“It Don’t Mean a Thing…If It Ain’t Got That Swing”
Music, lyric and arrangement by Duke Ellington.
Recorded by Duke Ellington and His Orchestra on February 2, 1932 for Brunswick Records in New York.
Duke Ellington, piano, directing: Arthur Whetsel, Freddy Jenkins, Charles M. “Cootie” Williams, trumpets; Lawrence Brown, Joseph “Tricky Sam” Nanton, trombones; Juan Tizol, valve trombone; Johnny Hodges, alto and soprano saxophone, clarinet; Harry Carney, baritone and alto saxophone, clarinet; Barney Bigard, tenor saxophone and clarinet; Fred Guy, guitar; Wellman Braud, bass; Sonny Greer, drums; Ivie Anderson, vocal.
The music: This joyous romp showcases the early Ellington band at its best, and demonstrates Duke Ellington’s great creativity as an arranger. The four bar introduction spots the bass of Wellman Braud providing a swinging background for the wordless vocalizing of Ivie Anderson. This leads to one of the early Ellington band’s signature sounds, the plunger muted trombone of Joseph “Tricky Sam” Nanton (shown at right). Nanton got the sound for which he is famous by inserting a small straight mute into the bell of his trombone, and then by manipulating a toilet plunger over the bell as he played. As Nanton works his way into his melodic solo atop Braud’s strong bass foundation, the reeds and the brass perk-up gently behind him. (Ivie Anderson depicted at left below with the Ellington band in the early 1930s.)
Ms. Anderson then steps out with her vocal chorus, this time telling us with words why it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing. She had a powerful voice, the kind Ellington preferred in his vocalists, both male and female, in his many years as a bandleader. She was one of the first and best female vocalists with any big band. Listen to the Ducal backgrounds she sings against, which include baritone saxophonist Harry Carney popping in and out, along with the oo-oh brass, and Barney Bigard’s cascading clarinet.
Then Johnny Hodges (pictured below right) plays a marvelously sinuous and swinging alto saxophone solo against the open brass, that is state of the art 1932 jazz. In later years, Hodges became legendary for his sensuous ballads and earthy blues. But throughout the 1930s, he was unquestionably one of the most swinging alto saxophonists in all of jazz. Duke keeps the instrumental sounds behind Hodges varied and colorful. Also, don’t overlook the four man rhythm team of Ellington, Guy, Braud and Greer, which provides a swinging foundation for Hodges. After his solo, Hodges plays melodically with the ensemble, his huge, ringing sound carrying everyone else with him. Ms. Anderson returns for a brief vocal farewell that is at first wordless, and then with words, being playfully nudged by Duke’s jaunty piano. The ending to this performance is quintessential Ellington: some intensely oo-ah-ing brass that gradually subsides as an other-worldly sound emerges from the reeds, and perhaps Braud’s arco (bowed) bass. Duke slyly plinks a celesta with the concluding chord.
This is music that remains startlingly fresh and creative 80+ years after it was recorded. So many felicities are present in this performance that it really must be listened to carefully several times to try to catch even the most obvious of them. For me that has always been fun, because the music in every respect is so incredibly happy and fun to listen to.
The Story: I have mentioned previously on this blog that swing developed gradually from the 1920s throughout the 1930s into the 1940s. Most bands and musicians, no matter how deeply they were involved in the business of playing dance music (or any other kind) in 1932, were incapable of playing with the rhythmic elan demonstrated by Ellington and his musicians in this performance. Some critics have essentially argued that Ellington was “making a statement” when he made this record, issuing the declaration that unless it swings, it’s nothing, and here square people, is how to do it. I disagree with that argument. This was a rather typical Ellington performance in that it was magnificently performed with high-level musicianship, exceedingly creative in all respects, and above all, it was great fun. Duke was never one to preach: his talent was as a great persuader. I think his message hit home with this classic performance.
Incidentally, the title of this piece, which also provided the “hook” for the lyric*, was the motto of Ellington trumpeter James “Bubber” Miley, who after several years with Ellington, left Duke’s band in 1929, when he was replaced by Cootie Williams. Miley on trumpet, along with Tricky Sam Nanton on trombone, did much to develop the plunger muted sound that became such an identifying feature of Ellington’s music. Miley tutored Cootie Williams in this art before he moved on to other musical work. Unfortunately, he died just a few months after this recording was made, at age 29, a great loss to jazz.
Digital remastering and sonic restoration by Mike Zirpolo, who is shown above left celebrating Ellington in a Manhattan restaurant. (See note below.)
(*) Ellington’s manager and business partner Irving Mills is listed as the originator of this lyric. I don’t think he had anything to do with creating it. The Ellington-Mills relationship was complicated, and has been explored in many books and articles over the years.
The photo above/left is of Duke Ellington’s large portrait in the Capitol Grill on East 42 Street in Manhattan, within the shadow of the Chrysler Building. It was taken on Thanksgiving night 2015, when I was there celebrating my son’s birthday with him and various family members and friends. I greatly enjoyed celebrating with my family, and with Duke, that night.