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.


27 responses to “Venn Diagram #2: “Neo-Swing””

  1. So, I hate ruining a joke by explaining it, but I should probably clarify that I do not put modern jazz bands (Jonathan Stout, Boilermakers, Glenn Crytzer, etc.) in the category of “Neo-Swing.”

        • I wrote a long note, then edited it down to what is there now. I understand if it doesn’t explain anything at all. But, um, I will explain my intent soon. I promise.

    • Several people have said this, and I have debated about it and agreed, especially if you don’t count Squirrel Nut Zippers as Neo-swing.

      But I have updated the diagram.

  2. Hmm, two possible interpretations:
    a) neo-swing is sometimes so bad that it’s good? (like an Ed Wood movie?); or
    b) “good” and “bad” for neo-swing aren’t incompatible – even the good stuff shares the “bad” characteristics. All neo-swing is bad but some is good in addition. Rises above its roots and reaches danceability, listenability, good compositional structure or players’ virtuosity (whatever you want to judge music by) but can’t hide the fact it is also “bad” (which might be defined against any criteria you want, so long as its not exactly the same as those for “good”).

    I’m guessing you mean b)…

    • Oh YES! Firecracker Jazz Band!!!! And Katharine Whalen’s album ‘Jazz Squad’ is really nice. The rest of those neo bands are rubbish. There are so many good modern bands, it’s not worth hanging onto bands just for 90s swing nostalgia’s sake.

  3. I do not understand the concern about ‘true’ or ‘authentic’ swing music. To me, it is nothing more than a discussion akin to the theological discussion regarding the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin. Where is the practical application?

    As with most people, I swing dance because it’s fun. I don’t turn my nose up at any music that is FUN to dance to. 20’s and 30’s swing music holds no special appeal for me simply because the community of elite dancers deems it to be ‘authentic’. One of the nice things about getting older is that you feel less of an obligation to bow to the tastes of the supposed taste makers. In my opinion, recordings of 20’s and 30’s swing are tinny with very little variety. I will dance to it but don’t really care for it and, despite the heretical implications, I am happy to say that out loud.

    One of the characteristics of early swing was its changing nature. Every week dancers would come back to the dance floor with a new wrinkle, bands would come back with a new sound, and swing dance would evolve on a regular basis. For some reason, a part of the community is fixated on the idea that swing dancing stopped evolving in 1940 or thereabout. You know very well that, were Frankie and Count Basie alive, dancing, and playing, they would continue to promote new ideas and new concepts, just as they did in their heyday.

    If you do want to engage in an intellectual discussion, a swing rhythm is simply one in which every beat is split into three parts, the first two of which are joined into a single note. Another way to think of it is as a dotted eighth and a sixteenth played in a relaxed manner. You can find that rhythm in many genres and, if the tempo is appropriate, it’s fun to dance to. Period.

    This is not a defense of neo-swing, I’m just advocating that dancers look beyond the accepted norms of swing music as dictated by disciples of the 20’s and 30’s. Ask yourself why you dance (because it’s fun?) and if you could possibly have fun dancing to genres such as jump blues, boogie, and rock and roll.

  4. I completely agree David. As far as the swing Gestapo slamming neo-swing… let’s face it, it wasn’t for these bands in the 90’s, many people wouldn’t be dancing today. They revived the love of swing dancing and music. Many wouldn’t know or care who Basie was, if not for RCR or BBVD.
    I love all swing dance music from it’s inception to today. I also like jump blues, rockabilly, 50’s rock and roll, lounge music, and yes Neo-swing. My wife and I can dance to it all. And in fact love to bust out moves with a Rockabilly band playing an antique car show as much as we do at an official swing dance…maybe more.

  5. I would consider Brian Setzer to a rockabilly revivalist who got lumped into the neo-swing movement because it was convenient for his promoters to sell more of his stuff. I’m not a huge fan of his stuff, and I would never DJ or dance to it, but I think the dude deserves recognition for having decidedly more talent and commitment to his craft than … say the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies.

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