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Behind the BeatIt Don't Mean A Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)
It Don't Mean A Thing by Duke Ellington, Nine special recordings that stood out PBS: Take the A Train Album Cover
Other Recording Spotlights
It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)

By Loren Schoenberg, Conductor and Saxophonist

Written by: Edward Kennedy Ellington
Performed by: Duke Ellington and His Orchestra: Freddie Jenkins, Arthur Whetsol, Cootie Williams, trumpet; Lawrence Brown, Joe "Tricky Sam" Nanton; Juan Tizol,trombone; Barney Bigard, clarinet, tenor saxophone; Johnny Hodges, alto saxophone; Harry Carney, baritone saxophone; Duke Ellington, piano; Fred Guy, banjo; Wellman Braud, bass; Sonny Greer, drums; Ivie Anderson, vocal
Recorded: February 2, 1932

Audio Feature It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)
Recorded February 2, 1932
(Courtesy Columbia/Legacy)

James "Bubber" Miley played trumpet with Duke Ellington during the 1920s, and helped define the growling brass sound that became one of band's trademarks. He was also a primary compositional inspiration to Ellington, who named this prophetic tune after a favorite maxim of Miley, who died a few months after it was recorded. It would be harder to imagine a finer tribute, for in the space of just a few minutes, Ellington gives us one of his signal performances. The chanting brass figures (delivered with the kind of fanning accents that we are told came to jazz with the bands from Kansas City a few years later), the virtuosic alto saxophone solo by Johnny Hodges (that flies in a fashion that has more than a passing relationship to what Charlie Parker did a decade later), and the harmonic freedom from the confines of Tin Pan Alley (that is usually associated with much later eras of jazz), could only have blossomed from the mind of Duke Ellington.

It has been remarked that Ellington's art was of a collaborative nature because he used his sidemen's phrases and ideas in his compositions. This is true to a degree, but it was his genius that was the catalyst in the metamorphosis from a horn player's little riff or short phrase into a full-fledged composition, with all the hundreds of decisions about orchestration, harmony, rhythm and melody that that entails.

This recording was singer Ivie Anderson's first with Ellington. Listen how she transforms what would have been in lesser hands a "novelty" vocal into a wonderfully swinging and world-wise declamation.