Monday, November 4, 2013

Take the A Train

   Duke Ellington's "Take the A Train" is one of the most iconic pieces of New York music history. But by the time it was written, Ellington was already one of the elder statesmen of jazz having been a major star for almost 15 years when the tune was written in 1939.
   Ellington was born and raised in Washington, D.C. but had come to Harlem, in upper Manhattan as a songwriter and bandleader in 1923. After honing his chops as a bandleader near Times Square, Ellington's band was hired in 1927 to provide the music at the famous Harlem speakeasy The Cotton Club. The Cotton Club was no bastion of enlightenment. It was run by gangster and bootlegger Owney Madden and billed its music as "Jungle Music." The name and decor of the club hearkened back to the antebellum South and its audience was white only by rule. But Ellington led his band with grace and talent, experimenting with new forms and ideas in a way a touring band could never do. Ellington's fame spread throughout the country via live radio broadcasts of the Cotton Club performances, first on the CBS network and later on NBC. His success even allowed to push the club's ownership to relax the all-white door policy.

   By 1938, he was jazz royalty. He was known as just, "The Duke." That year, Duke met a shy young songwriter named Billy Strayhorn after a performance in Pittsburgh. Ellington was impressed by the 23 year old and invited him back to New York, beginning decades of collaboration between the two. "Take the A Train" came out of their early collaborations and became the band's signature song. The title refers to the express subway line from Brooklyn to Upper Manhattan that opened in 1932. Even though the song premiered long after the Harlem Renaissance and the swing era ended, the piece is still an icon of Harlem and of one its greatest residents. The Cotton Club at Lenox Ave and 142nd Street is long gone, but you can stop by the apartment building where Duke Ellington lived at 935 St. Nicholas Ave in Harlem in the late 30s and would continue to live there for much of his life. Here is the 1941 recording with Ray Nance on trumpet.

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