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The Swing

Swing started out as a kind of dance music in the 1920s. Among its most popular headliners were Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman. While various musical eras have come and gone, the genre has survived and kept a core of loyal fans. Still very much alive, big bands like the Count Basie and Duke Ellington orchestras offer solid proof of swing's enduring popularity.

The Swing

The word "swing" was first used in 1907 in the title of the song, Georgia Swing, by American jazz singer and pianist Jelly Roll Morton. Swing originally started out as a kind of dance music with catchy, punchy rhythms. While various musical eras have come and gone, swing has survived and kept a core of loyal fans. The current revival of big bands like the Count Basie and Duke Ellington orchestras - both of which survived their respective founders - is solid proof of swing's enduring popularity.

The Term "Swing"

Used in the musical sense, the term "swing" refers to a rhythmic beat generally associated with jazz and considered a vital principle of the genre. Swing is also a way of playing jazz, characterized by a kind of groove – the act of "swinging" – and the interaction between the rhythm section and the soloist playing riffs or short rhythmic phrases on top of the groove. Swing is not easy to define, and practically impossible to transcribe in a written score, but its distinguishing feature is the continuous contrast between tension and release that makes people want to snap their fingers and get up and dance.

The Swing Craze

Cab CallowayThe swing era spans the period from the 1920s to the mid-1940s, eventually losing ground with the advent of bebop. In the madness after the Wall Street Crash, the swing frenzy took hold in the United States. At a time fraught with uncertainty, it gave people a chance to let go, have fun, and dance away their sorrows. By the end of Prohibition in the 1930s, the swing genre had hit its peak with the rise of the major big bands that played two of New York City's most famous clubs: the Cotton Club and the Savoy Ballroom.


Pianist, composer and big band leader, Duke Ellington, was a pinnacle figure of the swing era. Despite the economic slowdown affecting many musicians at that time, the Duke Ellington Orchestra enjoyed immense success, bringing to life such swing classics as Perdido and It Don't Mean a Thing if it Ain't Got That Swing.

With the arrival of the jukebox, swing music spread like wildfire throughout the United States, making a household name of such musicians as clarinet player and jazz bandleader Benny Goodman. Goodman started his own big band in the 1930s, borrowing many of his musical ideas from his arranger of choice, Fletcher Henderson. Goodman's big band was among the most influential groups of its time.

In January 1938, Goodman would become the first jazz musician to play the famous Carnegie Hall in New York. The event gave place to an historic concert, where some of the period's greatest musicians, black and white, came together onstage despite the fact that segregation was still very much alive. In addition to Goodman, the audience also got the chance to hear piano virtuoso, Count Basie, founder of the legendary Count Basie Orchestra, which introduced soloists such as Buck Clayton, Lester Young and Roy Eldridge to the music world.

Throughout his career, Goodman actively fought against segregation, hiring African Americans to key positions in his big band. Among them were pianist Teddy Wilson, vibraphonist Lionel Hampton and guitarist Charlie Christian.

A Festival That Swings

Stéphane Grappelli Over the years, the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal has welcomed some of the biggest names in swing. In 1991, legendary singer and big band leader, Cab Calloway, treated Festival fans to a truly unique show, transporting the audience with the kind of exuberance and excess that reigned at the Cotton Club in the 1930s.

In 1995, the Count Basie Orchestra and the Duke Ellington Orchestra shared the Festival stage, as part of an unforgettable double-bill featuring singer Joe Williams and British singer Cleo Laine.

In 1984 and again in 1991, the Festival welcomed violinist Stéphane Grappelli, founding member of the Quintette du Hot Club de France, a major group who had a considerable influence on jazz and swing in France in the 1930s and 1940s.

Diane Schuur A living legend of jazz and hometown boy from Montreal, pianist Oscar Peterson, put his genius to work for the sake of swing on many occasions, while singer Susie Arioli has also explored the genre with her album, Learn to Smile Again.

John Pizzarelli Singer and fan of swing repertoire, Diane Schuur, has graced the Festival stage on four separate occasions between 1987 and 1999.

More recently, in 2009, swing fans put their hands together for Brian Setzer and his big band. Setzer is the rockabilly guitarist famous for instigating the new-swing revival that swept the U.S. in the mid-1990s. Festival favourite and Goodman fan and disciple John Pizzarelli also dropped by once more for a visit.

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