When I was a teenager and showed some talent and ambition on piano, my musician friends all started telling me I should be listening to jazz. Having never really encountered that music before, my mind went to this vague idea of what jazz was. I envisioned an old movie scene in a smoky nightclub with the drummer in the corner going “ding-dinga-ding-dinga-ding” on his cymbal. I was likely wearing sunglasses and snapping along and saying something about how hep it was, daddy-o.

I think a lot of people have a similar concept of what jazz is, and as cartoony as it seems, we’re actually pretty close to one of the most crucial elements in the jazz tradition – swing. That “ding-dinga-ding-dinga-ding” that the drummer in the imaginary nightclub is demonstrating the feeling that sets his music apart from so many other styles.

Picture a similarly cartoony troop of soldiers marching down a road. In front of them, the drill sergeant is calling hup-2-3-4, hup-2-3-4, and hear how rigid the marching sounds. Jazz musicians use the same 1-2-3-4 as the soldiers, but within each beat, they add a bit of swagger. The resulting, swoony feel is heard as swing, and the more deeply they swing each beat, the more natural and unforced the music sounds.

Today we’re listening to the pianist Thelonious Monk’s famous composition “Straight No Chaser.” It uses chord changes from the blues (see the piece on Robert Johnson) and includes improvisation in a head-solos-head layout (see the piece on John Coltrane’s "Cousin Mary"), but what’s really handy is that the drummer, Art Blakey, is doing an awesome job impersonating the drummer from the imaginary scene we just discussed, and you’ll hear him do it right at the beginning. Let’s listen.


Hopefully you’re hearing more of a smoky club and less of an army training routine in the way the group is playing. The sound is natural, swinging and free, but the way the musicians accomplish it is a bit tricky. In most kinds of music, when musicians play notes faster than the beat of the song, they just take the beats and split them in half – twice as many notes. When playing jazz with swing, the musicians don’t split them right in half, but shoot for a gray area somewhere closer to 2/3 of the way through the beat. It’s impossible to write it out exactly, which is why I’m going to show how it sounds in this video:

The great jazz composer Duke Ellington once wrote a song called “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing,” and it’s almost true. When the swing is missing, or played too exactly, traditional jazz does sound a bit off. The more I can feel swing in the music I listen to, the more I can enjoy it when musicians are doing it really well, just like when a comedian tells a joke with expert timing or when the spices in a bowl of chili are just right. Is there a song that swings extra hard for you? Let’s talk.

AuthorSteve Mossberg