Or, more precisely, what is this music that we swing dance to? The nomenclature is muddied by terms used by dancers, terms used by musicians and then the mess that is how the rest of the world calls it all. Here are a bunch of the search terms that I look for when reading through music descriptions – I’m still struggling with the exact definitions of all these terms
swing jazz: Perhaps the most accurate term, but also a term that is sadly rarely used as a category of jazz. And also while some think of “swing” in terms of swung rhythm, some people simply think of “swung notes” .
Jazz will get lots of results, but jazz as a whole now encompasses a huge genre of music, and sometimes also includes anything improvisational or experimental, so finding swing jazz at a jazz festival can be surprisingly difficult.
Traditional Jazz or Trad Jazz is often a monicker used by bands that play earlier swing music, but also often includes Dixieland jazz and New Orleans-style Jazz, forms of music contemporary to Charleston and dances that preceded and influenced lindy hop.
Big Band Jazz is often swing jazz, although big bands also include more contemporary band music. Tributes to Count Basie are a good sign, as are Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Ellington (although some of Duke Ellington’s experiments are arguably not so danceable) or (insert your favorite vintage bandleader/musicians). And, of course while traditionally a big band meant easily over a dozen instruments, nowadays “big” can sometimes mean “more than six”.
Pre-bop is a term I’ve heard encompassing swing jazz and earlier jazz forms, and correspondingly bebop usually identifies music that is no particularly for dancing.
Dance is unfortunately a term that is nowadays overloaded to also include the more modern house/club dancing music, which is often solidly out of the jazz spectrum. Sometimes in this spectrum is Electro-Swing, which can range to remixed swing jazz but sometimes juxtaposes with the electro/dance music more directly, or is electro music where rather than electronic samples there are vintage audio clips.
As I’m hardly an expert on jazz music, I’m often curious whether the above impressions that I’ve gleaned mostly from trial, error and observation jive with the “official” definitions. Mostly, I’m a little distressed that it is so difficult to pin down definitions for all these – but maybe it means that swing jazz is still in a bit of flux. We have new instruments, better amplification technology, and access to a huge repertoire of recordings – although there is definitely a lot that we’ve lost in the intervening years, including charts and techniques – I still think there’s room for the genre to grow. There are new arrangements mixing up old songs, and even brand-new pieces. It is all this that makes every live band performance unique and exciting, and absolutely worth hunting for!