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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

Recommendations for This Tune
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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

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