Gun to my Head: A Few of The Most Influential Swing Musicians

Image of a handsome young man playing jazz music

Before its emergence as a distinguished genre of its own, swing began as simply another side of jazz music, with improvisation and contrapuntal melodies that seemed to almost be having a conversation with each other soaring from brass and vocal instruments soaring over solid, straightforward (though never simple) beats and lively bass lines. Swing truly came to prominence in the 1930s and moved away from improvisation in favour or more structured, pre-written melodies, eventually lending its name to a whole era in musical history known as the eponymous “Swing Era”. Far from a barebones outline of the beginnings of swing music however, this short piece of writing is intended as merely an attempt at listing and summarising some of the most important big band and swing musicians of all time. Lengthy detail is spared in favour of taking anyone that may be interested through a few of the most prominent and influential swing musicians of all time. After all, today’s jazz and swing musicians owe their interest to the emergence of this lively branch of jazz music, without which the modern-day emergence of Electro Swing couldn’t possibly have happened.

An image of Duke Ellington

Duke Ellington

It is impossible to write about the swing era without dropping Duke Ellington’s name in some way or another. More often than not, he is cited as one of the most important American composers in history, and played a huge part in the propagation of swing music during the 1930s.Weekly performances at the Cotton Club in New York (which is to this day a lively centre of swing and jazz music) gave Ellington a platform to air his incredible talents, and his compositions and arrangements persist even now, acting as examples and pieces of study for those reading music at university and all levels of education. Duke Ellington is undoubtedly one of the most important swing composers of all time and his big band swung right through the 1930s with growing popularity.

Count Basie

Kansas City was the place and 1929 the year that Count Basie truly started to attract attention to his musical talents. Kansas City  was already a fertile ground for jazz music in which Basie anchored his roots, growing in skill and refining his piano performances behind Bennie Moten’s Big Band before inevitably forming his own group in 1935 which went on to bring Basie’s style (often described as sparse but extremely precise and calculated with real blues influences) to the rest of the United States as they travelled the country. Basie worked with Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald among others, and was another undeniable force in jazz and swing music.

Image of Benny Goodman

Benny Goodman

Earning a nickname like “the king of swing” doesn’t just happen for no reason at all, and talented Clarinet player Benny Goodman earned this reputation. Goodman moved to New York City in late 1920 and obviously had an impact since the 1930s saw him head up a weekly dance-style show on the radio, bringing what was widely seen as black jazz music to a white audience. Often regarded as the best jazz clarinettist of all time and featuring on many such lists, Goodman cemented jazz music’s reputation as an accessible genre and worked towards blurring a once well-defined racial line in music at the time.

Lester Young

Young performed as part of the Count Basie Orchestra in the 1930s era as a Saxophonist. His style was in huge contrast to the big band style, which was then rising in popularity, opting for a more relaxed, natural, and easy-going sound on the sax that caught people’s attention. Young went on to play with the philharmonic in 1946 and to this day remains an influential figure in the development of swing and jazz music (posthumously, of course).