Track 12: Duke Ellington’s Take The “A” Train

Washington, D.C.

12. Duke Ellington – Take The “A” Train (1941)

First published October 2017

Vol01Ep06 podcast:

Subscribe on iTunes

Summary in a tweet

12. Novel forms of music reflect capital’s unique status; DC Duke perfects King’s jazz orchestra blueprint

Why is it worthy?

Washington, D.C. almost certainly represents the most curious locality on the US100 itinerary, both within and outwith its musical context. Its stateless history renders it something of a political freak within the US, while the capital on its face lacks the globally recognisable cultural and musical exports of New York, Nashville, or San Francisco. Like many, I have been guilty of viewing D.C. as something of a soulless entity, its only purpose to facilitate the bureaucratic toing and froing of the US political elite with little in the way of a distinct community, culture or creativity.

Thus it is helpful to reminder ourselves that away from Capitol Hill a city still requires local inhabitants to make it function: workers are still needed to pave roads, build structures, cook food, and provide entertainment. Just like any other locality D.C. has its fair share of societal turbulence but, unlike any other US city, civic issues are accentuated, compounded and crystalised by the immediate presence – and ultimate rule – of the country’s federal elite, the reality of an unequal and segregated life often making a mockery of the slogans of national noble aspiration that adorn the city’s landmarks. As elsewhere the inhabitants of D.C. use artistic passions to channel such senses of injustice, frustration, or disillusionment through the prism of positive expression. And, echoing our NYC explorations, our sixth chapter – through the stories of go-go and harDCore – highlights how new and novel forms of music can become the foundation for wider organic urban movements.

As I had never heard of go-go or harDCore at the outset of this project, they may not feature on the US100 itself, but their story helps to flesh out the musical story of a city overall. Meanwhile D.C.’s most revered export, jazz pioneer Duke Ellington, sits proudly at US100 Track 12, Take The “A” Train a straightforward enough selection as both an ‘upbeat-stroll-into-town’ personal favourite and ultimately Duke and his orchestra’s theme tune. As arguably the greatest arranger of ‘orchestral jazz’, Ellington is a much revered and celebrated figure among the genre’s aficionados; often less loudly acknowledged is the inspiring influence of Paul Whiteman before him, who – along with co-collaborators such as George Gershwin and Bing Crosby – was among the first to grasp the nettle of recorded music, combining classical and jazz influences to produce what could be deemed the first ‘popular music’ records.

What’s the story?

The District: stroppy teenage nation leaves home for new digs

To understand D.C.’s music let’s first understand where D.C. itself came from, a city that few attempt to culturally immerse themselves in, in the same way they might a New York City or New Orleans. The District has its roots in a mutinous incident that occurred during those embryonic years of the federal state that followed America’s Revolutionary War. In 1783, with the war reaching its conclusion, the Governor of Pennsylvania refused to defend members of Congress, convening in Philadelphia, when they were besieged by disgruntled ex-soldiers demanding payment; and so it was decided that the federal government ought to have the provision to protect itself, with the concept of a federal district written into the constitution.

Like a disgruntled young adult leaving for university, Congress packed its bags some 17 years later, moving out of the family home that belonged to those states that had given it life and into its new unfamiliar digs. The District of Columbia (so named after the Statue of Liberty’s predecessor as the female personification of America) was formed of exactly 100 square miles carved out of the existing states of Maryland and Virginia (pictured). This was considered a Southern location, the result of a compromise between squabbling founding fathers: northern delegates to Congress ultimately consented to the site in exchange for assurances that the federal government would pick up the Revolutionary War tab, which had been disproportionately spent by them. With the United States Constitution having come into effect some eleven years prior, and the Bill of Rights some two years after that, the move to D.C. in 1800 in many ways symbolises the final step in the US’s advent as a fully institutionalised adult nation. (As it happens George Washington was unlucky enough to have died a year before his namesake city began to function).

John Phillip Sousa, the first commercially successful exponent of recorded music

Furthering the notion of D.C. as a symbol of young America’s rapid national progress, the first Washingtonian to make a significant musical impact was John Phillip Sousa, inventor of the sousaphone and perhaps the first commercially successful star of recorded music. This status comes with no shortage of irony – Sousa was director of the United States Marine Band, who in 1890 recorded the first Columbia Records catalogue due to their proximity to the Columbia Phonograph Company in D.C., but he himself reviled the entire concept of recorded music. Sousa believed that the ‘talking machines’ which came along some 70 years after the founding of D.C. were a one way path to destroying artistic development in the US – he valued the American democratisation of music, amateur players the country over using communal gatherings to merge the songs of the pioneers, African rhythms, and aristocratic European influence. He correctly foresaw saw the mechanisation of music as replacing the need for live players to be such a soundtrack to socialising, and it is undoubtedly true that the number of amateur musicians diminished enormously on account of the phonograph.

Music of their own: go-go and harDCore

The flip side that Sousa seemed to miss was the potential for records as a means of cross pollination and musical lubrication, artists accessing and becoming influenced by the sounds and styles of others – just as he envisaged – having never been exposed to them prior to their recording. It is impossible to know what the D.C. and US musical scenes would have resembled in a hypothetical world without records, but it’s fair to say that the ‘go-go’ music which enveloped the capital in the 1970s would not have existed in its eventual form, highly influenced as it was by the funk and soul that came before it. Developed largely in parallel to hip hop and sharing many of its stylistic origins, go-go is in many ways the less successful relative of the Bronx movement (if musical genres were family units, I suspect Mr Funk and Mrs Soul would chastise Go-go for failing to meet his potential, in contrast to his brother Hip Hop who is chastised for letting success go to his head…).

Chuck Brown (left) in 1984

Chuck Brown, known as the Godfather of Go-Go*, was the fundamental force behind the movement and in 1984 Chris Blackwell signed a number of bright go-go stars to Island Records on the back of hearing Brown’s We Need Some Money. By this stage however the movement was already beginning to be eclipsed by the hip hop emanating from the more populous and culturally reputable New York City; Blackwell had probably already missed the chance, if there ever was one, for go-go to crack the mainstream, and D.C. had probably missed its chance to nationally and globally project a defining musical identity.

Nonetheless there was a circle of D.C. musicians who did manage to penetrate and influence music beyond the District’s boundaries, although for the uninitiated Dave Grohl may be the only one you are familiar with. Grohl, brought up the other side of the Potomac River in Springfield, Virginia, became the drummer of D.C. band Scream aged 17, having lied about his age. Scream were one of a large number of bands that comprised the DC hardcore – or harDCore – movement, Washington’s version of hardcore punk that centred on the capital’s 9:30 Club.

Ian Mackaye (left) and Mark Andersen at a Positive Force organised gig at Lorton Prison. Photo: Jim Saah

While the intensely fast sound of Bad Brains was arguably the most pioneering on a musical level, HarDCore was largely notable for the emphasis placed by many its advocates on accessibility and inclusivity within the punk community and its mission of making the world a better place. Ian Mackaye’s ‘straight edge’ mantra rejected alcohol, drugs and frivolous sex, while being steadfastly opposed to violent behaviour at his gigs; the political activism of Mark Andersen’s Positive Force movement led to bands feeding the homeless, attending anti-Apartheid protests, and playing benefit concerts; and Mackaye’s Dischord Records’ DIY approach led to them hand-crafting over 10,000 individual singles for a release by his band, Teen Idles. This ethos became crystalised during in D.C.’s 1985 ‘Revolution Summer’, in which bands such as Rites of Spring embraced a much more vulnerable image and sound than had been associated with punk machismo – a style that was to later be labelled ‘emocore’ or ‘emo’ (much to the chagrin of the bands themselves).**

The enterprising Mackaye was himself a frustrated punk who derided the notion of D.C. as somewhere that could not host a scene equivalent to the Patti Smith-led underground movement in New York City. Aged 18 he set up Dischord Records as a vehicle for his own music because no one would else would touch D.C. punk – “we had no fucking choice,” in his words. While a zealous focus on their music and message may have prevented the likes of Scream, Teen Idles, Bad Brains, Minor Threat and Embrace from signing major record deals or adorning magazine covers, they still played an important role in the evolution of hardcore punk. Their sound heavily influenced the likes of Red Hot Chili Peppers, Beastie Boys, and Green Day, all of whom started with much more hardcore punk ambitions than their later sound.

“I was told if I wanted to be a punk, I should move to New York because you can’t be a punk in Washington. Fuck that. I’m not moving to New York.”
Ian Mackaye

The King and the Duke

Paul Whiteman, 1926

But with the influence of D.C. hardcore being an underspoken one, popular associations between D.C. and music are often confined to one off individuals, and even then its most famous sons and daughters are loudly claimed by others: Grohl is linked to the other Washington in the Pacific Northwest thanks to his role in Nirvana, Marvin Gaye is known for symbolising Detroit’s motown sound, and Roberta Flack is a member of North Carolina’s Hall of Fame. US100 certificate holder #028 Duke Ellington tends to be primarily connected to New York City and Harlem’s Cotton Club where he preceded Cab Calloway and his Orchestra (certificate #013) as its house band in the 1920s. Ellington would likely never have developed his style without the preceding influence of Paul Whiteman, a polarising figure among jazz historians: to some the undisputed King of Jazz (as Whiteman dubbed himself), to others little other than a cultural appropriator of African American sounds who merely packaged and sold it to, well, the White Man.

While is it undoubtedly true that Whiteman’s skin colour ensured he faced significantly fewer obstacles in developing his art, any examination of his career still makes it near impossible to fail to give him a significant amount of credit for jazz’s evolution and, perhaps more significantly, its mass popularisation. Whiteman, like Sousa before him, was an early example of a musician who became a sensation on the back of record sales – but unlike Sousa he did so through producing something we might deem ‘popular’ music rather than military marches. Whiteman’s ‘band’ (more a loosely defined collective of musicians thrown together in different formations depending on requirements) had 28 number one records during the 1920s and was earning him over a $1m a year by 1922, easily the most popular and highest paid musician of the day. In 1924 he secured his place in history: at a February concert entitled An Experiment in Modern Music at Aeolian Hall, New York City – which Whiteman described as ‘a stepping stone [to] make it very simple for masses to … enjoy symphony and opera’ – the bandleader introduced George Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue. Witnessed by John Phillip Sousa, Gershwin combined the blue scale of jazz with the orchestral arrangements of classical, with the performance cited as signifying the ascent of jazz from folk music to art form.

Washingtonian Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington – so nicknamed as a teenager due to his dapper manner and classy grace – later declared that no one individual came close to Whiteman’s claim to the King of Jazz title. This influence is evident in Ellington’s decision to deliver jazz through an orchestra, a writer of compositions and symphonies rather than a proponent of the smaller ensembles that had defined the original improvisational jazz sound of New Orleans. Born in 1899, Ellington was composing from age 14 and by 18 he had built a musical reputation in the city’s U Street corridor – otherwise known as ‘Black Broadway’ – through his first band, The Duke’s Serenaders, influenced by the mentorship of early D.C. African-American composer, Will Vodery. As Duke secured gigs through his part-time sign painting work – he would offer his services to customers if they were hosting an event or party – the Serenaders became a rarity in segregated society, appealing to both black and white audiences.

The Duke in 1941, oozing trademark style and grace

Like Grandmaster Flash adapting DJ Kool Herc’s blueprint, Ellington turned his attention towards refining and perfecting Whiteman’s orchestral jazz innovation. By the time he had brought together a fully fledged orchestra, he was meticulously calculating how best to provide each individual with the platform to exhibit their talent, often penning compositions with specific members of the band in mind. Having upped sticks from D.C. in 1927 and becoming a key proponent of the Harlem Renaissance, the Duke forged a national reputation in part thanks to his Cotton Club stint. Not only were his orchestra’s Harlem performances broadcast on national radio, Ellington also benefited from a large amount of freedom bestowed upon him to experiment with his arrangements in a Whitemanesque manner, an opportunity he never would have had leading a touring band. Whilst the nature of the entertainment remained undeniably racist – Ellington’s music provided the backing for theatrical shows which depicted white damsels being rescued from black savages – the Duke ultimately yielded enough power to to persuade the club’s owners to partially relax its whites-only admission policies.

Duke Ellington (left) sits with the lesser spotted Billy Strayhorn, writer of Take The “A” Train

Take The “A” Train is certainly the most famous example of the orchestra’s output, serving as the band’s theme tune from 1941 onwards. The number was written by Billy Strayhorn, a fellow arranger and pianist and one of many who benefited greatly from a working relationship with Duke Ellington. Largely operating behind the scenes, he was the closest thing Ellington had to a right hand man – or, in the words of Ellington himself, “[Strayhorn is] my right arm, my left arm, and all the eyes in the back of my head”. Another quote – “Strayhorn does a lot of the work but I get to take the bows” – playfully highlights the discrepancy between the contribution of Ellington’s co-collaborator and his private persona. The title of the composition meanwhile is a reference to Strayhorn arriving in New York City from Pittsburgh in 1939 armed with an offer of work and a travel itinerary from Duke Ellington. His first mission in NYC was to ‘Take the A Train…’, at the time a new subway service that ran into Harlem, in order to get to Ellington’s apartment.

* Bizarrely enough go-go’s origins owe at least a little to a murder case: Chuck Brown’s involvement in the scene followed eight years in a D.C. correctional facility for a 1950s killing he claimed was in self defence; it is said that here in the Lorton Reformatory that he traded cigarettes for his first guitar.

** – Another term in popular use today said to originate within this D.C. scene was ‘moshing’ – its name allegedly derives from the 1982 Scream song, Total Mash, and is otherwise known as ‘slamdancing’; although Ian Mackaye felt this symbolised a violent and intimidating side of punk culture that was to be rejected.

How does it sound?

“Take The “A” Train is an old time radio set sat on a wee round rickety wooden table next to an even older armchair, possibly in a bungalow. The chair is empty but a homely smell is wafting from the kitchen, where someone is cooking a stew.”

My initial ‘by ear’ interpretation of Take The “A” Train seems to merely betray some oddly specific personal romanticised image I have of the 1940s (perhaps partially influenced by 1990s BBC sitcom Goodnight Sweetheart) which can probably be prompted by any number of traditional jazz/swing standards. Beyond this, the only other note I made is of my belief that the number stays true to its train theme, the background ‘bap-bap’ sound during the chorus (a muted trumpet perhaps) to my mind resembling the ‘bap-bap’ of an old steam engine. There is a reason I do not write reviews for Rolling Stone.

Jimmy Blanton: the first of the jazz bass soloists

If not a trumpet, this ‘bap-bap’ may well have been the work of ‘Tricky’ Sam Nanton, a trombonist in Duke’s band well known for his work with the ‘wah wah’ plunger mute, a key ingredient to the ‘jungle’ sound developed by the band at the Cotton Club. Nanton was one of an extensive list of individual players who smashed barriers and represented the cutting edge of their field within the confines of Ellington’s arrangements. James Miley’s ‘growl trumpet’ innovations helped further develop the hot ‘jungle’ jazz sound; on saxophone Ben Webster (tenor), Johnny Hodges (alto), and Harry Carney (baritone) all benefited from a number of showpieces tailored by their bandleader specifically for their unique style and talent; Juan Tizol doubled up with Nanton to provide Duke with the rare luxury of a trombone section; and Paul Gonsalves entered jazz folklore at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival when given the opportunity by Ellington to play a 27-chorus tenor sax solo during a rendition of Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue, which is said to have sent the previously muted audience into a frenzy (see Where are they now?). And then there was Jimmy Blanton, given by Ellington a hitherto unheard of level of prominence for a bassist – Blanton’s melodic and harmonic virtuosity heralded the arrival of jazz bass as an instrument for soloists.

“The writing and playing of music is a matter of intent…. You can’t just throw a paint brush against the wall and call whatever happens art. My music fits the tonal personality of the player. I think too strongly in terms of altering my music to fit the performer to be impressed by accidental music.”
Duke Ellington

Ellington himself led the orchestra through the use of piano cues rather than a baton, and as early as the 1930s he was heralded by some critics of being worthy of categorisation alongside classical music’s greatest composers, rather than being ‘lumped’ in with popular music. Rightly or wrongly, Whiteman tends not to be held in similar reverence, but between him and Ellington they were chiefly responsible for the advent of the ‘swing’ or ‘big band era’ of the 1930s and early 1940s, which contrasted sharply with Louis Armstrong’s style of focusing on smaller collectives. Whether termed orchestral jazz, symphonic jazz, or the particularly pretentious ‘jazz classique’, the scale and structure of European style orchestras fused with jazz’s rhythmic characteristics to produce something accessible to fans on both sides of the divide.

Paul Whiteman stands over George Gershwin on the piano

One of the major departures that Whiteman heralded from the old style was away from improvisation and towards formalised arrangements, and it remains contentious to this day whether this constituted a betrayal of jazz tradition – but it should be emphasised that if he had not taken jazz down this route, jazz may never have been given Duke Ellington*, who was no great advocate of improvisation himself. To listen to a lot of Whiteman’s output in the present day is to place one’s self in an old black and white animation – this is no coincidence, as Whiteman was a marked influence on the music that accompanied much of Hollywood’s output in the 1920s and 1930s. Whiteman and George Gershwin’s place in history was ultimately cemented by Rhapsody In Blue – even if I personally had to seek out expert explanation of how jazz, rather than classical, elements are prevalent throughout.

Returning to D.C.’s more recent urban output, the most distinguishing element of go-go music for me is the huge emphasis placed on percussion, with congas, bongos, and whistles complementing funky bass lines across rambly long repetitive numbers to produce a kind of Theme from Shaft meets drumming circle vibe. Primarily a dance hall form of music, featuring many a break down element that underpinned early hip hop and vocals dominated by highly charged call and response, rapping became an increasing element in later go-go as hip hop became a global sensation. Chuck Brown’s reputation as the king of the genre is highly warranted – when listening to go-go acts, it’s difficult to deny that he is a level apart from his peers, with Blow Your Whistle and Bustin’ Loose dancefloor demanding denizens of raucous revelry (the latter adapted by Nelly some 20 years later). You may well recognise go-go’s last certifiable hit, Let Me Clear My Throat (1996) by DJ Kool, its aggressive rhymes highlighting the increasingly blurred lines between go-go and hip hop.

HarDCore is said to combine ‘blinding speed, political and social lyricism, unpretentiousness of attitude, and shunning of commercialism’, and to listen to it, it is difficult to deny this is the case, even speaking as a relative philistine when it comes to this particular family of music. With similar scenes having emerged in L.A. and Chicago at a similar time, it can be difficult to assess the extent to which what we term DC Hardcore is indeed a subgenre in its own right, or whether it merely represents a geographically centred movement and ethos. Regardless, there are distinctive styles within the myriad of bands that came under the label: Ian Mackaye’s Fugazi have more than a touch of Pixies about them (the two bands were both formed in 1986), while the likes of Rites of Spring and Embrace made a point of presenting a more vulnerable image to their audience – even if they personally hated the ‘emo’ label that came to define the likes of Jimmy Eat World and My Chemical Romance a couple of decades later.

* – One of Whiteman’s other innovation was to recruit the first full time vocalist group for a dance orchestra. The Rhythm Boys featured a promising young singer by the name of Bing Crosby.

Where are they now?

Taxation without representation

In my humble opinion the single worst thing to have happened to Washington, D.C. was the retrocession of its southwesterly lands back to the state of Virginia in 1846. While the rationale behind this decision (largely economic, with a dose of slaveholder concern about D.C. abolishing the trade) may have been sound at the time, it ruined the perfect 100 square mile square (see animation). This total disregard for aesthetically pleasing cartography lessens America’s global status and undermines its ideals, in my view.

Not that any D.C. resident ever needs reminding of America’s ability to undermine its own ideals. Away from the machinations of federal government, the District’s internal history is largely defined by its stateless status, its residents and local politicians regularly railing against the spectacular contradiction inherent in their lack of representation in the United States Congress, with the House of Representatives and the Senate reserved only for fully fledged states. A wide ranging number of initiatives to either make D.C. a state in its own right (with the fairly cool mooted name of New Columbia) or to introduce legislation that gives its residents congressional representation have all failed to varying extents, no political mind seemingly able to undo the constitutional paradox.

The irony of Washington, D.C. supposedly symbolising modern representative democracy while simultaneously denying its residents full representative suffrage or democratic input is matched by the fact that those very same residents pay the highest federal taxes per capita. ‘No taxation without representation’ was arguably the very first American slogan, used in the Revolutionary War to justify their overthrow of British rule, but today it is used as a pro-statehood protest against the federal government and can be found on the back of D.C. licence plates (including, while he was in office, the motorcade of President Obama, who has personally backed D.C. statehood in public statements). In 1973 D.C.’s residents – a majority African-American and among the most racially segregated in the country (pictured) – were at least given the right to elect a mayor* and council, even if Congress reserves the right to overturn any laws implemented by them.

Segregation in D.C.: red represents white residents and blue represents black

The ghost of Sousa?

Away from politics I like to think that the ghost of John Phillip Sousa (see What’s the story?) continues to haunt D.C.’s music scene – the fact that both go-go and harDCore seemed to largely owe their popularity to live performance and social networking (in the pre-digital sense of the term), rather than through record sales, may have brought a crumb of comfort to the spirit of the old bandleader, having been alive to witness Whiteman and Gershwin realise his vision of cross-ethnic musical fusion and innovation. It’s fair to say that go-go has largely faded as a genre, although there remain fanatics devoted to maintaining its legacy, while Liza Figueroa Kravinsky’s ‘go-go symphony’ fabulously shows us that, just like jazz, go-go can be delivered by an orchestra (see Further learning).

On the harDCore front, Ian Mackaye’s Dischord Records and Mark Andersen’s Positive Force continue to operate in D.C., supporting and documenting the ongoing music scene in the District while staying true to their ethical principles. Mackaye’s recognition that the male-dominated nature of punk could be offputting for women led to him becoming a big advocate of the riot grrl movement in the early 1990s, while his latest musical project, The Evens, marks a sharp departure from hardcore sounds towards a much more stripped back two-piece affair.

A not unreasonable desire to see the credit for jazz’s evolution given to the African-Americans who first conceived its sound has seen the likes of Ellington deified while Whiteman’s legacy is largely glazed over. This is compounded by the fact that to listen to the latter’s recordings in the present day is to be for the most part unmoved, with the excitement of Duke’s hot jazz still standing the test of time. The reason for this is not that Whiteman was any less innovative or important – rather that his style of blending classical skills with pop sensibilities has been the soundtrack of film scores for so long that it is near impossible to see it as anything approaching original.

Ellington: Resolute in symphonic style

“Ellington composed incessantly to the very last days of his life. Music was indeed his mistress; it was his total life and his commitment to it was incomparable and unalterable.”
Gunter Schuller

As the 1940s progressed the swing era dwindled and vocalists such as Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra became the stars of popular music, rather than props for the band as they were beforehand. Factors behind the rise of the singer included a musicians strike, and wartime and post-war austerity being incongruous with the manpower required for big band touring. Unperturbed by such trends Ellington merely grew in symphonic ambitions, often writing pieces that were delivered in thematic threes: Black, Brown, and Beige (1943) was dedicated to telling the story of African-Americans, slavery and the church; and over the next 30 years he delivered the three Sacred Concerts (1965, 1968, 1973), each of which debuted in a cathedral, sparking debate over Ellington’s religious intentions. For his part, Ellington did not much expand on such religiosity, merely calling the concerts ‘the most important thing I have done’. Sandwiched between these outputs was his orchestra’s 1956 Newport Jazz Festival set, credited with reviving Duke’s career. Coming at a time when his orchestra did not even have a record deal, the performance led to global tours, lucrative contracts, and a Time cover shot (pictured). You will struggle to find another jazz concert quite so shrouded in legend, and Duke’s place at the top table of jazz was from hereon in permanently underwritten.

“Some day all the jazz musicians should get together in one place and get down on their knees and thank Duke.”
Miles Davis

In 1974 Duke Ellington passed away from complications from lung cancer and pneumonia. Tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves, whose stunning 27-chorus solo came to define the aforementioned Newport concert, died a few days beforehand, with news of his death kept from Duke due to the fear it would accelerate his decline; the two bodies lay side-by-side in New York City for a short while. Baritone sax player Harry Carney, the longest serving member of Duke’s orchestra, declared he had ‘nothing to live for’ after hearing news of his bandleader’s death, and as if to prove the point died himself some four months later. Ellington is survived by grandson Paul Ellington, who much like Christopher Calloway Brooks, preserves the family legacy by keeping the orchestra going.

Recognition of Ellington can be found everywhere, whether through Presidential Medals of Freedom, special posthumous Pullitzer Prizes, Grammy Awards, or the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In D.C. specifically the Duke Ellington School of the Arts has been part of the D.C. public school system since the year of his death. Meanwhile D.C.’s contribution to the catchily titled District of Columbia and United States Territories Quarters programme – this complements the 50 State Quarters programme in enabling non-states to design their own quarter coins for circulation into the economy – depicts the man himself sat at his piano, alongside the caption ‘Justice For All’. The United States Mint, prohibited from carrying controversial messages on its coins, were forced to reject the District’s initial suggested wording: No Taxation Without Representation.

The A Eighth Avenue Express – or “A” Train – continues to operate between upper Manhattan and lower Queens.

* – By far the most notorious and entertaining of D.C. mayors was Marion Barry, a dominating figure in District domestic politics for three decades, the first civil rights activist to run a US city, and a man so popular among Washingtonians that they re-elected him to office in 1994 despite his returning on the back of a jail sentence, having being videotaped smoking crack cocaine in an FBI sting. His political comeback included the delightful slogan ‘he may not be perfect, but he’s perfect for D.C.’ and the assertion that those dwelling on his conviction should ‘get over it’. Up until his death in 2014 Barry continued to court controversy, whether through tax misdemeanours, further positive drug tests, drink driving and other traffic offences, or the impressive feat of insulting one ethnic group while apologising for insulting another ethnic group.

Further learning

The winner of the 2017 Miss USA competition, Kára McCullough, was the District of Columbia’s representative and will go on to compete in Miss Universe. She also happens to be a nuclear scientist: McCullough works as an emergency preparedness specialist in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Office of Nuclear Security and Incident Response, having graduated from South Carolina State University with a degree in chemistry with a concentration in radiochemistry.


This 1964 televised rendition of Take The “A” Train is rare for both a public appearance from songwriter Billy Strayhorn and the inclusion of lyrics, delivered by double bassist Ernie Shepard. Note the Duke’s trademark erudite manner.

Like Paul Whiteman and Duke Ellington proving that jazz can be performed through an orchestra, Liza Figueroa Kravinsky has done much the same for go-go with her fabulously mental ‘go-go symphony’. Keep an eye on the composer – not since Cab Calloway has a man with a baton enjoyed himself so much.

Black and Tan (1929)
As per so many of this era’s examples of cinematic pieces written in collaboration with the musicians of the day, this short featuring the Duke is little more than an extended music video, a vehicle for Ellington’s latest composition at the time, Black and Tan Fantasy. Featuring Duke’s partner descending into some kind of visual madness, this is surprisingly trippy for a 1920s jazz movie.

King of Jazz (1930)
Whiteman’s cinematic revue provides both an insight into the character and mannerisms of the ‘King of Jazz’, while also highlighting why some might be a little reluctant to give him credit for developing the genre: at the film’s conclusion, Whiteman presides over a ‘melting pot’ of music, the ingredients of which are said to constitute that of jazz music, and yet features just about every ethnicity other than African American.

Good To Go (1986)
The most unexpected of US100 club members makes an appearance in this crime thriller set within D.C.’s go-go scene. Art Gartfunkel plays the role of cliched down-on-his-luck journalist in what appears to be attempt to create a hip version of All The President’s Men. Whereas both the actors and the script seem to get drunk halfway through, this film at least serves to bring both the go-go movement and D.C. as a city to life.

The Nine Lives of Marion Barry (2009)
This HBO documentary, while not directly related to any of this chapter’s musical themes, is just about the best item listed here for hammering home just what it means to be a D.C. resident – or at least a Ward 8 resident. The exploits of four-time D.C. Mayor, Marion Barry, as he campaigns to keep his seat on the Council is complemented by a nicely threaded historical look back at his political career to date, including the rollercoaster of his four mayoral terms as he transitioned from Martin Luther King to Pete Doherty. It’s also an eye opener for observing segregated life in D.C. full stop: one of the most memorable moments being when Barry’s opponent in the Ward 8 contest is positively dumbfounded when she spots some white people on her street.

Episode 2: Washington D.C. of Foo Fighters: Sonic Highways (2014)
Dave Grohl returns home to recall the adolescent part he played in the harDCore movement, and speak to many of the important figures who made it happen, with go-go also examined.

‘The extraordinary mystery and magic of human life’: Mark Andersen on D.C. hardcore
Mark Andersen came from rural Montana to Washington, D.C. in 1984, and soon found himself playing a key role in the District’s punk movement. Founder of activist collective Positive Force, Mark spoke to US100 about what D.C. hardcore means to him.

US100 music tutorial #101: an introduction to blue notes
George Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue – first commissioned by Paul Whiteman in 1924 – may well be one of the earliest examples of jazz/classical fusion, but Jarek’s ears struggled to detect the jazz part. So he asked musician and composer Greg Harradine to highlight the ‘blue notes’ that mark Gershwin’s departure from classical. 

But Beautiful – Geoff Dyer (1991)
One of those recommendations I’ll make without having got round to reading it myself, But Beautiful sounds quite fascinating: a fictionalised take on jazz, Dyer divides his story between seven legendary jazz figures, with vignettes of Duke Ellington and Harry Carney interspersed throughout.

Chapter 8: Sons of Whiteman in How The Beatles Destroyed Rock n Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular MusicElijah Wald (2009)
As always, Elijah Wad provides the most holistic view possible, Ellington’s place in the history of jazz and swing contextualised within the history of ragtime, the advent of recorded music, and the mass appeal of Paul Whiteman.

50 great moments in jazz: Duke Ellington plays Newport jazz festival’ – The Guardian (2010)
The importance of Duke’s phoenix-like rejuvenation at Newport is outlined in John Fordham’s account.

US100 music tutorial #101: an introduction to blue notes (Stream)
Download full
Download extract
George Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue – first commissioned by Paul Whiteman in 1924 – may well be one of the earliest examples of jazz/classical fusion, but Jarek’s ears struggled to detect the jazz part. So he asked musician and composer Greg Harradine to highlight the ‘blue notes’ that mark Gershwin’s departure from classical.

Duke Ellington – Ellington at Newport (1956)
Jazz promoter George Wein describes the 1956 concert as “the greatest performance of [Ellington’s] career… It stood for everything that jazz had been and could be.” Probably worth a listen then.  

Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers – Take The Go-Go Train (1986)
We love it when seemingly loosely connected US100 themes come together into conveniently packaged arrangements. In this instance, the Godfather of Go-Go gives US100 Track #12 the conga-funk treatment.

The Junkyard Band – Reunion – Live At Martin’s Crosswinds Ballroom (1996)
Probably the go-go band with the best story: founded by children aged 8-13 playing on improvised instruments, the band built a reputation for themselves by playing for tourists on the streets of D.C., noted for being almost entirely percussive with a lack of horns or guitar. They went on to have records released by Russell Simmons’ Def Jam Recordings and even featured in Run-D.M.C.’s tragically rubbish 1988 film, Tougher Than Leather (See Further learning tab). Like many live gogo albums, it is notable for its non-stop nature – there is no such as a pause between these shoulder boppers.

Duke Ellington – Never No Lament: The Blanton-Webster Band (2003)
This compilation covers the master takes of all the recordings by Duke’s Orchestra between 1940 to 1942. So name dued to the commanding influence of bassist Jimmy Blanton and tenor saxophonist Ben Webster, and with Take The “A” Train included, this is seen by many as the Duke’s golden period.

Remembering Rites Of Spring And A Lasting D.C. Musical Moment (2015)
In an interview with National Public Radio, Mark Andersen speaks about a memorable 1985 Rites of Spring D.C. performance during Revolution Summer and its lasting impact on him.

US100 cross references:
Tracks 5-7

Mentioned in reference to:
– Duke Ellington preceding Cab Calloway as the Cotton Club’s house band leader.

US100 interviews

‘The extraordinary mystery and magic of human life’: Mark Andersen on D.C. hardcore
Mark Andersen came from rural Montana to Washington, D.C. in 1984, and soon found himself playing a key role in the District’s punk movement. Founder of activist collective Positive Force, Mark spoke to US100 about what D.C. hardcore means to him.

US100 music tutorial #101: an introduction to blue notes
George Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue – first commissioned by Paul Whiteman in 1924 – may well be one of the earliest examples of jazz/classical fusion, but Jarek’s ears struggled to detect the jazz part. So he asked musician and composer Greg Harradine to highlight the ‘blue notes’ that mark Gershwin’s departure from classical.

< Tracks 9-11