The styles of jazz that were popular from the late teens through the late 1920s were usually played with rhythms with a two beat feel, and often attempted to reproduce the style of contrapuntal improvisation developed by the first generation of jazz musicians in New Orleans. In the late 1920s, however, larger ensembles using written arrangements became the norm, and a subtle stylistic shift took place in the rhythm, which developed a four beat feel with a smoothly syncopated style of playing the melody, while the rhythm section supported it with a steady four to the bar.
Louis Armstrong shared a different version of the history of swing during a nationwide broadcast of the Bing Crosby (radio) Show Crosby said, "We have as our guest the master of swing and I'm going to get him to tell you what swing music is." He asked Louis to explain it. Louis said, "Ah, swing, well, we used to call it ragtime, then blues-then jazz. Now, it's swing. Ha! Ha! White folks yo'all sho is a mess. Ha! Ha! Swing!
With the wider acceptance of swing music around 1935, larger mainstream bands began to embrace this style of music. Large orchestras had to reorganize themselves in order to achieve the new sound. These bands dropped their string instruments, which were now felt to hamper the improvised style necessary for swing music. This necessitated a slightly more detailed and organized type of composition and notation than was then the norm. Band leaders put more energy into developing arrangements, perhaps reducing the chaos that might result from as many as 12 or 16 musicians spontaneously improvising. But the best swing bands at the height of the era explored the full gamut of possibilities from spontaneous ensemble playing to highly orchestrated music in the vein of European art music.
A typical song played in swing style would feature a strong, anchoring rhythm section in support of more loosely tied wind, brass, and later, in the 1940s, string and/or vocals sections. The level of improvisation that the audience might expect at any one time varied depending on the arrangement, the band, the song, and the band-leader.
The most common style consisted of having a soloist take center stage, and improvise a solo within the framework of her or his bandmates playing support. As a song progressed, multiple soloists might be expected to take over and individually improvise their own part; however, it was not unusual to have two or three band members improvising at any one time.
Swing jazz began to be embraced by the public around 1935. Prior to that, it had had limited acceptance, mostly among African American audiences. Radio remotes increased interest in the music, and it grew in popularity throughout the States. As with many new popular musical styles, it met with some resistance from the public because of its improvisation, fast erratic tempos, lack of strings, occasionally risqué lyrics and other cultural associations, such as the sometimes frenetic swing dancing that accompanied performances. Audiences who had become used to the romantic arrangements (and what was perceived as classier and more refined music), were taken aback by the often erratic and edginess of swing music.
In his autobiography W.C. Handy wrote, "This brings to mind the fact that prominent white orchestra leaders, concert singers and others are making commercial use of Negro music in its various phases. That's why they introduced "swing" which is not a musical form.
In the US, by the late 1930s and early 1940s, swing had become the most popular musical style and remained so for several years, until it was supplanted in the late 1940s by the pop standards sung by the crooners who grew out of the Big Band tradition that swing began. Bandleaders such as the Dorsey Brothers often helped launch the careers of vocalists who went on to popularity as solo artists, such as Frank Sinatra.
Swing music began to decline in popularity during World War II because of several factors. Most importantly it became difficult to staff a "big band" because many musicians were overseas fighting in the war. Also, the cost of touring with a large ensemble became prohibitive because of wartime economics. These two factors made smaller 3 to 5 piece combos more profitable and manageable. A third reason is the recording bans of 1942 and 1948 because of musicians' union strikes. In 1948, there were no records legally made at all, although independent labels continued to bootleg records in small numbers. When the ban was over in January 1949, swing had evolved into new styles such as jump blues and bebop.
In country music, artists such as Jimmie Rodgers, Moon Mullican and Bob Wills introduced many elements of swing along with blues to create a genre called western swing. Like Sinatra did, Moon Mullican went solo from the Cliff Bruner band, had a successful solo career that included many songs that maintained a swing structure. Artists like Willie Nelson and Jerry Lee Lewis have kept the swing elements of country music present into the rock 'n' roll era. Nat King Cole followed Sinatra into the pop music world bringing with him a similar combination of swing bands and ballads. Like Moon Mullican, he was important in bringing piano to the fore of popular music.
Rock 'n' roll era hitmakers like Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, Gene Vincent and Elvis Presley also found time to include many swing-era standards into their repertoire. Presley's hit "Are you lonesome tonight" is an old swing standard and Lewis' "To make love sweeter for you" is a new song but in the old style. Among the critically acclaimed band leaders of the 1930s and 1940s whose performances included elements of both "Sweet Band" music and traditional swing music was Shep Fields.
In 2001 Robbie Williams released his fifth studio album consisting mainly of popular swing covers titled "Swing When You're Winning" which proved to by popular in many countries selling over 7 million copies worldwide.
In recent years Swing music has become hugely popular in Germany. Singers Roger Cicero and Tom Gaebel have attained large followings both in their native country and world wide. Cicero’s style is predominantly that of 1940s and 1950s swing music, combined with German lyrics; he became Germany's participant for the Eurovision Song Contest in 2007.