“Take the ‘A’ Train” (1941) Duke Ellington

“Take the ‘A’ Train” Composed and arranged by Billy Strayhorn

“Take the ‘A’ Train”

Composed and arranged by Billy Strayhorn

Recorded by Duke Ellington and His Orchestra

for Victor Records; February 15,1941, Hollywood CA

Personnel: Duke Ellington, piano, directing: Wallace Jones, first trumpet; Ray Nance, trumpet; Rex Stewart, cornet; Lawrence Brown, first trombone; Joseph Nanton, trombone; Juan Tizol, valve trombone; Otto Hardwicke, first alto saxophone; Johnny Hodges, alto saxophone; Ben Webster and Barney Bigard, tenor saxophones; Harry Carney, baritone saxophone; Fred Guy, guitar; Jimmie Blanton, bass; Sonny Greer, drums.

The music: Duke Ellington’s iconic four bar piano introduction leads the way into one of the most famous swing era anthems. Composer Billy Strayhorn’s arrangement is a model of balance and varying instrumental colors. The smooth unison reeds state the melody, with the muted trumpets and open trombones alternatingly providing rhythmic emphases behind them for the first 16 bars. On the bridge, the saxes, still in unison, are backed by the open trombones.Then for the last eight bars of the opening chorus, the open trumpets and trombones play the rhythmic “kicks” together. Notice how perfectly bassist Jimmie Blanton and drummer Sonny Greer (playing with brushes) work together.

download-1The full chorus trumpet solo is played by Ray Nance (pictured at left), using a Harmon mute in the bell of his trumpet. His solo is a perfectly constructed jazz improvisation, supported by the harmonized saxophones and supple rhythm quartet. At the end of this solo, Strayhorn creates a striking transition into the next chorus with a modulation played by the brilliant open brass, employing tangy harmony. The harmonized saxophones play what will be a later repeated four bar phrase to usher in Nance’s second solo, this one played on brilliant-toned open trumpet. Again, Strayhorn keeps the musical colors changing, backing Nance’s trumpet with the saxophones during the first 16 bars (hear Nance’s superb glissando near the end of this segment), then with the saxes and open trombones in swinging interplay after that. Sonny Greer follows swing era tradition by playing a back-beat behind Nance’s solo, but it is as personal as such a thing can be, and swinging.

Yet again, Srayhorn creates a stunning kaleidoscopic transition after Nance’s solo concludes employing a descending figure employing the open trumpets and trombones in perfect juxtaposition with the saxophones…in only two bars! From that point, the band reprises the opening scheme with unison saxes stating the theme, this time backed by syncopated oo-ah brass. As the dynamic level gradually lowers, this superb arrangement draws to a close.

Duke Ellington and Billy Stayhorn

Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn

The story: 1940 was the last year that Duke Ellington’s orchestra did not reflect, to a significant degree, the musical personality of Billy Strayhorn (1915-1967), one of the most creative and brilliant musicians of the swing era. Strayhorn was hired by Ellington in early 1939, but in typically Ducal fashion, Strayhorn was given no job description, or duties, at least not at first. Soon however, Ellington began assigning musical tasks to Strayhorn, including preparing music for the Ellington small band recording sessions, and gradually almost all of the vocal arrangements for Duke’s vocalists, Ivie Anderson, and Herb Jeffries. This measured process culminated in Strayhorn’s masterful arrangement on “Flamingo,” which was sung by Herb Jeffries, and recorded memorably on December 28, 1940.

As 1941 began, the simmering dispute between the nation’s then powerful radio networks and the American Society of Composers Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) boiled over. Duke had been an ASCAP member since 1935, and all of his music was licensed for radio performance through ASCAP, which decreed that radio networks should not play any ASCAP music, starting on January 1, 1941. For any band then, radio exposure was essential. The ASCAP prohibition struck the Ellingimages-11ton band particularly hard because so much of the music played by them had been composed by Duke. Ellington was suddenly faced with the daunting challenge of coming up with a lot of new “Ellington” music composed by someone other than Duke Ellington. The person he looked to immediately for help was Billy Strayhorn.

Ellington told Strayhorn to start writing as many original compositions as fast as he could. Within a short time a remarkable amount of music had been composed. The new Strayhorn compositions were: “Take the ‘A’ Train,” “Chelsea Bridge,” “Clementine,” “A Flower is a Lovesome Thing,” “After All,” and “Love Like this Can’t Last,” soon followed by “Rain Check.” These compositions were arranged throughout early 1941, and began to be played by the Ellington band on its radio broadcasts. Soon the Ellington band had a hit with “Take the ‘A’ Train,” and it became the tune the Ellington band began all broadcasts, dances and concerts with for the next forty-plus years.

8 comments on ““Take the ‘A’ Train” (1941) Duke Ellington”

  1. Mark Cantor says:

    As one measure of the influence of this recording, in August 1941 the Delta Rhythm Boys recorded and filmed a SOUNDIE of this composition, with words “written” to the two Ray Nance solos. This is one of the earliest performances of “vocalese” to be found in the music, and the first on film. The SOUNDIE has multiple postings on YouTube.

  2. Loren Schoenberg says:

    Excellent piece – thanks for sharing, Mike!

  3. TCKergin says:

    I remember seeing that SOUNDY in a movie house in Istanbul, Turkey. But I prefer Ray Nance’s solos…

  4. Michael House says:

    To me, Nance’s glissando is the dramatic peak of the record. Yet, while in later recordings (of which I am aware) Nance’s solos are almost identical to the original, they do not include the glissando (for example, on “Piano in the Background”). I’ve always wondered why. Perhaps he couldn’t reliably play it. In any event, every time I listen to a recording of the tune by Ellington with Nance, I hear the glissando in my mind, whether or not it is played! I’d be interested to know if there are other recordings of Nance’s solo that include the glissando.

    1. Mike Zirpolo says:

      Michael, you have sent me into my archive in search of that famous Ray Nance glissando on another Ellington recording of “Take the ‘A’ Train.” I found one. It is the Standard Transcription recording made on January 15, 1941 in the same studio in Hollywood where the famous Victor recording would be made one month later. Nance’s solo on the transcription is a far less creative improvisation than what he would play on the classic Victor recording. But he had clearly already set the basic blueprint of what he would play one month later. By the time the Victor record was made, Nance knew exactly what he wanted to play, and he played it brilliantly.

      Regarding him not playing the glissando later, I can only speculate. Great trumpeters often got “buck fever” after they played something really great that had been recorded, and then became very popular.They would be intimidated by their own recorded work, to the point where it negatively affected their ability to play the famous solo as everyone expected them to. This happened to Harry James with his solo on Benny Goodman’s “Sing, Sing, Sing,” and to Billy Butterfield with his solo on Artie Shaw’s “Star Dust.”

      Mike Zirpolo

      1. Michael House says:

        In light of Cootie William’s bad relationship with Nance after he returned to the band in 1962, I’ve often wondered what he must have thought about having to play essentially the Nance “A Train” solo on a nightly basis for several years after Nance left the band.

  5. Richard Claar says:

    Stray’s piece and the band’s playing of it is all time great music, of course, a big band and Dukish milestone. But I have always really enjoyed Billy May’s ballad version of “A Train” for Glenn Miller, a stunning transformation and one of the best records Miller ever made. It brilliantly combines the very distinctive reed voicings of both the Miller and Ellington bands.

  6. Mike Zirpolo says:

    Richard, as fate would have it, I am working on a blog post about the personal and musical relationship between Billy Strayhorn and Billy May. It existed from the mid 1930s, when they were young musicians learning their craft in Pittsburgh, until Strayhorn’s death. To say that they were simpatico musically would be an understatement. They were also friends. Stay tuned to swingandbeyond.com

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