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

Washington, D.C.

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

Published January 2019

Geography

While this might be the first US100 chapter to officially take us away from New York City, we haven’t quite shaken the spectre of the Big Apple yet, such is its cultural dominance. For one thing the ‘A Train’ for which the track is named is a subway that runs between upper Manhattan and lower Queens, while Duke Ellington’s musical career is more commonly associated with New York’s thriving jazz scene of the 1920s and 30s – including a stint as leader of the Cotton Club’s house band, ala Track 5’s Cab Calloway.

However before he found his way to the east coast, the Duke was born and raised a Washingtonian in the city’s West End neighbourhood. Growing up near the glut of nightclubs and performance venues in and around the city’s U Street Corridor had an enormous influence on Ellington’s musical career, both as a setting for adolescent inspiration and a source of venues for him to showcase his own skills.

The reverence in which he is held in his hometown – where his father worked occasionally in the White House – is outlined by the pure volume of points on the map named in his honour. For a somewhat more comprehensive outline of Duke Ellington’s Washington, consult the Washington Post.

Affinity

The most clear example so far of my father’s jazz influences informing my own tastes, the Duke’s name was certainly one pressed into my consciousness from a young age – not quite as forcefully as that of Ray Charles, more so than Herbie Hancock’s, and perhaps equally as those of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. No doubt Ellington’s more well known numbers had started to plant shoots of musical taste into my subconscious long before I was buying music for myself, such was my childhood exposure to them being performed by any number of international jazz artists at the annual Upton Jazz Festival in my hometown county of Worcestershire, attendance of which was an annual family event (pictured).

In adult life I don’t often tend to throw on a bit of Duke to gets my pulse racing, but Take The “A” Train provides something of an exception. I’m not sure why but I think I’ll put it down to that loose concept of stroll-about-town-ability.

Origin

Considering Duke Ellington’s passing occurred just months before the impeachment of President Richard Nixon, it might be tempting to consider his life and times as belonging in the modern colour television era. At which point it would be worth reminding yourself that he was born in the 19th century, April 29 1899, with 23rd President of the United States Benjamin Harrison having just assumed office less than 40 years since the end of the American Civil War. Washington D.C. itself was less than a century old, with Ellington’s mother born there in 1879 to two former slaves.

John Phillip Sousa

Because of America’s relative youth as a country, it can often leave you with a notion that none of its history seems that long ago – but in popular music terms, harking back 120 years is essentially akin to recalling the dawn of time. Indeed the world that Edward Kennedy Ellington was born into barely had such a concept of ‘popular music’, and what did exist of a music industry at the time focused on the dissemination of sheet music for amateur parlour musicians. The idea of recording music was very young indeed: another Washingtonian, John Phillip Sousa of the United States Marine Band, was the first to do so in 1890 due to the barracks’ close proximity to the Columbia Phonograph Company (later Columbia Records), and it would take another few decades yet before records would surpass sheet music as the primary means of monetising the public’s favourite songs. No one at the time would have any idea what you were talking about if you were to ask about jazz music.

Like many middle class black households of that era (his father James had fairly esteemed work for a prominent white physician and occasionally worked catering jobs at the White House), Ellington’s home had a piano which both his parents were able to play. Encouraged by his mother to take lessons, seven year old Edward did not take to the instrument at first despite the best efforts of his first teacher, the utterly brilliantly named Mrs Marietta Clinkscales. But a different form of early parental encouragement was to play a deeply significant role in his later career: the strong emphasis his mother and father placed on elegance and grace shaped Ellington into such a dapper and well mannered individual – even as a child – that his peers bestowed him with the title ‘Duke’.

It wasn’t until Duke’s teenage years that a passion for the piano developed, exposed as he was to the cultural vibrancy of growing up near Washington’s U Street district. Also known as ‘Black Broadway’, the U Street Corridor was home to the nation’s largest urban African American community and many dance halls, theatres and after hour clubs. By the time Ellington was sneaking into Frank Holiday’s Poolroom aged 14 and developing a fascination with its players (of both pool and piano), the ‘jazz age’ was still a few years away and so many of the musicians he learned from were performers of ragtime, a jazz antecedent that was popularised during his youth. By the end of teenagedom Duke had mastered sheet music, formed his own group, The Duke’s Serenaders, and was earning enough to move out of his parent’s home. Playing private balls and embassy parties across the District and in neighbouring Virginia, the Serenaders became a rarity in segregated society, appealing to both black and white audiences.

Paul Whiteman, 1926

Whereas devotion to music has been Duke Ellington’s reason for rejecting a move to New York in 1916 – he turned down an arts scholarship for a school in Brooklyn – it would be for these same reasons that he would eventually pack his bags and leave his hometown. Ellington was invited to join the Wilber Sweatman Orchestra in 1923, at a time when numerous forces were converging to transform the music industry: records had now become big business, while both the Jazz Age and the Harlem Renaissance had began in earnest. Indeed by trading the U Street Corridor for Harlem, the Duke was in fact moving to the new centre of African American urbanism. Not that he forgot his roots – the first New York based orchestra that he played in, and eventually became bandleader of, was named The Washingtonians. A residency at the Hollywood Club was followed by one at the Cotton Club in 1927, and from here his star began to shine, in part thanks to a partnership with agent Irving Mills.

Duke Ellington (left) sits with Billy Strayhorn

As well as starting to commit his music to records during this period, Ellington’s Cotton Club performances were also broadcast on national radio. But the particular benefit he reaped from this residency was in the level of freedom he was granted to experiment with his bandleading arrangements. In this regard he was strongly influenced by the work of Paul Whiteman, by far the most successful arranger of the Jazz Age’s early years: Whiteman had 28 number one records during the 1920s and was earning over $1m a year by 1922, easily the most popular and highly paid musician of the day. Music history has tended to skim past his legacy, perhaps due to the fact that his skin colour undoubtedly played a critical role in his success, but Ellington himself considered Whiteman to be the ‘King of Jazz’ due to his revolutionary arrangements that combined the blue scale of jazz with the orchestral arrangements of classical, most notably in George Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue.

It is said that Whiteman’s innovations signified the ascent of jazz from folk music to art form and, like Grandmaster Flash adapting the hip hop blueprint of DJ Kool Herc half a century later, Duke Ellington set about refining and perfecting his work. The Duke meticulously calculated how best to provide each individual with the platform to exhibit their talent, often penning compositions with specific members of the band in mind, and became a national treasure in the process. What became Duke Ellington’s Orchestra signature tune wasn’t to be written for over another decade yet and, much like Whiteman did not pen Rhapsody In Blue, it was not the Duke who wrote Take The “A” Train. Rather it was written in 1939 by Billy Strayhorn, a fellow arranger and pianist and one of many who benefited greatly from a working relationship with Duke Ellington.

“[Strayhorn is] my right arm, my left arm, and all the eyes in the back of my head … [He] does a lot of the work but I get to take the bows”
Duke Ellington

Take The “A” Train was one of Strayhorn’s first contributions to the orchestra. The title is a reference to Strayhorn arriving in New York City from Pittsburgh armed with an offer of work and a travel itinerary from Duke Ellington. His first mission in NYC was to ‘Take the A Train…’, a new subway service that ran into Harlem, to get to Ellington’s apartment.

Delivery

To me 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 the number perhaps betrays an oddly specific personal romanticised image I have of the 1940s which can probably be prompted by any number of traditional jazz swing standards. Beyond this, the only other interpretative note I have 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

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 this hot 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 while Juan Tizol doubled up with Nanton to provide Duke with the rare luxury of a trombone section. 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.

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, Paul 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.

“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

One of the major departures from the old style that Whiteman was responsible for was moving away from improvisation 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 oneself 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.

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

Legacy

“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, with factors including a musicians strike 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. 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 during a rendition of Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue 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 and 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; 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 his grandfather’s legacy by keeping the orchestra going.

Recognition of Ellington can be found everywhere, whether through Presidential Medals of Freedom, special posthumous Pulitzer Prizes, Grammy Awards, or the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In his hometown the Duke Ellington School of the Arts has been part of the D.C. public school system since the year of his death, with the classroom bell set to the tune of Take The “A” Train. 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; once the battle cry of the American Revolution, since adapted by D.C. campaigners as a pro statehood motto.

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 Paul Whiteman’s legacy is largely glazed over. Perhaps 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, whereas Duke’s hot jazz still stands the test of time. This is not because 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 almost impossible to appreciate it as anything approaching original.

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

Learn more

Trivia
As a D.C. youth Duke Ellington once saved a boy from drowning. That child, Rex Stewart, would grow up to play cornet in Ellington’s orchestra.

Watch
Black and Tan (1929)
King of Jazz (1930)

Read
US100 music tutorial #101: an introduction to blue notes

Music is my Mistress – Duke Ellington (1973)
But Beautiful – Geoff Dyer (1991)
Chapter 8: Sons of Whiteman in How The Beatles Destroyed Rock n Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music – Elijah Wald (2009)
‘50 great moments in jazz: Duke Ellington plays Newport jazz festival’ – The Guardian (2010)
Duke Ellington’s Washington – Washington Post, February 2012

Listen
US100 music tutorial #101: an introduction to blue notes – Full / Extract
Duke Ellington – Ellington at Newport (1956) Spotify / YouTube
Duke Ellington – Never No Lament: The Blanton-Webster Band (2003) Spotify

US100 cover of choice
Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers – Take The Go-Go Train (1986) Spotify