Venn Diagram #2: “Neo-Swing”
NOTE: (added 2:30 a.m. 1/2/12) I promise this is not just a cheap shot. Recently I did a video-interview with Josh Callazo, the incredible drummer of the Jonathan Stout Orchestra. The clip, which I will put up in a few days, coincidentally helps explain part of the joke above and how it’s actually something that I think is very important about swing. But more on that soon.
Also, I should probably clarify that I do not put modern jazz bands (Jonathan Stout, Boilermakers, Glenn Crytzer, etc.) in the category of “Neo-Swing.”
NOTE: (added 1:07 p.m. 1/27/12)
NOTE: Recently I published an interview with swing drummer Josh Callazo. This interview with Josh proved a great opportunity to explain the Venn Diagram joke and how it’s actually something that is interesting and important about swing (to me, at least).
When I think of “Neo-swing” bands, I immediately think of the names Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, The Brian Setzer Orchestra, and Atomic Fireballs. Many of these were once-rock and ska bands who apparently learned everything they wanted to know about swing rhythm from the drum roll in “Sing, sing, sing.” (Note the common trend: start off with “sing, sing, sing”-like roll, then go into rock drumming when the song kicks-in. Repeat.) But these bands never mastered (or perhaps attempted to) the true swung rhythm, and I think watching Josh’s interview is a great quick way to start to understand the difference.
Even the “Neo-swing” music that was very well-written—most of which, in my opinion, was produced by artists like Indigo Swing— never had anything close to the kind of rhythm you would get from Gene Krupa, Chick Webb, or the Basie rhythm section, and other masters of swing rhythm. So, though there was some good pop music in Neo-swing, it was still “bad” swing because it rarely ever swung. Or, at least, wasn’t actually “swing” music by, some would argue, the most important definition of it.
Probably the biggest exception to this, in my opinion, are the Squirrel Nut Zippers. The vaguely “old timey” group plays with many different rhythms, some of which swing really nicely. However, what is ironic is that their most poplar and danced-to song in the Neo-swing era was “Hell,” a Latin-inspired rhythm. Also, Neo-Swing purists might debate whether SNZ was actually a Neo-swing band, or more just a novelty jazz band who happened to hit at the same time as the Neo-swing acts.
Now, there are other factors as well that help even good neo-swing bands fall into a “bad” category, like one-dimensional orchestration, uninspired musicianship, or all those cliches of two-tones, zoot suits, and martinis. (Very few neo-swing songs ever got around to actually saying much. Lester Young said more in a phrase with a saxophone than the Neo-swing bands said all together with instruments and the English language combined.) Basically, if you’re going to label it swing in a genre that includes Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Fats Waller, Benny Goodman, and Chick Webb, it’s going to have to live up to a lot to be considered good.
By the way, I’ve seen Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Cherry Poppin Daddies, Brian Setzer and Squirrel Nut Zippers in concert. SNZ were exceptional, I seem to recall.