It started on the United States' West Coast, naturally enough, where Cherry Poppin' Daddies and Royal Crown Revue (among others) were trying to bring something new to their mid-1990s ska/punk acts. With those roots, it wasn't hard for them to combine their trumpet and drum players and draw inspiration from the big band hits of the 1930s and '40s. Those songs were infectious and danceable all on their own, and additionally had the association with a gangster culture and style that Los Angeles had once embraced. "Zoot Suit Riot" became the Daddies' definitive swing hit by the time it was re-released in 1997, while Royal Crown Revue contributed their hyper-fast original "Hey Pachuco!" to the soundtrack of Jim Carrey's 1994 movie, The Mask.
Riding this still-local wave of swing music's new popularity were two more movies, conspicuously titled Swing Kids (1993) and Swingers (1996). Swing Kids was set in the middle of the original swing era and told the story of the teenagers who embraced American swing music in rebellion against the Third Reich and the Hitler Jugend. It more than any other movie brought swing dance and the Lindy Hop to the eyes of young Americans everywhere, and boasted a short but impressive soundtrack of old and new big band hits. Foremost among these was a spectacular arrangement of what has become known as "the national anthem of swing," "Sing, Sing, Sing".
Swingers, on the other hand, was set squarely in modern Los Angeles and followed the life of a single twentysomething (Jon Favreau) as he tries and fails to get a girlfriend he can respect. It had only one swing dance number, near the end of the film, and for that one dance the lead actor was visibly inferior to his newfound partner. But the dance and the club were real, and featured a real swing band of whom which the movie's director was a particular fan: Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. Without question BBVD was one of the best new swing bands on the West Coast, if not the best. This movie's soundtrack catapulted them and their debut CD to nationwide fame.
Of course, swing music hadn't ever really died out. Rockabilly had resurrected it in a new form in the 1950s and '60s, and a few bands had held onto this swing/rock hybrid through the decades while rock'n'roll evolved in a completely different direction. The best known of these groups was the Stray Cats, who had a big hit in the 1980s with "Rock This Town"; guitarist Brian Setzer eventually formed a new group called the Brian Setzer Orchestra, named in the tradition of the old big band orchestras. They had the good fortune of re-recording Louis Prima's classic swing hit "Jump, Jive and Wail" at the very same time the Gap released a "Khakis Swing" commercial featuring the original tune. Setzer promptly added it to their 1998 CD The Dirty Boogie after seeing the commercial; the song eventually won a Grammy Award for Pop Performance of The Year and the album went multi-platinum.
By this time, every major city in the United States (and most of the minor ones) had caught onto the swing craze, and capable swing dance instructors were making money hand over fist. No one was better recognized, however, than Frankie Manning. Manning had made a name for himself as a dancer and instructor at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem during the first swing craze in the 1930s, and even in his 80's he'd lost none of his skill. He and other (younger) instructors briefly made dances like East Coast Swing, Lindy Hop, and the less-common Shag and Balboa well-known across the country. (This noder earned an easy $120 in an hour teaching a group of doctors nothing more than the basic steps.)
Other bands caught and rode the wave, sometimes unintentionally. The North Carolina-based Squirrel Nut Zippers enjoyed a brief surge in sales from their 1996 album HOT because of the swingy radio hit "Hell," although the band refused to redefine themselves as "just another swing band." Other California bands like Indigo Swing, Steve Lucky and the Rhumba Bums and Lavay Smith and Her Red Hot Skillet Lickers started learning the swing rhythms before it went nationwide, and enjoyed healthy CD sales when the craze sent kids and young adults scrambling for new music to buy and dance to. In the Midwest, bands such as the Mighty Blue Kings, the Flying Neutrinos and the Atomic Fireballs added the Mississippi River sounds of blues and Dixieland to the swing mix. Of course, old acts like Benny Goodman, Count Basie and Glenn Miller had never completely vanished, and their old albums got remastered and re-released as quickly as swing fans could buy them.
Of course, all fads must pass, some faster than others. By the summer of 2000 swing was already passé, and every band and label that had once sold millions of swing CDs was now selling merely thousands. Swing bands that attracted $30 tickets in 1999 settled for $10 or less a year later. Dance clubs that held events every month and lessons three times a week dwindled to a fraction of their earlier memberships. But those that remained were the devoted and capable, the people who enjoyed swing dancing well enough to keep it up and pass it on. The swing bands who had started the swing revival kept going after it had passed, as did the dance clubs. Swing was no longer big, but it could still be found.