Tin Pan Alley

As I was listing Benny Goodman’s most famous music, it occurred to me that a lot of the music we’re most familiar with as dancers comes from a stock of popular songs. Most of the artists we listen to have done their own versions, but where do they come from originally, and who wrote them?


Tin Pan Alley

West 28th Street in New York was originally given the nickname of Tin Pan Alley in about 1885 because it accommodated several music publishers. With very relaxed copyright laws at the time, competing publishers could release their own versions of popular songs and they promoted these by playing them on pianos for the public to hear. The story goes that the cacophony of  the music being played simultaneously from all the shops and studios above sounded like pots and pans being bashed. In the early days of Tin Pan Alley, customers were usually Vaudeville (Music Hall) acts. Famous artists were given arrangements by publishers for free, while the lesser known performers would have to buy their sheet music from the publishers.

In London, Denmark Street was also given the nickname Tin Pan Alley for the same reason. It was here that musicians went to do their networking. They would gather on Denmark street and make hand gestures to represent what instrument they played. If you were in need of a trombonist, look for people pumping their fists up and down in the air!


Song writers, Lyricists and Pluggers

The piano had become a common instrument in many homes by the 1880s and amateur players and singers were in abundance. They wanted music to play and sing at home for their own entertainment, as well as going to hear professional acts. Publishers hired song writers and lyricists to write songs that were easy enough to play and sing along to. They were then advertised and promoted extensively. Song pluggers were an important part of the pre-recorded music world. They were employed directly by the publishers and it was their job to play and sing to demonstrate and advertise the new songs for customers, so they could hear what they sounded like before they bought the sheet music.



The standard structure for a Tin Pan Alley popular song was known as the 32 Bar song form. Unsurprisingly it consists of 32 bars of music. This can be divided into 2 contrasting 8 bar phrases: A and B. So the overall song structure is AABA (A section is repeated, then new material is heard, then the A section to reinforce the main melody.) One of the simplest examples of this is the classic Tin Pan Alley tune by Gershwin: I Got Rhythm.

A I got rhythm, I got music, I got my man  Who could ask for anything more?

A I’ve got daisies in green pastures, I’ve got my man,  Who could ask for anything more?

B Old man Trouble, I don’t mind him, You won’t find him ’round my door

A I’ve got starlight, I’ve got sweet dreams, I’ve got my man, Who could ask for anything more?

Try counting the bars as Gershwin plays:



Tin Pan Alley churned out an incredible number of hits influenced by the popular styles of the day including ragtime, jazz and blues. These were the commercial pastiches created to appeal to a mass market, which in some opinions separates them from the “authentic” music of  these styles. Nevertheless, Tin Pan Alley provided the starting point for some of the best known and loved songwriters of all time.

You Should Know…

George and Ira Gershwin

  • Porgy and Bess- Summertime, It Ain’t Necessarily So, I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’

  • Lady Be Good

  • Funny Face

  • Embraceable You

  • I Got Rhythm

Harold Arlen

  • Get Happy

  • Stormy Weather

  • Wizard of Oz- Over the Rainbow

  • That Old Black Magic

  • Accentuate the Positive

Irving Berlin

  • White Christmas

  • Blue Skies

  • Puttin’ on the Ritz

Shelton Brooks

  • At The Darktown Strutters Ball

Huey Cannon

  • Bill Bailey Won’t You Please Come Home

Hoagy Carmichael

  • Stardust

  • Georgia on my Mind

James P Johnson

  • Charleston

Jerome Kern

  • A Fine Romance

  • Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

  • The Way You Look Tonight

  • I Won’t Dance

Johnny Mercer

  • Goody Goody

  • Jeepers Creepers

Macio Pinkard

  • Sweet Georgia Brown

Cole Porter

  • Let’s Do It- Let’s Fall in Love

  • Night and Day

  • Anything Goes

  • I Get a Kick Out of You

  • Just One of Those Things

  • Begin the Beguine

  • I’ve Got You Under My Skin

  • My Heart Belongs To Daddy

  • I Love Paris

Fats Waller

  • Honeysuckle Rose

  • Ain’t Misbehavin

  • I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby (possibly, also attributed to Andy Razaf)

  • On The Sunny Side of the Street

  • Basin Street Blues

Jack Yellen

  • Ain’t She Sweet

I have no dancing suggestions for you this week as the variety of styles is enormous. For the sake of space I have only listed songs we often dance to, but there is a huge variety of other music from Tin Pan Alley including rags by Scott Joplin and my favourite song title of all time: Yes, We Have No Bananas. If you’ve discovered that several of your favourite songs are by the same artist, listen to some more of their work and ask yourself if you notice any common features in their songwriting.

Benny Goodman

The King of Swing himself. Every dancer knows his music, but not all understand just how significant it is.

Early Life

Benny Goodman was born in Chicago and was influenced by musicians travelling through the city to or from New Orleans. He was given a clarinet to play at the early age of 10 and his father took him and his two brothers to the local synagogue to have lessons. Benny took to his instrument naturally and by the age of 14 he was already in a band featuring prominent jazz musicians including Bix Biederbeke.

Music for the youth

Goodman was a member of, and led a large number of bands during the late 1920s and early 1930s. It was at a regular gig at Billy Rose’s Music Hall that Goodman was approached to audition for a radio dance programme. Let’s Dance premiered in 1935 and featured three bands on rotation- one ‘sweet’, one ‘Latin’ and one ‘hot’. Goodman’s band were selected as the ‘hot’ band. In order to keep producing fresh repertoire, Goodman hired Fletcher Henderson to write arrangements for the band to play on air. They practiced hard and played at an exceptional standard. At this point, Gene Krupa joined the band on drums and took the quality of the band up another notch. Let’s Dance was on quite late on the East Coast and didn’t attract much of an audience but it was a different story on the West Coast where it was broadcast 3 hours earlier- during prime time. A subsequent tour proved the difference this made, being rather disastrous until they reached Los Angeles where youths were queued around the block to get into the Palamar Ballroom to hear the band. They danced in the aisles and it was at this point that the “jitterbug” went mainstream. When the band returned to the East Coast they were famous.


In 1938, Goodman was approached to do a concert in Carnegie Hall. Until this point it had been the reserve of the upper classes and strictly classical. The Benny Goodman Orchestra would be the first jazz band to play at this prestigious venue. Naturally, Goodman was nervous, this was his opportunity to make or break jazz for the next generation. If he was successful, he would prove that jazz can be a serious art form and acceptable for an upper class audience. If he failed, he would face ridicule and scathing criticism, and the future of jazz would be in jeopardy. As if this wasn’t enough of a risk- Goodman also brought a racially mixed band onto the stage, featuring black artists such as Lionel Hampton. Not everyone shared Goodman’s opinion that

If a guy’s got it, let him give it. I’m selling music, not prejudice


The 1938 concert ended with one of the Benny Goodman Orchestra’s biggest hits- Louis Prima’s “Sing Sing Sing”. Featuring Gene Krupa on drums, it has become an iconic piece of music in today’s swing scene.

Skilled musicians

The Benny Goodman Orchestra featured some of the Jazz world’s most accomplished musicians. Alongside leader Benny Goodman and arranger Fletcher Henderson were Lionel Hampton, Gene Krupa, Harry James, Glenn Miller, Jack Teagarden, Coleman Hawkins and Ziggy Elman. Billie Holliday recorded with the band, as did Helen Ward and Mildred Bailey.

All Dancers Should Know:

Mostly known for swung arrangements of popular songs at the time, the Benny Goodman Orchestra brought Fletcher Henerson’s arrangements into the dance scene. You should also know:

  • Sing, Sing, Sing
  • In the Mood
  • King Porter Stomp
  • Bugle Call Rag


Also Listen To:

  • Let’s Dance (theme tune to the radio programme, based on Invitation to Dance by Carl Maria von Weber)
  • Loch Lomond (It got 3 encores at Carnegie Hall!)
  • Moonglow
  • Watch: Stage Door Canteen which features Benny Goodman and various other talents of the 30s and 40s.

Listen out for:

  • Even sections within the song
  • Groups of instruments playing melodies and countermelodies (slightly less important tune at the same time)
  • Dramatic changes in dynamics (suddenly softer or louder)

When You Dance:

  • Use the even structure of these songs to expand your repertoire of moves or gain confidence on the social floor. eg: 3x 8 basics, 1x 8 variation.
  • Use your body and select your moves to reflect the dynamics- small steps, gentle movements for quiet sections, big movements and lots of energy for loud sections.





Louis was born in New Orleans, the son of Italian immigrants. Both his parents were musical and they insisted that all their children learned an instrument. He began on violin but when his older brother went away, Louis got hold of his cornet and taught himself to play.

He made a name for himself in the 1930s playing in clubs in New York and California with his band “Then New Orleans Gang”. In 1936 he wrote the most iconic piece of music of the swing era “Sing Sing Sing (With a Swing)”. When WWII began, Louis couldn’t join the army due to a knee injury, so he was able to continue performing. He was invited to play for President Roosevelt’s birthday party. It was around this time that he became extremely popular. He developed the Italian-American vocal style that was part spoken and part sung, evoking the sound of a Neapolitan street vendor. Great examples are “Angelina” (apparently about his mum) and “Please No Squeeza Da Banana”

In the mid 1940s he led the Louis Prima Orchestra with songs like “My Dreams Are Getting Better All The Time” and “Civilization (Bongo Bongo Bongo)” and “Mean To Me” However by the end of the decade he had to cut his band down.

The new lineup were known as “The Witnesses” and resembled Rock ‘n’ Roll bands of the 50s with drums, bass, piano, guitar and a small horn section. Louis out the front singing, and in most of the 1950s videos- a female singer Keely Smith (who possibly had the worst stage presence in the existence of live performance). Keely seems to scowl and roll her eyes at Prima for most of the set while the rest of the band mess around, putting in very few words of her own. Their new style was a combination of swing, jazz and rock n roll, now known as jive. The band was offered millions to play the lounges of Las Vegas casinos “The Sahara” and “Desert Inn”

In 1967 Prima was approached to play the orangutan King Louie in Disney’s “The Jungle Book” and the song “I wanna be like you” was a massive hit. You may not know that he also recorded the original (and slightly sinister) theme song for “Winnie the Pooh”.

Listen Out For:

Jungle drum sounds on the tom tom drums

Walking bassline (one note per beat, eg, beginning of Just a Gigolo)

Louis’ gravelly voice

Syncopated lyrics. He barely ever sings on the beat.

Spoken/ sung lyrics (from 1:50 of the megamix above)

Band backing vocals

Call and Response! (it’s everywhere!) Prima plays around with musical “conversations” during improvisation, and he also uses backing vocals to copy his own lines

Keely Smith (she’s there somewhere…)

When You Dance:

Don’t listen to the rhythm of the vocals, it will lead you astray. Stay focused on the bass

Dance down into the floor for the jungle drums, don’t stomp about or kick up into the air.

Be prepared to speed up or slow down for dramatic effect

Play around with the call and response between yourself and your partner.

Every Dancer Should Know

Sing Sing Sing

Buonasera signorina

Just a Gigolo/ I ain’t got nobody (a combination of two pop songs from the late 20s)

I wanna be like you

Banana Split for my Baby

Jump Jive an Wail

Also listen to:



Civilization (Bongo Bongo Bongo)

Night Train

One Mint Julep

Mean To Me

*sigh* apologies about spacing issues. Again. Need to find out why wordpress doesn’t like paragraphs.

Duke Ellington

It stands to reason that if you’re blogging about Swing music, you should start with the big one. With more than 3000 songs to his name, Duke Ellington was truly the most important man in Swing history. Enjoy.

“I think that was the beginning of everything… I think The Cotton Club and Duke, I think that started everything going”- Adelaide Hall.

Edward Kennedy Ellington grew up in Washington DC. Both his parents were pianists and he began learning when he was 7. His childhood friend gave him the nickname “Duke” in reference to his noble bearing and dapper dress sense.

He moved to New York in the early 1920s and played house parties and various clubs. He was already writing music for publishers at the time, but his big break came when King Oliver passed up the offer of being the house band at the Cotton Club. Ellington was given the position and he selected eleven of Harlem’s best musicians to make up the band. They were given a weekly live radio broadcast which gave the band national recognition.

The Cotton Club
The Cotton Club was owned by bootlegger Owney Madden who was an inmate of Sing Sing prison at the time. The club was managed by its former owner: boxing champion Jack Johnson. It was essentially a vehicle for selling bootlegged liquor. The audience were exclusively white, and performers and staff were all black. Dancers at the time were required to be “tall, tan and terrific” ie: over 5’6”, tan complexion (not too dark) and under 21 years old. They were strictly not permitted to mix with the clientele.

Racism and Segregation
The Cotton Club depicted black people as the noble savages, often using themes such as plantation workers or wild jungles. Duke picked up on this and used it as inspiration for his music. He was asked to write “jungle music” and superficially this is what he did, playing on prejudice and ignorance. But beneath the surface, his music was commenting on the duplicity of segregation. In 1927, Ellington wrote Black and Tan Fantasy- a comment on segregation, although it contains some of the best solo performances from his band, it begins with a hymn “Holy City” and ends with the Funeral March (Schubert), suggesting that coloured people can only fantasise about being treated equally (they prey for equality, play their jungle music, then die). Later in his career, Ellington wrote the Jazz Symphony Black, Brown and Beige based on a similar theme. Each movement is subdivided and given a title representing moments in black history.

Black  – Work Song
– Come Sunday (a spiritual)
– Light
Brown – West Indian Dance
– Emancipation
– Celebration
Beige  – The Afro-American of the 20s, 30s and World War II

It was only performed a handful of times as a whole work, it was then performed only in smaller sections. Ellington was quoted at one concert as saying

“We thought we wouldn’t play it in its entirety tonight because it represents an awfully long and important story and that I don’t think too many people are familiar with the story”

The Whites only policy at the Cotton Club was eventually relaxed as a direct result of Duke’s stance on the issue and he paved the way towards racial equality in the future, an important achievement that is often overlooked.

The Band
Duke Ellington was a highly skilled pianist but his instrumental arrangements were what made his music truly memorable. The Cotton Club Orchestra consisted of the best musicians in Harlem, many of them famous soloists in their own rights. Ellington used their individual styles and abilities with skill to create a style of music that was unique and inspirational, influencing musicians across the country (via the radio broadcasts) and eventually the world.

Members included:
Bubber Miley- an expert at “growl” trumpet (jungle sounds!)
Joe “Tricky Sam” Nanton- trombone, excelling at glissandi and the “horse whinny”
Johnny Hodges- alto saxophone, famous for his sensuous tone
Harry Carney- an agile baritone saxophonist
Barney Bigard- a fast and furious clarinettest

Listen out for:
The individual instruments and the personalities of the performers behind them.
The brass playing with mutes to create a “wah wah” sound

Brass players singing into their instruments
The subtlety of the drums and bass compared to the rest of the instruments (with some exceptions of course).
Conversations between instruments/ groups of instruments. Sometimes the parts are equal, and sometimes one will be the leader and others play fills between their lines.
Listen to the words and the setting of lyrics. Sometimes the music changes the meaning.

When you dance:
Improvise and put your own personality into the dance. The musicians are.
Dance the conversation, not just the beat.
Try to imitate characteristic fragments with your body. (a sweep of the foot for the trombone gliss, a quick shuffle variation for the clarinet flurry)
Dance the meaning of the song, not just the sound of it.
Snap your fingers off the beat!

Every Dancer Should Know:
It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)
C Jam Blues
Cotton Club Stomp
Digga Digga Doo
Drop Me Off In Harlem
I’m Beginning to See the Light
Rockin In Rhythm
Take the A Train

Also Listen To:
Black and Tan Fantasy
Creole Love Call
Don’t Get Around Much Anymore
The Mooche (those jungle drums!)
Mood Indigo
Satin Doll
Sophisticated Lady

… if it ain’t got that swing

Yeah, I know I’ve chosen an overused and unoriginal title, but it is so relevant that I couldn’t help myself. The main purpose of this blog is to look at music of the Swing genre (notice I didn’t write era) from a dancer’s point of view in order to give meaning to our movements.

I started Swing Dancing in 2001, at the same time I was studying for my Bachelor of Music degree. 13 years later I haven’t lost my passion for either- I still dance regularly and I’m more of a music history geek than ever. Through my research, I’ve seen information on Swing musicians from a musical and historical perspective, but never from a dancer’s perspective, so I thought I’d share some facts, opinions and ideas that will hopefully provide dancers with a bigger picture of what the music is all about.

I don’t want this to be a lecture or a regurgitated Wikipedia page. I intend for the blog to be a starting point for conversation and further research. If you have something of value to add, please feel free to comment. Equally if you want more information about something, I’m happy to oblige.

Hopefully what I share here will help the Swing Dance community to understand the music they dance to and in turn react to it in a different way. We shouldn’t passively move our bodies around a dancefloor, simply going through the steps in time with the music. We should be interacting with the music and sharing the dynamics and emotions that it is expressing. In order for our dancing to mean anything, we have to understand the swing.