Today I have a little bonus for you, as I’m presenting for your listening pleasure TWO versions of the classic tune “Take the ‘A’ Train,” written by Billy Strayhorn for the Duke Ellington Orchestra.
This song, which became Duke’s signature tune, is beloved all over the world. Ellington is considered perhaps the finest composer and bandleader in the history of jazz, having led his big band for half a century, touring the world constantly and turning out a body of work that has no equal. In fact, many put Ellington in the same category as Beethoven and Mozart as a composer. You could listen to his music for a lifetime and learn just about everything there is to know about music and culture from the 20th Century.
Billy Strayhorn is a unique figure in jazz. He was a great piano player, but for Ellington, he was purely a songwriter. He didn’t play in the band, but he wrote or co-wrote many of the band’s most popular songs. They were an amazing pair, like Lennon and McCartney or Jagger and Richards.
“Take The ‘A’ Train” was one of the first songs that Strayhorn wrote for Duke. The story goes that when Duke first hired Billy, he gave him directions to get to his house in Harlem from Billy’s house in Brooklyn via the new “A” line on the NYC subway. The song has been recorded hundreds of times (perhaps even thousands) and used in films, TV, commercials. It’s part of the fabric of our times.
This first version of the song I’ll present today is from 1943 and is one of the most well-known versions. The sound of the horns and the interplay between the sections is just genius arranging. Doesn’t it sound like a train at times?
The second version is a vocal by the great Ella Fitzgerald, one of the finest singers ever. This is an amazing example of how to interpret a melody and also a lesson in “scat singing,” the practice of improvising using non-word vocal syllables. Ella was the master of this kind of singing.
Hope you enjoy! Tomorrow, we’ll talk bebop!
Jason Parker is a Seattle-based jazz trumpet player, educator and writer. His band, The Jason Parker Quartet, was hailed by Earshot Jazz as “the next generation of Seattle jazz.” Find out more about Jason and his music at jasonparkermusic.com.