Tag Archives: Duke Ellington

Take the “A” Train ► Monday Musical Appreciation

On this day in 1941 the Duke Ellington Orchestra recorded the classic Billy Strayhorn tune “Take The ‘A’ Train.” It made the charts in July, and stayed there for 7 weeks, where it eventually rose to #11. “Take the ‘A’ Train” became Ellington’s signature tune, which he also recorded many times over his career.

At the time there was a music strike after ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) raised its broadcast licensing fees. Many bandleaders like Ellington could no longer afford to play their own songs live on radio. To get around this change in the regulations, Ellington (who was in ASCAP) turned to his son Mercer Ellington and composer Billy Strayhorn, who were both signed to BMI (Broadcast Music,Inc.), and tasked them to come up with a new band book of songs and arrangements that wouldn’t be as expensive to play.

The song was almost lost to history. According to the website Jazz Standards:

“Take the ‘A’ Train,” however, was almost relegated to the wastebasket. In Stuart Nicholson’s Reminiscing in Tempo-A Portrait of Duke Ellington, Mercer Ellington
describes how he retrieved “Take the ‘A’ Train” from the garbage.
Strayhorn had thrown it there claiming it was an old thing and too much
like Fletcher Henderson.

In The World of Duke Ellington
by Stanley Dance, Strayhorn claims the title is about choosing the ‘A’
train over the ‘D’ train. He said he kept hearing about Harlem bound
housewives who took the ‘D’ train and ended up in the Bronx, as it only
went as far as 145th Street before turning off. If you want
to go to Sugar Hill, you need to take the ‘A’ train! Another account has
the title “Take the ‘A’ Train” evolving out of directions Ellington
gave Strayhorn on how to get to Ellington’s Harlem apartment by subway.

However the song came to be, it was a certified hit and re-entered the charts in 1943, 2 years after its first appearance, this time hitting #19 for another week.

Further Reading:

It’s Duke Ellington
Day in NYC!!!

Thelonious Monk;
A Jazz Great

Song Facts tells us:

Fans of the song are undoubtedly familiar with the trumpet solo
performed by Ray Nance. It is frowned upon in jazz, which prides itself
as an improvisational style of music, to repeat an ad-libbed solo.
However, Nance’s solo is the definitive one and Ellington said that no
trumpet player can play the song without borrowing from what Nance
offered. Nance was also an accomplished violinist. He invented a new way
to play “Take the A Train,” using the violin and accompanied on piano
by Dr. Billy Taylor in 1967. The two men performed the normally uptempo
song as a slow funeral march. The occasion was the memorial service for
Strayhorn and so much was the song intertwined with both Strayhorn and
Ellington, it was performed at Ellington’s memorial, too, seven years

The song was featured in the 1943 movie Reveille with Beverly. As was the case with many of the musicals of the era, the Ellington segments stood alone in case the movie had to be cut to accommodate the south, where people would boycott movies that featured Black performers. Watch:

My favourite version of “Take the ‘A’ Train” pairs Ellington & Orchestra with Ella Fitzgerald. It’s sublime. Just take a listen.

A good song can take anything thrown at it. “Take the ‘A’ Train” has been covered by numerous artists over the years. Here are just a few examples of the dozens out there, finishing up with one of the Duke Ellington Orchestra’s greatest performances of the tune.

Headlines Du Jour ► Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Hello, Headliners. Today’s birthday boy is Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington. Here are some of the other events of yesteryear:

Now, let’s take a look at today’s Headlines Du Jour:














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Steam-Powered Word-0-Matic, and your rest stop on the Information
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today’s open thread.

The Very First Grammy Awards ► Musical Appreciation

Domenico Modugno singing his big hit “Nel blu dipinto di blu”

Dateline May 4, 1959 – The very first Grammy Awards are presented to a diverse group of artists and genres for the music of 1958. I thought it might be instructive to take a look back and see what was on The Hit Parade 55 years ago.

There’s no denying that the BIG winner of the night, with both Record of the Year AND Song of the Year, was Domenico Modugno. Let’s hear a round of applause for Domenico Modugno!

Who the hell is that? Oh, c’mon. You know his huge hit tune “Nel blu dipinto di blu.” It was on everyone’s lips in 1958. No? Does this remind you?

How’d you like that interpretive dance near the end? Don’t tell me you skipped that part. Ed Sullivan knew how to pick ’em.

Domenico wasn’t the only one who walked away with a Grammy. Henry Mancini picked up Album of the Year for The Music of Peter Gunn. Everybody sing-a-long:

It was also a very big night for Alvin and the Chipmunks. They also garnered two Grammys, taking home the prize for both Best Children’s Recording AND Best Comedy Recording:

But Domenico and Alvin weren’t the only double award winners that night. Ella Fitzgerald took home two different awards for two different LPs. The Best Jazz Performace by an Individual Grammy award went to Ella for The Duke Ellington Songbook.:

That cut is not from the Ellington songbook LP, but it’s one of my faves from a live performance of Ella with Duke Ellington in Japan. Ella won another Grammy that night in the Pop music category of Best Vocal Performance for her interpretation of the Irving Berlin Songbook:

One of my favourite shows, The Music Man, won for Best Original Cast LP. While it’s cheating to use the 1962 movie version, that’s the one I know best. And since it’s one of my favourite musicals, here are 3 of my fave tunes from it, and the re-release trailer.

With songs like Perry Como’s “Catch A Falling Star” or “That Old Black Magic” by Keely Smith and Louis Prima also grabbing Grammys, there wasn’t a lot of youth culture represented. The only thing resembling Rock and Roll was this song by The Champs, who took home the Grammy for Best Rhythm and Blues Performance.



Musical Appreciation ► Thelonious Monk ► A Jazz Great

Dateline October 10, 1917 – Thelonious Sphere Monk is born in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. When he was 4 years old his family would move to the “San Juan Hill” area of Manhattan. A year later he would start playing piano after listening to his sister’s music lessons. By the time of his death in 1982, he would be one of only 5 Jazz artists to appear on the cover of Time Magazine (the others being Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Wynton Marsalis and Dave Brubeck). Today he’s generally considered The Father of Bebop music.

According to The Monk Zone:

With the arrival Thelonious Sphere Monk, modern music — let alone modern culture — simply hasn’t been the same. Recognized as one of the most inventive pianists of any musical genre, Monk achieved a startlingly original sound that even his most devoted followers have been unable to successfully imitate. His musical vision was both ahead of its time and deeply rooted in tradition, spanning the entire history of the music from the “stride” masters of James P. Johnson and Willie “the Lion” Smith to the tonal freedom and kinetics of the “avant garde.” And he shares with Edward “Duke” Ellington the distinction of being one of the century’s greatest American composers. At the same time, his commitment to originality in all aspects of life — in fashion, in his creative use of language and economy of words, in his biting humor, even in the way he danced away from the piano — has led fans and detractors alike to call him “eccentric,” “mad” or even “taciturn.” Consequently, Monk has become perhaps the most talked about and least understood artist in the history of jazz.

The WikiWackyWoo says, “Monk is the second-most recorded jazz composer after Duke Ellington, which is particularly remarkable as Ellington composed over 1,000 songs while Monk wrote about 70.

It wasn’t just his own compositions. When Monk covered another artists’ song, he had a way of turning it inside out and creating his lovely dissonance, where it none had before.

Clint Eastwood, when he’s not berating empty chairs, is a great aficionado of Jazz. He produced this 1988 documentary, directed by Charlotte Zwerin that can say far more than I can:

If that has whetted your appetite, here’s a Thelonious Monk Jukebox I put together:


It’s Duke Ellington Day in NYC!!!

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has declared today Duke Ellington Day, on what would have been the 110th birthday of the musical legend.  Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington died in 1974 at the age of 75, but his music will never die. According to UPI:

To commemorate the musician’s life, The Islands of the Bahamas said
they are sponsoring a special run of New York’s last surviving 1939 A
Train, made famous in Ellington’s signature tune “Take the A Train.”

Take the A Train,” written by Billy Strayhorn while he was taking the A Train to rehearsal, I have dozens of recordings of “Take the A Train,” by Ellington because he recorded it so many times.  Some live.  Some solo.  Some with a small group.  Some with a full orchestra. Every single one holds new surprises, no matter how familiar I am with the tune. Here are three great versions of Ellington’s signature tune. The first is Duke with a rockin’ trio, followed by an early version with his orchestra, and finally, one with Ella Fitzgerald on vocals.

With thousands of compositions, and so many interpretations of Duke Ellington tunes, it was hard to pick a stand-out performance until I remembered Dr. John’s tribute CD “Duke Elegant.”  Boogie now!!!