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Swingin’ Early Music

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Despite the fact that more and more is said about the correlation of early music and jazz, the comparison of these two, at first glance, different and unrelated genres indeed may seem a bit confusing and obscure, especially for those who claim that nearly 200 years of separating history and the fact that they were at the height of their popularity in completely different eras are too much to even start a discussion. It might be questionable also because jazz and early music are by no means musical genres with fixed meanings or clear stylistic boundaries and this causes that we still have more questions than answers.
However, they share a deeper kinship than we think. Jazz’s connection with Renaissance and Baroque music is more fundamental than they are with any later genres of classical music.
In addition to that, some of them produced jazz-inspired works.

“At first glance, the rather disconcerting coupling of jazz and old music immediately has a less alienating effect if we become aware of the integrating role dance elements played in all Baroque music, particularly that of the late Baroque. Above all were French dance rhythms, which determined form and structure in chamber music, orchestral works, and opera but which, moreover, also penetrated into church music so naturally that the rhythmic formal scheme of the stylized dances contributes the basis for most arias (even slow ones) in the cantatas and Passions of Bach, not to mention the dance-satiated world of Händel’s operas and oratorios.”[1]

The relationship, mainly propelled by improvisation (but this is a subject for a whole separate article), is actually quite broad and we can easily find it either in the binary form of the pieces (AB, used in many ways), with their easily-remembered form and after all, quite regular structure of phrasing, or in the repetitions (but rather understood more as a form of variation, with space left for improvisation), which play an important and large role. In addition to that, the structure of early music ensembles and Jazz combos, with their clear division into two interdependent groups that form an inseparable whole (concertino and ripieno in Baroque, and front line and rhythm section in jazz), and especially with a quite obvious reflection of the basso continuo in the rhythm section, only show to what extent early music laid the foundations for a completely different genre. We could easily debate about those correlations for long hours, that is why I would like to focus on one special connection that exists between swing, as the characteristic and basic form of jazz, and notes inégales, a common performance practice, used mainly in French baroque music.

It is well-known, but maybe forgotten sometimes, that swing has its roots in 1920s dance music ensembles (it is interesting especially that a whole new kind of dance evolved along with swing music. Until the latter half of the 20th century, the term swing referred to the style of jazz music. Then it eventually inspired the evolution of the dance), which began using new styles of written arrangements, incorporating rhythmic innovations pioneered by Louis Armstrong. He used the additional freedom of the new format with 4/4 meter, accenting the second and fourth beats and anticipating the main beats with lead-in notes in his solos to create a sense of rhythmic pulse that happened between the beats as well as on them. This is one of the actual characteristics of swing. What we know about swing is that it is the rhythmic pulse continued between the beats and expressed in dynamics, articulation, and a certain alteration. It is as much in the music anticipating the beat as in the beat itself. In theory, the swing is an eighth notes pattern. It is performed by lengthening the eighth notes on the beat (odd eighths) and shortening the eighth notes between the beat (even eighths), which creates uneven long-short notes. The analogy to the notes inégales practice is striking – “Notes inégales is a common practice in the performance of French baroque music. It indicates that the first of a pair of equally notated notes is played longer, similar to the use of swing eighths in jazz.”[2]

“In essence, swing bears a close relationship to physical movement, especially to dancing. Youngsters dancing to rock bands were often visibly swinging, although the musicians were not. The Second Line, prancing alongside a New Orleans marching band of weary, elderly men, is usually also quite clearly swinging, while the music may very well not be. The musicians in such a case are providing familiar melodic strains above a steady rhythmic foundation on which the dancers improvise. Under the best circumstances, however, there is a mutual exchange of inspiration between musicians and dancers.”[3]

In Baroque, the relation between dance and music was particularly important, as they were both directly related, even if written music was not even meant to be danced. Tempo plays a key role here, marching particular dance steps and their character, however, in musical performance, the tempo variation can be large, and therefore, the relation with the original dance movement – lost. One of the most common and at the same time the most important and characteristic baroque forms which concludes certain dances, not meant to be danced in the first place, is the suite. This is actually, a very interesting thing, as the suites are also composed and played in jazz music (like those of Charles Mingus’ or Miles Davis’, for instance). The suite is a type of fashionable instrumental dance music that emerged during the Renaissance and was further developed during the Baroque period, shaped by so-called French harpsichordists.

For the musicians, especially those who are focused on the historical performance practice, a particular dance style in French baroque music is as recognizable as the jazz-swing standard for the jazzmen. Moreover, as inequality is in part a matter of the rhythm, both of them have this particular kind of palpable flow that keeps the music going, the groove that never stops. It is even more noticeable in swing, but I would be far from saying it is reserved only for it. Both genres cause the instinctive tapping or shaking head, and a real desire to dance, undeniably.

Both swing and notes inégales are extremely controversial topics in music history. Swing is not as easy to describe as, for instance, blues (although both are so distinctive), and defining the French style is certainly more difficult than describing the Italian one, for example. The controversy is certainly their common denominator, as well as a bunch of problems that come in performing them.

The first visible is definitely the notation problem. The question is how to write the inequality, especially the one which happens in between the notes and which is so individual at the end? In that case, is it even possible?  The golden mean turns out to be writing even notes that are implied to be played unevenly. It is the knowledge, experience, and personality of the performer that affect the end result. The unevenness in French baroque music is, in my opinion, partially reflected in the swing. In both cases, we are confronted with its equal notation, whether in the form of quarter, eighth, or sixteenth notes. In both cases, the musicians should know what they need to do with this kind of notation and how to adjust it to the tempo and the character. That of course entails problems with performance.

How long and how short the notes should be? In theory, it is mainly related to the so-called ratio which varies from piece to piece, depending on its character. It is not only the variety of characters but also the tempos of the pieces that affect the end result. Moreover, the ratio differs from performer to performer, their knowledge, own taste, and timing. In fact, the exact duration ratio of both notes inégales practice and swing has still been largely unknown.

“The main problem in the interpretation of notes inégales is in the determination of the amount of inequality, the ratio between the longer and the shorter note in the pair. Performers with a background in historically informed performance practice would commonly prefer to find ratios as close as possible to the intentions of the composer. However, historical sources are usually quite vague and sometimes even contradictory. Apparently, it was impossible (or simply impractical) for the composers to notate the exact rhythmic division they wanted.”[4]


The notation and thus, a performance, is a certain problem here. Indeed, in the late eighties of the 17th century, French writers became compatible with the relation between meter and inequality but the question is how to be precise in notating the inequality one wants, being an early 18th-century composer? The problem is so intriguing that much research has been done to measure the exact rhythmic proportions (the so-called ratio) in playing the notes inégales. As you can guess, the same steps were taken in the case of measuring the swing ratio, with the difference, however, that the focus was on the drummers, on whom the whole feel in jazz is based.

“For a related phenomenon that has been studied extensively, we have to leave the world of early music for jazz. Here, the characteristic long-short subdivision is called swing. Several authors have conducted empirical studies on the timing of the swing ratio (…). Therefore, comparison between the two phenomena could prove useful in the study of notes inégales. It should, however, be noted that research on jazz swing has focused on drummers, who usually perform an ongoing long-short-short pattern in which they delay the last short note. In the present study the inequality occurs both on strong and weak beats, but is sometimes interrupted by longer notes.”[5]


Speaking about the feel, it is an integral part of the swing style. There is no swing without the feel – a word that fully captures what is most important but, ironically, it is still hard to explain what that feel actually is. It is certainly linked to inequality and this draws
a conclusion that when music is not played in swing, it is referred to as straight. Same with inégalité since not in all of the movements this kind of inequality should be realized – whenever the conditions were right, inégalité was mandatory unless the composer canceled it either by placing dots or dashes above the notes or „marqué,” „détaché” or „notes” or “croches égales”.[6] The feel is essential in the performance of both swing and French music. Without having it, it is very hard to perform it correctly and with pleasure. However, there are ways to develop this feeling in yourself, to find it. I guess it is harder to actually describe it than to learn it.

One more interesting example of the mutual correspondence of the two discussed techniques cannot be omitted here. The practice of free hesitation and anticipation of the melodic line (which are the daily bread and butter of jazz improvisation) over an unchanging rhythm is a decisive point. In Baroque, it was a well-known tempo rubato that existed before the romantic era and was described a century before Chopin, with whom we mainly associate this term. In the second half of the 18th century, as described by Leopold Mozart and used by, among others, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, it meant expressing rhythm spontaneously, with freedom, which was mainly achieved by playing uneven notes, obviously. Does it sound familiar? As Hans-Peter Schmitz claims, it corresponds to the “hot” style in jazz, in character, and in particulars.[7]

Although inégalité and swing have similarities and, moreover, I would be even tempted to say that this particular performance practice existing in French music of the Baroque era (it is mainly associated with France but can find it also in Spanish and Italian music of those times) was a kind of groundwork for swing, and, in my opinion, jazz drew much more from the Baroque than any other style, they, after all, belong to completely different musical genres of entirely different eras but the discrepancies that exist between them are like a missing puzzle in the whole picture of their relation.

Inégalité is a specific kind of performance practice that applies only to certain movements of the suite. Moreover, not all the notes are played unequally, as in theory, it should be adapted to the ones in a stepwise motion only (so the intervals which are not bigger than the seconds), although breaking this rule sometimes turns out to be just more tasteful and suitable. Swing, on the other hand, is constant, which leads to the conclusion that inégalité is just
a specific manner, a huge but still only a part of the whole French style (which is characterized by yet other factors), while the swing is a style in a full sense of this word.
Swing, although associated mainly with the eighth notes, does not really refer to specific rhythmic values, because it is not just a rhythmic issue (nor is the inégalité). It is also a matter of dynamics, articulation, and agogic (rather inégalité than swing in this case).

In jazz there are basically three types of swing: soft, triplet, and hard. While we could try to look for the equivalents of the soft (where the note values are almost the same,
the long-short pattern is very subtle) and hard (dotted, more in a style of a march rhythm which, I think, could be easily found in the New Orleans’ marching bands) swing in the French style and these would be, described by, inter alia, Étienne Loulié, Marqué and Piqué (or Pointer) manners, we will not find an equivalent for the triplet one. “Briefly, notes inégales consist altering the relative time-values of certain pairs of notes (never triplets), in order to intensify either their grace and charm or, on the contrary, their rhythm vigor”.[8] Interestingly, rarely anyone in the jazz community would want to be told that they play hard swing (for which the golden times should probably be sought in the bebop era), while Johann Joachim Quantz (the name which definitely cannot be omitted in any discussion about early music) himself wrote in his treatise from 1752 about how notes inégales should never go in the direction of the 3:1 ratio, which, after all, is ascribed to hard swing. And it is of great importance.

Swing and French Baroque music belong to completely different genres in different eras indeed. The emphasis on offbeat that comes from the drummer, which is so characteristic of jazz, results in music that has a very different motoric than classical music. That will always be the fundamental and distinctive difference between these genres. Of course, the roots of jazz lie in a completely different kind and come from the oral traditions, but we need to remember that the origins of music, long before the emergence of a clear system of notation that we use today, go back to a time when all knowledge about it was passed on in exactly the same way. In my strong opinion, early music (and in this case, I mean mainly Renaissance and Baroque,) and early jazz have much more in common than we think and can notice. It is
a great subject for a really good and deep, although not an easy one, research since it is very little said about it. I think if we went back to 17th and 18th century Europe, we would discover more jazz in it than we dream of. It seems to me that it is worth delving into this comparison more from both sides because both would surely find a sea of inspiration. Today there is more and more talk about it but, for my taste, still not enough. As for the beginning,
I refer to the article of Hans-Peter Schmitz – Baroque Music and Jazz – that actually made me explore the topic more thoroughly. I think you can find some really interesting observations there that will definitely open the door to fierce discussions.



[1] Hans-Peter Schmitz, Dominique-René de Lerma, “Baroque Music and Jazz”, The Black Perspective in Music,
Vol. 7, No. 1, 1979, pp. 75-80, https://www.jstor.org/stable/1214429.

[2] Moelants D., “The Performance of Notes Inégales: The Influence of Tempo, Musical Structure, and Individual Performance Style on Expressive Timing”, Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal, vol. 28, no. 5, University of California Press, 2011, https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/mp.2011.28.5.449.

[3] Dance Stanley, The World of Swing, A Da Capo paperback, C. Sribner’s Sons, New York, 1974, p. 1-2.

[4] Moelants D., “The performance of notes inégales: the influence of tempo, musical structure, and individual performance style of expressive timing”, Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal, vol. 28, no. 5, University of California Press, 2011, https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/mp.2011.28.5.449.

[5] Schmitz, H. P., “Baroque Music and jazz”, The Black Perspective in Music, transl. by Dominique- René De Lerma , vol. 7, No. 1, pp. 75-80, 1979, https://www.jstor.org/stable/1214429.

[6] Neumann F., “The Notes inégales revisited”, The Journal of Musicology, Vol. 6, No. 2 (Spring, 1988),
pp. 137-149,  University of California Press,  https://www.jstor.org/stable/763711.

[7] Schmitz, H. P., “Baroque Music and jazz”, The Black Perspective in Music, transl. by Dominique- René De Lerma , vol. 7, No. 1, pp. 75-80, 1979, https://www.jstor.org/stable/1214429.

[8] Ferguson H., Keyboards Interpretation from the 14th to the 19th century, Oxford University Press, London, 1975, p. 99.

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