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It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing) (1932)

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Origin and Chart Information
“In a trio setting pianist Monk delivers a breathtaking exploration of the song...”

- Ben Maycock

AKAIt Don't Mean a Thing If It Don't Got That Swing
Rank 84
Music Duke Ellington
Lyrics Irving Mills

Considering the spare melody and lyrics of “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” the immediate success was due, in no small way, to the vocal by Ivie Anderson, who introduced it with the Duke Ellington Band in February, 1932. The original version is available on Ivie Anderson’s It Don’t Mean a Thing CD.


More on Ivie Anderson at JazzBiographies.com

Ellington’s recording went onto the charts for six weeks, peaking at number six. In September, 1932, the Mills Brothers covered it and saw their rendition rise to number seven. It was the right combination of talent at the right time that made the song immediately popular.


Chart information used by permission from
Joel Whitburn's Pop Memories 1890-1954

There are many stories about the origin of the song’s title. Depending on whom you believe, it was a favorite saying of James “Bubber” Miley, who played the trumpet with Ellington’s band in the 1920’s. Yet another account has Cootie Williams (Miley’s replacement) insisting it was his catch phrase. Still another has Irving Mills taking credit for using the phrase in a sentence while telling Ellington that the customers weren’t dancing to the band’s music. In actual fact, any number of people may have been using the phrase when Ellington wrote the song.


More on Cootie Williams at JazzBiographies.com

More on Irving Mills at JazzBiographies.com

The term itself, “swing,” has been used in a number of ways. Today, the most common use among jazz musicians relates to subtle changes in the timing of the melody, which promote a “swing feeling.” That is to say that the melody notes are played ahead of the beat, across the beat, or behind the beat, allowing the performer to express a more relaxed, rhythmic, or even driving feeling.

Another, more specific use of the term refers to the style of music played by big band dance orchestras of the 1930’s and 1940’s. But in the 1920’s, and before, musicians usually used the term “swing” as a synonym for “jazz.”

Regardless of the definition, there is little argument that Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean A Thing...” is the song that brought the word “swing” into general use. The song is further credited with predicting the swing era, giving the swing era its name, and providing one more reason to call Duke Ellington a prophet.


More on Duke Ellington at JazzBiographies.com

More information on this tune...

Stuart Nicholson
Reminiscing in Tempo: A Portrait of Duke Ellington
Northeastern University Press
Paperback: 538 pages

(In his portrait of Ellington, Nicholson entertains with anecdotes about “It Don’t Mean a Thing.”)

- Jeremy Wilson

Music and Lyrics Analysis

Musical analysis of “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)”

Original Key F minor ending in Ab major, with temporary shifts to Db major and Eb major during the bridge.
Form A – A – B – A
Tonality Primarily minor – major tonality at the end and during the bridge. Use of the flatted 5th “blue note.”
Movement Arpeggiated up, stepping down; many repeated notes.

Comments     (assumed background)

This is a favorite among jazz players, with its minor descending progression similar to “Steppin’ Out With My Baby” and the folk song “Sixteen Tons.” A few changes have taken place with this piece since it was written. They are not an improvement on the original. The last four measures of “A” contain the (in)famous “du-wah-du-wah-du-wah” passage. Modern players begin this on beat two, but if one listens carefully to Ellington’s original 1932 recording, one finds that it actually starts on the second half of the first beat! The chord progression of this has also changed. Today, it is common to play IV-iv(ii7/I)-I ( Bb7 – Bbm – Ab). Originally, an ascending progression going to a diminished-seventh, leading tone chord was used (Bb7 – B˚7 – Ab – Cb˚7 – Ab) with a V7(+5) returning to the second “A.” In both cases, the original is preferable.
K. J. McElrath - Musicologist for JazzStandards.com

Check out K. J. McElrath’s book of Jazz Standards Guide Tone Lines at his web site (www.bardicle.com).
Musicians' Comments

”It Don’t Mean a Thing”--Duke’s tunes are cool in that you can do a LOT of different things with them, harmonically and rhythmically. Even the title swings. I loved the way Monk played it on Monk Plays Ellington. That’s pretty much the way I approach it--it has edges and corners and angles, and I’m the only one besides Monk that I’ve heard play the bridge the way it was written and played. Duke wanted this tune to swing. I’ve heard so many versions of this that didn’t. How dumb is that?

Jessica Williams, jazz pianist www.jessicawilliams.com

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Soundtrack information
“It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)” was included in these films:
  • Harlem Nights (1989)
  • Swing Kids (1993, Billy Banks)
  • Corrina, Corrina (2000, Ivie Anderson with Duke Ellington and His Orchestra)
Reading and Research
Additional information for "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" may be found in:

Stuart Nicholson
Reminiscing in Tempo: A Portrait of Duke Ellington
Northeastern University Press
Paperback: 538 pages

(1 page including the following types of information: anecdotal.)

David Ewen
American Songwriters: An H.W. Wilson Biographical Dictionary
H. W. Wilson
Hardcover: 489 pages

(1 paragraph including the following types of information: history.)

Thomas S. Hischak
The Tin Pan Alley Song Encyclopedia
Greenwood Press
Hardcover: 552 pages

(1 paragraph including the following types of information: film productions, history and performers.)

Alyn Shipton
A New History of Jazz
Continuum International Publishing Group
Paperback: 956 pages

(1 paragraph including the following types of information: history and music analysis. (Page 275).)
Also on This Page...

Music & Lyrics Analysis
Musician's Comments
Reading & Research

Jazz History Notes
Getting Started
CD Recommendations
Listen and Compare
By the Same Writers...

Jazz History Notes

One of the most interesting of the early recordings of Duke Ellington’s defining paean to jazz was done by three sisters from New Orleans.

The Boswell Sisters--Connee, Helvetia (Vet) and Martha--grew up with jazz in the Crescent City and went on to have a short-lived yet prolific career on radio, in movies, and on records. They were the pioneer group of jazz vocal harmony. Their treatment of Ellington’s tune is a typical illustration of their musical creativity, featuring a slow tempo solo chorus by Connee (who later went on to a successful solo career); a double-time, pig-Latin-style, scat chorus with the three sisters; a slow, haunting trombone solo by Tommy Dorsey; then a vocalized half chorus done double-time.

Chris Tyle - Jazz Musician and Historian

Boswell Sisters
Boswell Sisters Collection Vol. 3
Storyville Records 3009

Getting Started
This section suggests definitive or otherwise significant recordings that will help jazz students get acquainted with “It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing).” These recordings have been selected from the Jazz History and CD Recommendations sections.

Not surprisingly, Duke Ellington’s original recording of “It Don’t Mean a Thing” (Ken Burns JAZZ Collection: Duke Ellington) is the most significant version of the tune, and it is musically brilliant. Ella Fitzgerald’s up-tempo performance from 1956 (Day Dreams: The Best of the Duke Ellington Songbooks) is also significant, infectiously retaining the spirit of the original while updating it with a more modern interpretation of swing. Meanwhile, the tune has in many circles become popular as a test of musicians’ capacity to handle extremely fast tempos. Max Roach’s version with Sonny Rollins (Max Roach Plus Four) is the definitive example of this approach.

Noah Baerman - Jazz Pianist and Educator

CD Recommendations for This Tune
Click on any CD for more details at Amazon.com
Duke Ellington
Ken Burns JAZZ Collection: Duke Ellington
Original recording 1934
This visionary performance is where the storied history of this song began. Of particular note are the vocals of Ivie Anderson and a stunning alto saxophone solo by Johnny Hodges.
Ella Fitzgerald
Day Dreams: The Best of the Duke Ellington Songbooks
Polygram Records
Original recording 1956
It was inevitable that Ella Fitzgerald’s “Songbooks” series would come around to paying tribute to Ellington, and this performance is a highlight of those sessions. The tempo is burning, and Ella, predictably, is in total control with her reading of the melody and a brief but brilliant round of scatting. There are also delightful solos by pianist Paul Smith, guitarist Barney Kessel, violinist Stuff Smith and saxophonist Ben Webster.
Kenny Burrell
Ellington Is Forever 1

Much has been written about the mutual admiration between Duke Ellington and guitarist Kenny Burrell, and this album is the first in a loving two-volume tribute by Burrell to Ellington. This infectious performance is also noteworthy for reuniting Burrell with his longtime collaborator, organist Jimmy Smith. Burell and Smith anchor the rhythm section and contribute wonderful solos.

- Noah Baerman

Joe Williams
Presenting Joe Williams & Thad Jones/Mel Lewis
1994, Blue Note 30454

Vocalist Williams gives a reading of the Ellington classic that jumps back and forth from playful to powerful. The song allows Williams to exercise his voice to its full potential, including some wonderful scatting.
Max Roach
Plus Four
Polygram Records
Original Recording 1956
Drummer Max Roach is joined by a "hitting-his-stride"' Sonny Rollins on sax for a blistering version of the song that has everyone pitching in with abandon.
Clark Terry and Red Mitchell
To Duke and Basie
1997 Enja 5011
Original recording 1986
Terry and Mitchell take this tune at a moderate tempo, allowing each of them to relax and swing lightly and soulfully while engaging in playful interaction.
Thelonious Monk
Plays Duke Ellington
Riverside 201
Original recording 1955
In a trio setting pianist Monk delivers a breathtaking exploration of the song, highlighting his ability to make a great song vibrate with new ideas.
Modern Jazz Quartet
1990 Atlantic 1325
Original recording 1959
The Modern Jazz Quartet’s combination of sophistication and hard swing made them particularly well-suited to interpret Ellington’s music. This up-tempo performance is a wonderful showcase for vibraphonist Milt Jackson.
The Ray Brown Trio
Summer Wind: Live at the Loa
1990, Concord 4426

The bassist's trios, despite personnel changes, had one thing in common, they could all swing. Gene Harris is at the piano here, but it is drummer Jeff Hamilton's show. By displacing the beat he transforms the song.
Ernestine Anderson
Hello Like Before
1989, Concord 4031
Original recording, 1977
Vocalist Anderson gives the tune its full measure of swing. The full sound of her back-up group belies a mere trio. But look at the personnel: Hank Jones (p), Ray Brown (b), and Jimmie Smith (d).

- Ben Maycock

Written by the Same Composer(s)...
This section shows the jazz standards written by the same writing team.

Duke Ellington and Irving Mills

Year Rank Title
1932 84 It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)
1937 629 Azure
1929 714 The Mooche
1930 932 Ring Dem Bells

Eddie De Lange, Duke Ellington and Irving Mills

Year Rank Title
1934 136 Solitude

Duke Ellington, Irving Gordon and Irving Mills

Year Rank Title
1938 46 Prelude to a Kiss

Duke Ellington, Manny Kurtz and Irving Mills

Year Rank Title
1935 19 In a Sentimental Mood

Duke Ellington, Irving Mills and Mitchell Parish

Year Rank Title
1933 31 Sophisticated Lady

Barney Bigard, Duke Ellington and Irving Mills

Year Rank Title
1930 161 Mood Indigo

Duke Ellington, Irving Mills and Juan Tizol

Year Rank Title
1936 17 Caravan

Harry Carney, Duke Ellington and Irving Mills

Year Rank Title
1930 369 Rockin' in Rhythm

Duke Ellington, Irving Mills, Henry Nemo and John Redmond

Year Rank Title
1938 152 I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart

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