be fully invested.
The simple but steady pulse of the drums, bass, and guitar produced a groove that made the masses want to move to the beat. It laid the foundation for the horns to create an additional layer of excitement and the desire to get up and dance.
Before live amplification, all musicians had to play assertively with a big sound in order to be heard and to sound convincing.
Music and Instruments of the Swing Era
This lecture and live music demo describes the music of the Swing Era (1935-1946) and the various instruments that were used in big bands. Nine of our musicians will explain the function of their instrument (drums, bass, piano, guitar, trumpet, trombone, saxophone, clarinet, vocals) in the context of the swing band and how they interact with each other. Several big band charts will be performed, followed by a Q&A session. Geared towards general audiences, this presentation is a great way to boost kids’ interest in musical instruments while introducing them to an exciting and purely American form of music.
Members of the Beantown Swing Orchestra discuss the music and instruments of the Swing Era at Rockport High School in Rockport, MA on January 11, 2017.
Jazz Ensemble Workshops
Swing Era Transcriptions – A Great Teaching Tool
Playing with Dynamics
Swing Era charts have a lot of repetitive phrases and sections, so it’s important to use dynamics to provide contrast and excitement and keep the energy going. These are often not written in the arrangement, so it’s up to the section leader to interpret and take charge.
All instruments should play with a short and bouncy feel. This is the key to making people want to dance. Longer notes should have vibrato which also keeps people moving. Playing heavy with excessive legato (bebop and later) will kill the groove and is a common mistake of modern jazz musicians trying to play swing.
This is the single most important element in swing and the one that most players cannot execute well. Common issues include the drummer rushing or the horns dragging. Swing Era charts are arranged for dancing, and any deviation from the initial tempo will ruin the swing feel and disrupt the dancers. Use of a metronome in practice and even performance is critical and cannot be stressed enough, as well as listening to the other band members.
For horn players, proper posture and breath support are key to volume, pitch, stamina, and injury prevention. This is easily forgotten nowadays where instruments are miked and being lazy is forgiving. The characteristic big, full sound of the Swing Era requires proper playing mechanics that should be taught and maintained at an early age.
VIDEO: Trumpet Shakes
Here is an example of teaching trumpet shakes, a common Swing Era element, by emphasizing proper techniques and practice methods.
Alternatively, invite the student body to a swing dance in your gymnasium, cafeteria, or performance space. We’ll bring a pair of experienced dance instructors to give a group lesson on partner swing as well as line dances that were common during the Swing Era. This social activity provides a wholesome and healthy alternative in an era where electronics and other sedentary activities dominate young adults’ leisure time.
Keeping Swing Alive
It took some major events, including World War II and the 1942-44 recording ban, to put an end to the popularity of big band swing. It is our mission to resurrect this powerful art form and let it thrive for years to come, starting on a local, grassroots level. With you and your school’s help, we can work to achieve this goal together.