Swing Music 101

25  Essential Swing CDs

Big Band Swing

Traditional, jazz-based, big band music. Big Band Swing is the archetypical music for Lindy Hop, to which Lindy Hop was invented, and for which Lindy Hop is best suited. Big Band Swing is divided here into two sub-genres: modern Big Band and "Classic" Big Band. The distinction amounts to more than just the same music recorded in hi-fi or lo-fi. The technological innovations of hi-fi and amplification changed the way Big Bands sounded, as well, with the Bass being amplified to a more prominent role and soloists being able to stick out without needing to "shout."

"New Testament," Modern, Hi-Fi Big Band

Count Basie: April In Paris (Verve) Everything in Lindy Hop music starts and ends with Count Basie. Louis Armstrong created Swing more than any other; Benny Goodman popularized it like no other; Chick Webb rocked the house with Swing music like no other; and Duke Ellington musically did more with Swing than any other. But Basie composed, arranged, played, recorded, and milked Lindy music out of his bands like no other--music that every dancer from beginners to experts can appreciate, whether they do Savoy or Dean Collins or any other style of Lindy Hop. From the early rhythmic innovations of his 1930s big band, to the smooth-grooving, explosive swing of his 1950s and 60s big bands, to the late, small groups recordings he did with other Jazz Greats (Oscar Peterson or Zoot Sims), Basie was an under-appreciated master of Lindy Hop music.

There are great compilations (like "The Atomic Swing" collection), but "April In Paris" is an actual album as originally released, not a compilation of greatest hits. It is one of the best Big Band Swing albums ever (not including compilations), with classic, old-school Lindy favorites (Shiny Stockings, Co-Po....) that should be the core of any Swing collection. Make sure you get the 20-bit reissue bound in a cardboard, not plastic, case. The sound quality is a bit better and you get several “alternate takes” of the best songs that are sometimes better than the original LP takes.

Count Basie and Duke Ellington: First Time (CBS 1961): Duke Ellington's and Count Basie's orchestras blended together for this all-star record. Although there are only eight songs on the original LP, only one of them is (in my opinion) a throw-it-away, progressive-jazz, non-danceable song. The rest are absolutely amazing, inspirational, and incredibly fun for dancing with mostly top-notch musicianship (with the exception of the ensemble horns on Take the "A" Train). Look for the recently released bonus edition with several alternate takes and extra songs.

Duke Ellington: Blues In Orbit (Columbia 1959) Duke Ellington was the greatest Jazz musician ever, but he did not limit himself to just Swing music, so be advised that many of his most famous recordings are famous for reasons other than their danceability. This CD provides Hi-Fi recording of some of Ellington's traditional hits that are perfect for dancing at many tempos. Great sound, and it contains the best version of C-Jam blues around, including the good-but-overplayed Lincoln Center Orchestra version.

Oscillating Rhythm/Swingin at Capitol (Capital records). Two companion CD compilations of traditional swing standards played by the masters in the 50s and 60s, after the Swing Era subsided but before the same musicians lost their zeal. The real benefit is the sound quality: much, much better than the muffled recordings from the 30s and 40s. Although the older recordings from the 30s and 40s are still great because they capture Swing music as it might never be played again, it is nice to have good sound quality.

George Gee & His Make Believe Ballroom: Swingin Live (Swing 46) /Swingin Away (Zort Records) Top Notch Basie-style big band from New York playing authentic, vibrant Big Band Swing music with depth and rich professionalism. George Gee's band is the Basie band of the modern era (perhaps the highest compliment I can pay a modern band) that is even better live than on CD. Some people dogmatically yet legitimately argue that this band does not belong in the Neo Swing category, but this is my list, not theirs, and I include it in this list so as to add some depth to the unfortunately hyperactive-yet-vapid Neo-Swing genre.

Vintage "Classic" & Swing-Era Big Band

Swingsation: Ella Fitzgerald with Chick Webb (GRP) All of the "Swingsation" collections are fairly reliable retro-CDs, making the most of the limited sound quality of the original monaural recordings from the 30s and 40s. Chick Webb and his orchestra are the real stars on this one, but they sell it as an “Ella” album because she is better known. Chick Webb was the drummer/band leader for the house band at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, where Lindy Hop began and thrived through the Swing Era. He “discovered” Ella in the 30s and gave Ella her first break into show business. Ella became so popular as the frontline singer that she took the helm of the orchestra after Webb's untimely death in 1939 and eventually developed into perhaps one of the greatest jazz vocalists. However, be advised, although her work on this CD is great, it is not her best work. This CD is on the list as a great representative of authentic Harlem big band music during the peak of the Swing Era.

"Mainstream" Swing

Small-band jazz music that was the vogue for modern Lindy Hoppers a few years ago. It is also the toughest genre for me to recommend only 5 CDs.

Oscar Peterson: Night Train: (Verve) A bit sedate, but it contains some of the most well-known modern Lindy tunes played at dances across the country. It is also a great introduction to elevating your dancing from mono-rhythmic, move-oriented Lindy Hop to modern, groove-tempo, polyrhythmic, improvisational Lindy Hop. Most of the songs provide an archetype definition of polyrhythmic mainstream swing. As with "April In Paris," above, this CD is available in a Verve 20-bit, cardboard-case re-release with alternate and bonus takes.

Maxine Sullivan: A Tribute to Andy Razaf (DCC Jazz) Recorded in the 50s, it is a classic example of a hidden gem that has become popular again only because of Lindy Hop. It is tough to find for that very reason. It contains many familiar, Lindy favorites, and rightfully so. Maxine's voice never sounded so sweet, soothing, and rhythmic. The back-up band is phenomenal and tight, too.

Nat King Cole: After Midnight Sessions: (Capitol) Mid-50s recording of some of Nat King Cole's absolutely smoothest yet deeply-rhythmic swing songs ever. Great sound quality really gives a fantastic example of the richness of Nat's deep, vibrant, and richly-musical voice.

Yoko Noge: Monday Jam at the Hothouse/Yoko Meets John (Jazz Me Blues Records): From Chicago, this modern band is a Chicago Lindy Hopper favorite. Not that I'm biased, but I attended and danced at the recording session for the Yoko Meets John CD. (John still has not followed through on his weekly promise to get a day job next week. Strike that: John got a "job" performing with Steppenwolf Theater Co. in the New York production of "One Flew Over the Cukoo's Nest." His weekly performance with Yoko on Mondays at the HotHouse in Chicago also counts.)

Roy Eldridge: Little Jazz: The Best of the Verve Years (1951-60) Roy Eldridge was nick-named "Little Jazz," so there are probably ten or more CDs with that name as the title. (I personally own three). Look for this Verve compilation with quivering letters, a simple drawing of Roy forcefully blowing into a trumpet pointing upwards to the left, and "The Best of the Verve Years" subtly printed on the bottom of the front cover. Although Roy had a piercing style of playing trumpet that at times sounds painful, the back-up players (including Oscar Peterson & Ray Brown from the "Night Train" lineup on some tracks and the Jo Jones/Walter Page rhythm section from Basie's original orchestra on others) make these recordings swing so well that pain does not matter. Roy also added a solid, rhythmic inspiration that only comes from experience.

"Groove Swing"

Groove Swing is a dancer's term, not a musician's term. It refers to the way a song is performed more than how it is composed or arranged: swing music that is played with a heavy bass-laden emphasis, where the bass is more amplified and played with a soft attack and long sustain so as to give the bass more of an omnipresent sound instead of a staccato thumping sound. The bass rhythm is so rich and strong that it sits down into a deep "groove" from which the beat emanates: thus the term. To define it by contrast, instead of the sharp, "chonk, chonk" swing rhythm common among classic swing, the bass flows with more of a constant, subtle, yet omnipresent "vroom, vroom, vroom, vroom"

Lou Rawls with Les McCann, Ltd.: Stormy Monday (Blue Note 1990) Lou Rawls (singer) primarily sang and recorded R&B Soul, but this album is straight-forward Jazz and Blues in large part because it features the back-up band of Les McCann (piano), Leroy Vinnegar (Bass), and Ron Jefferson (drums). The hits from this album have been extremely overplayed in Austin (and even moreso around the country), but this album perhaps more than any helped inject Groove Swing into the Lindy Hop vernacular.

Gene Harris: The Best of the Concord Years (Concord, 2000) Gene Harris (piano) is also one of the prototypical Groove Swing artists who has been unfortunately overplayed across the country. This two-CD set features many of his most popular danceable stuff, from slow tempoed Blues dance material to hard-rolling up-tempo Balboa songs.

Jimmy Witherspoon: Singin' The Blues (EMD/Blue Note 1959). Jimmy Witherspoon (singer) was also a multi-genre singer like Lou Rawls--singing some Early Rock and Roll and Soul songs--but his focus was on "da Blues." Like most great singers, his fame stems in large part from selecting a great back-up band that really grooves. However, a large part of his popularity among Lindy Hoppers also stems from how his vocal phrasing (where and when he sings the words as well as the words or syllables he accents) really streams from the rhythm, unlike some singers who have very little "Swing" in their "song." This CD is perhaps his most popular among Lindy Hoppers, containing many of the songs you hear played nightly across the country.

Al Grey: Me 'n' Jack (with Jack McDuff) (Puellen Music 1996) Al Grey (trombone) has fronted some amazingly rhythmic bands that just LOVE to spread a smooth, groove-swing rhythm like thick, warm honey-butter on toast. On this album, Jack McDuff joins in, a legendary jazzman famous for his work on the "Hammond B-3 Organ." (The tube-driven Hammond B-3 Organ provides a uniquely sweet, full, and mellow sound than no other organ or synthesizer has been able to replicate). I caught Jack McDuff at an undersold performance at Follinger Auditorium at U of Illinois while in college years ago, and have loved him ever since, so this was a particularly great find.

Charles Earland: Organomically Correct (32 Jazz 1999) Charles Earland was another master of the Hammond B-3 Organ. His music and recordings are rather diverse (lots of Soul, pop, bebop, and gospel influences) and thus not as focused on the Rhythmic Jazz that Lindy Hoppers love as I would have liked. Many of his CD contain only one danceable gem: but, oh, what gems they are when they "hit it!" His signature rendition of "More Today Than Yesterday" (available on the 1969 album "Black Talk," as well as on other "Greatest Hits" or Live recordings) combines the B-3 Organ with a solid rhythmic core that includes a Bongo accent that really livens up the rhythm. The album "Organomically Correct" provides the most bang for the buck in terms of Lindy Hoppable music, though.

Jump Blues

Blues music with an upbeat, Swing rhythm; the predecessor to Rock and Roll. Jump Blues is less complex than Swing in the Jazz idion, but often more "fun” and hearty. Perhaps because of the number of one-hit wonders, many of the best CDs are compilations that contain the work of many different groups or musicians.

Jumpin Like Mad (Capitol) Double CD. Great compilation. Almost entirely danceable.

Jumpin’ the Blues (Ace Records) Top to bottom, a great compilation.

Jivin Jamboree (Ace Records) Another top-notch compilation.

The Mighty Blues Kings: Meet Me In Uptown. (R-Jay Records) Although considered a “Neo-Swing” band by some, this features mostly traditional Jump Blues recorded on authentic 1950s, tube-based equipment. This band also helped jump-start the Lindy Hop/Swing revival in Chicago in the mid-90s, helping Chicago get a leg up on becoming one of the Lindy Hop meccas of the U.S.

Neo Swing (Since 1990)

Swing music of the modern era, much of which is Rock/Jive-oriented crap, but which also includes the following gems. It gets a bad rap because of the Jump-Jivin', Cherry-Poppin, Hepster-SwingCat Neo-fad days of the late 90s, but few of us would be here dancing if it were not for Neo Swing.

Royal Crown Revue: Mugsy's Move/Walk on Fire (Warner Bros.) and (Surfdog). Although RCR gets a bum rap by many now-jazz-oriented Lindy Hoppers, RCR is the original, U.S. Neo Swing band who developed the style from which other, more popularized Neo Swing bands borrowed, and borrowed poorly: call them the Velvet Underground of Neo Swing. Whether directly or indirectly, most Lindy Hoppers (including myself) also would not have rediscovered Swing music or discovered Lindy Hop had RCR not taken the risk to eschew the common L.A.-band formulas and put forth the effort to bring Swing music back into vogue in the early to mid 90s. Along with Ross Bon of the MBKs, Eddie Nichols is also one of the only Neo Swing singers who (usually) can actually carry a tune musically. So they deserve their props.

Ray Gelato: The Men From Uncle (Double Scoop) The Full Flavor (Linn (UK)). Ray Gelato fronts a great neo-swing/jump blues band from Europe. The sound production on Gelato's earlier stuff sounded a bit “canned,” but his more recent stuff (since 1997) is fun, relaxed, tight, and rich. If only the Hepster Neo-cat bands had stolen some of his more-relaxed style....

BadaBing BadaBoom: Jonesin to Swing/Vol II. (B4 Records) A great Neo Swing band from Tennessee that puts a bit of a laid-back, country-boogie flair in their music, but still remains true to the lively, fun, traditional art form of Swing music. Good tightness and rhythm, plus sweet female-duet vocals. Great Boogie-Woogie songs, too. Plus, being a transplanted Yankee, myself, their first CD has a great explanation that explains "That's what I like about the North...." (Careful, Elmer.)

Bill Elliott Swing Orchestra: Calling All Jitterbugs. (Wayland) From Los Angeles, Bill Elliott's band is the Benny Goodman Orchestra of our time (even though Bill plays piano, not clarinet): True, up-tempo, big band pop Swing music, but still with a modern flair of its own. The lyrics on vocal songs (about 50%) are always shamefully campy and bleed goat cheese, but are true to form to the Andrew's Sisters, glee-club style of the 40s that many people enjoy. The sound production also captures a full, strong, rich sound that envelops you when played on a good system.

Big Town Playboys: Now Appearing (Blue Horizon). Similar to the Mighty Blues Kings, this band has since reorganized (under a different name, The Big Six), and they also played mostly traditional-style up-tempo Jump Blues, not the Jive-Rock Neo Swing that the descendant band now plays. Very fun, simple music without the hyperactive Neo-swing dorkiness. The Big Town Playboys were a British Jump Blues band that existed during the European Neo-Swing revival of the 80s.