A fortnight ago, in the class I go to, we had a discussion about swing. We agreed you have to feel it. There isn’t a formula. We agreed it is something to do with the timing and emphasis of the ‘ands’ (the half beats, as in ‘1 and 2 and…’). Barry Harris has a wise and witty video about this, which we watched together. At one point, with a mischievous spark in his eye, Barry mercilessly trolls the drumming of his late and very distinguished friend ‘Philly’ Joe Jones.
We listened to one or two recordings, and I wondered out loud: how can the bass swing, while playing very few ‘ands’ or none at all? A bass player explained: it’s about the pauses.
That struck me as rather Zen. But it’s absolutely right. On the bass you have two timing choices on each note: the attack and the release. And though I know nothing about bass technique, I’m prepared to believe that the release – the moment the vibrating string is damped to silence the note – is vital to creating swing.
So we came to the idea that the technique of swinging is different on each instrument. On wind instruments it will involve breath and tonguing. On bowed instruments, whether swinging or in straight tempo, you normally play down-bow on the beat and up-bow on the ‘and’. Watch any orchestra.
The syllables a vocalist sings can make it easier or harder to swing. Good lyricists are aware of this. Try to even speak the phrase ‘sophisticated lady’ without swinging. (Can you think of any examples of clunky, swing-killing lyrics?)
It is not just the natural metre and stress of the words. The vowels and consonants themselves make a difference. ‘Badoobydoobydoo’ swings easier than ‘daboodyboodyboo’. The art of scat is, to a large extent, the art of inventing meaningless but insanely-swinging sequences of syllables.
On the piano, the natural impulse is to play each note with whichever finger can get there fast, reliably, and with least effort. I am not sure that is a recipe for great swing, or for great playing in general. Pianists are taught to change hand-position smoothly, and to use all ten fingers with good tone, precision and dynamic control. These skills give the player more fingering choices. But you never reach a point where fingering doesn’t matter.
Out of all the ways you could play a passage, is there one where your hands help you create the phrasing, rhythm and swing you want, rather than fighting you all the way? Perhaps this is a well-known subject, but in the few years I have been learning jazz piano, it has never come up in a class, a lesson, or a conversation with another player. Meanwhile I will watch a few pianists with great swing, like Oscar Peterson, Kenny Drew and Phineas Newborn Jr., and see if I can figure out how they do it.