It Don’t Mean a Thing
(If It Ain’t Got That Swing)
You may remember the old joke about the comedian who asks, “What’s the secret of a good joke?” and then answers the question without a moment’s break. “Timing.”
Until Einstein, “time” was seen as a constant. It was always the same. Then relativity came along and suddenly time was a “changeable” dimension. (Don’t ask me to explain THAT!) Time became, to put it way too simply, relative. As we get older we can agree with that idea. Time sure moves faster when you have more time behind you. (Where did this year go? It’s the end of July already!)
Another way of describing this is to say that “time” is how we perceive it. If we are bored, it hardly moves; if we are having a great time, it ends too soon. Music depends on time- and timing. Music is guided by a “time signature.” In jazz, the idea of “time” can take on another dimension. Time becomes the movement of the notes in a unique and special way. From there that movement is what musicians often call “the groove” or the interaction of musicians, time and melody into something everyone can feel.
When you are in that groove with the movement leading you, holding you and the music together-
Wikipedia starts the definition of swing this way:
In jazz and related musical styles, the term swing is used to describe the sense of propulsive rhythmic "feel" or "groove" created by the musical interaction between the performers, especially when the music creates a "visceral response" such as feet-tapping or head-nodding.Got it? It sounds simple.
1. There’s the movement (propulsive rhythm).
2. That movement is created by the interaction the performers themselves are feeling.
3. There is a “visceral response,” perhaps because of that interaction, responses like tapping your foot or nodding your head.
If that’s all it takes, I have seen many performers “swinging” in some of the dullest ways possible. In some ways it sounds like a small group of people doing their thing in a way that moves them.
While some jazz musicians have called the concept of "swing" a subjective and elusive notion, they acknowledge that the concept is well-understood by experienced jazz musicians at a practical, intuitive level. Jazz players refer to "swing" as the sense that a jam session or live performance is really "cooking" or "in the pocket." If a jazz musician states that an ensemble performance is "really swinging," this suggests that the performers are playing with a special degree of rhythmic coherence and "feel."In other words, if you don’t understand it, that’s because you aren’t an experienced jazz musician. It takes a “practical” and “intuitive” understanding to know when it’s “cooking.” That just adds a bit of snobbery to the first part of the discussion. You have to be with the “in crowd” to really know what swing is or even how to make it happen. How about that attempt at paradox- practical AND intuitive.
Do you get the idea they can’t describe it any better than anyone else? All they are saying is that they know it when it happens. When it’s not happening, well, it “just ain’t swingin’ man.”
The crazy thing is that this is as good as it gets trying to nail it down without some time listening to the music. We have all had an experience of the essence of “swing” whether it is in jazz, or any other kind of music. It may have been the Sunday the organist at church nailed a Bach prelude or the praise band’s hallelujah touched the depth of your soul. It might have been at the rock concert when your favorite band never sounded better and every note was right where they (and you) wanted it to be. Those are the same as “swing,” just in a different musical genre. They are peak experiences when music and time come together and meld into Einstein’s four-dimensional universe.
Okay, enough of this. We can wax and wane poetic, prosaic, or scientific night and day and never quite get to that kernel of truth about swing. We know swing because it moves us. We know swing because something in us responds to it. As musicians, we know we are “in the groove” when we come to the end and realize you were simply carried along.
In jazz, we call it swing. Swing always is an interaction in time and musical movement. On a very simple technical level swing is that dotted-eighth/sixteenth combination of notes. But Latin jazz doesn’t do that, yet it can swing as hard as any other jazz.
That’s where the idea of time really comes into play. Wynton Marsalis describes it this way in his book, Moving to Higher Ground:
Jazz is the art of timing. It teaches you when. When to start, when to wait, when to step it up, and when to take your time- indispensable tools for making someone else happy….We are back to our perception of time, and again that perception is grounded in a collective sense of time in the interaction of the musicians, the rhythm, and the music.
Actual time is a constant. Your time is a perception. Swing time is a collective action. Everyone in jazz is trying to create a more flexible alternative to actual time
Wynton Marsalis applies all this to our daily lives. Swing helps us in:
1. Adjusting to changes without losing your equilibrium;Change happens. It is a constant. Sometimes it is expected and not jarring. It is in time. Sometimes it knocks us off our balance. That is when the understanding of swing, staying in the groove, going with the flow comes in handy. The moments of crisis, times of change, when we can lose our ability to make healthy decisions is when we move back to the basics. The forms of life that keep us moving.
2. Mastering moments of crisis with clear thinking;
3. Living in the moment and accepting reality instead of trying to force everyone to do things your way;
4. Concentrating on a collective goal even when your conception of the collective doesn’t dominate.
Remember that jazz is made up of forms and when you have an understanding of the forms you can adapt. If you know the forms of your life, you can begin to trust your Self 2 instinct as discussed in the Inner Game of Music. It’s the muscle and mental default mode that keeps us standing when it would be easier to fall.
From there we accept what is- staying in the moment- accepting the things we cannot change, changing what we can, and knowing which is which.
Another way to describe swing is that it’s how you accent the music, what you emphasize, what you want people to hear. Any jazz musician knows the forms for accents, for what to emphasize and what not to. That can change from performance to performance, within the basic forms of course. Tonight the musician may want to emphasize the upbeat feel of a chorus; tomorrow, after a difficult day, the emphasis may take more of a bluesy style.
What you accent in life can become your song or story. How you do that can change the rhythm of your life. That’s your perspective. We all know the analogies of looking at the doughnut or the hole; the cage of horse manure with the optimist seeing the possibility of a horse amid all that. Even the old "is the glass half-empty or half-full" can add a new dimension- the glass is refillable.
Accentuate the positive. Assume positive intent.
It’s your choice.
But you are not alone. With few exceptions jazz is a truly collective music. We have to listen to each other, not fight each other in a jazz performance. It is a cooperative action of attempting to make more than any one of us can make on their own. If I accent the upbeat and you slur through them it might sound unique, but will it sound appropriate? Will it sound like one of us is trying to one-up the other? The music will often suffer as a result. It can easily descend into chaos. Some might call that “free-form” but it takes amazing concentration of collective action to produce good “free-form” jazz.
In the end, Wynton Marsalis says, swing demands three things:
1. Extreme coordination- it is a dance with others inventing steps as they go;Swing is worth the effort. We grow in relationships- and we learn how to develop relationships. We learn how to listen to others and, in the end, ourselves. That will lead us into the next two weeks’ posts on what may be the heart and soul of jazz- improvisation, the ultimate in going with the flow.
2. Intelligent decision making- what’s good for group
3. Good intentions- trust you and others want great music.
Until then, keep swinging.
I don't care if a dude is purple with
green breath as long as he can swing.
Note: All Wynton Marsalis quotes are from the book:
• Moving to Higher Ground: How Jazz Can Change Your Life by Wynton Marsalis and Geoffrey Ward. 2008, Random House.