“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
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 Hardwick, 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 saxophones, 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.
The 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 reeds 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 saxophones stating the theme, this time backed by syncopated oo-ah brass. As the dynamic level gradually lowers, this superb arrangement draws to a close.
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.(1)
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 Ellington 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.
The recording posted here was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.
Here are some other examples of Strayhorn’s work with and without Ellington: