Swing's The Thing

Calling all hepcats and righteous chicks! It’s time to jump, jive an’ wail: swing is in the air. That’s new millennial swing, a bracing rediscovery of America’s original art form – jazz music and dance. This retro movement is currently red-hot in frolic pads coast to coast to coast: from New York’s historic Webster Hall to the stylish Derby in Los Angeles, to the ultimate international swing mecca of Herrang, Sweden. Equal parts spirited partner-dancing, infectious live music, and suave vintage threads, the upbeat scene is fast becoming a turn-of-the-millennium pastime of choice.

The swing revival seems a lot like a time warp: on stage a zoot-suited bandleader reminiscent of flamboyant Cab Calloway prances in front of his honkin’ horn section waving a conductor’s baton, his watch chain drooping stylishly to the floor. On the dance floor exhilarated couples leap and shimmy, combining moves their grandparents once loved with the death-defying aerobatics of '90s extreme sports – maneuvers picturesquely dubbed Suicide Dip, Helicopter and Mop the Floor. Meanwhile over at the bar sweaty hoofers take refreshment, the women in upswept hairdos and billowy skirts, the men in fedoras, two-toned "Spectator" shoes and baggy pants held aloft with suspenders. Rounding out the fantasy cast of characters are ‘40s enlisted men in uniform joined by pin-up girls in seamed stockings; and ‘30s gangsters in double-breasted suits, their pin-curled, smoky-eyed molls in speakeasy finery. But this is no time warp: on closer inspection, the crowd sports pierced noses and tattoos, rainbow-dyed hair, mobile phones and digital watches. The music isn't strictly swing either, with rockabilly guitar licks and a drummer doing more than keeping tempo. When the band strikes up a particularly hoppin' jive, rested rugcutters scope for honey partners and quickly disappear into the roiling mass of limbs and hair and skirts and smiles.

Social, optimistic and tactile, swing is the new singles scene. The emphasis on manners, style and distinct gender roles make it the perfect antidote to decades of macho Rock, New Wave gender-bending and slovenly Grunge. However, pressure is high for would-be jitterbugs who need to collar those swift steppin’ moves -- or risk forever being a "Charlie", that is, a man who can’t dance. Lady newcomers on the other hand often find a willing tutor nearby or take advantage of each venue's complimentary professional lessons. Yet even the best instruction may not cure what ails swing’s dreaded "bunters": no sense of rhythm!

Swing is incredibly versatile, encompassing more than thirty cross-pollinated dance styles for every ability and musical taste. If the tricky rotating 8-count of the Lindy Hop and the fast 6-count of East Coast Swing prove too overwhelming, there’s always the bouncy, single step Jitterbug. Wallflowers do well with the Shim Sham Shimmy, a line dance performed in a group, or sultry West Coast Swing which meshes with slower country or blues music. Latin vibes best accompany Jive, while Shag steps are danced to beach music. Then there’s still the Susie-Q, Trucking, Boogie-Woogie and the Big Apple to master – and getting back to swing’s improvisational roots accomplished swingers often devise fancy footwork of their own.

The swing craze was originally sparked during the 1920s’ Golden Age of Jazz when Black Americans stomped the night away in New York City’s grand Harlem dancehalls like the Cotton Club, the Apollo Theatre and the Savoy Ballroom. Jazz giants Louis Armstrong, Count Basie and Duke Ellington entertained assemblies of thousands with the danceable, syncopated rhythms of "hot jazz”. Dexterous canaries like the legendary Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday supplied finger snappin', scattin' vocal accompaniment. All-night dance marathons where hoofers and horn-players inspired and challenged one another soon led to the creation of swing's fundamental dance, the Lindy Hop -- a flurry of complicated footwork, dizzying turns and aerial flips.

By the '30s and '40s the scene’s momentum propelled it into mainstream American culture where it was featured on radio, phonograph and film. Re-named “swing", its harmonic sophistication, jungle rhythms and outlandish horns dominated the social milieu: from the lowliest Southern juke joint to the swankiest Northeastern nightclub to the most quintessential Midwestern high school prom. Dictionaries were produced to keep the avid public “hep to the jive” emanating from the swing world, with volumes alone culled from inventive Cab Calloway -- the electric Harlem bandleader famous for trademark hits like “Hi De Ho” and “Minnie the Moocher”. Meanwhile, the downtown smart set enjoyed history-making swing culture on the Broadway stage, courtesy of Tin Pan Alley composers Cole “Guys and Dolls” Porter and the Gershwins. Enduring tunes like “Rhapsody in Blue”, and “Summertime” from America's first opera “Porgy and Bess” are national treasures in the swing tradition.

No matter how many classics swing spawned, the movement refused to be set in stone. During the Big Band era, clean-scrubbed bandleaders like Benny “the King of Swing” Goodman, Glenn Miller and the Dorsey brothers transformed the spicy nucleus of swing into a stately, dignified event with up to 60 musicians at a time. The dances became codified and easier for the masses to master, while wild jitterbugging, the great-granddaddy of modern slam-dancing, was decidedly frowned upon. Later when World War II economics shrank the bands in size the rowdy quotient was purposely heightened by bandleaders like Louis Jordan and Louis Prima, who pioneered boisterous jump-swing, jump-blues and jump-jive. Bim bam baby, overnight rambunctious new dances cropped up. This wartime sound, heard in the Andrews Sisters' driving “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B", laid the foundation for modern rhythm and blues, not to mention the musical epoch that ultimately eclipsed swing: rock ‘n’ roll.

Top musicianship and passionate innovation continue to characterize the latest crop of killer-diller swing bands, so it's no surprise they seamlessly incorporate a modern sensibility with a tradition dating back to the early part of the century. Fusing old jazz and contemporary rock, blues, punk, ska and rockabilly, groups with evocative names like Royal Crown Revue, Squirrel Nut Zippers and Cherry Poppin' Daddies are adding an exciting new chapter to the saga of swing. Today's neo-swing is in the groove, complete with fiery hot attitude and slang of its own. Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, the band credited with catalyzing the current craze by performing in the cult film SWINGERS, describes its explosive style as "high-octane nitro jive".

Making a splash in American movies, on television and radio, and sweeping around the globe, fun and fanciful swing is on its way to becoming a popular culture of epidemic proportions. Again. Swing's the thing, Daddy-O!


This appeared in the inflight magazine of Malaysia Airlines.