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Take the "A" Train (1941)

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Origin and Chart Information
“Nance’s solo on ‘Take the ‘A’ Train’ was so integral to the composition that he repeated it nightly verbatim. When he left in 1965, Cootie Williams continued playing his successor’s solo.”

- David Berger

AKA"A" Train
Rank 23
Words and Music Billy Strayhorn

In 1941 Duke Ellington and His Orchestra introduced “Take the ‘A’ Train,” a composition that was later to become their signature tune. Their February 15 recording entered the pop charts in July and remained there for seven weeks, rising to number eleven. Ellington’s orchestra would see the same recording become a hit two years later, charting at number nineteen for one week.


More on Duke Ellington at JazzBiographies.com

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

Coincident with Billy Strayhorn writing “Take the ‘A’ Train,” Duke Ellington was playing at the Casa Manana in Los Angeles and broadcasting nightly. Due to an ASCAP strike Ellington could not air his compositions, so he enrolled the help of Strayhorn and Mercer Ellington, his son, neither of whom belonged to ASCAP. Ellington’s dilemma turned out to be a great opportunity for both Strayhorn and young Ellington. Neither musician squandered his fortunate circumstance. Strayhorn wrote such songs as “Take the ‘A’ Train,” “Johnny Come Lately,” “Chelsea Bridge,” “Day Dream,” and “After All.” Mercer wrote, among others, “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be,” “Blue Serge,” and “Moon Mist.”


More on Billy Strayhorn at JazzBiographies.com

“Take the ‘A’ Train,” however, was almost relegated to the wastebasket. In Stuart Nicholson’s Reminiscing in Tempo-A Portrait of Duke Ellington, Mercer Ellington describes how he retrieved “Take the ‘A’ Train” from the garbage. Strayhorn had thrown it there claiming it was an old thing and too much like Fletcher Henderson.

In The World of Duke Ellington by Stanley Dance, Strayhorn claims the title is about choosing the ‘A’ train over the ‘D’ train. He said he kept hearing about Harlem bound housewives who took the ‘D’ train and ended up in the Bronx, as it only went as far as 145th Street before turning off. If you want to go to Sugar Hill, you need to take the ‘A’ train! Another account has the title “Take the ‘A’ Train” evolving out of directions Ellington gave Strayhorn on how to get to Ellington’s Harlem apartment by subway.

On February 15, 1941, Duke Ellington and His Orchestra went into the RCA-Victor recording studios in Hollywood to record some of the Mercer Ellington and Billy Strayhorn compositions. Besides Strayhorn’s “Take The ‘A’ Train and “After All” there was Mercer’s “Jumpin’ Punkins,” “John Hardy’s Wife,” and “Blue Serge.” The personnel included Rex Stewart (cornet), Wallace Jones, Ray Nance (trumpet), Lawrence Brown and Joe Nanton (trombone), Juan Tizol (valve trombone), Barney Bigard (clarinet), Johnny Hodges (soprano sax, alto sax, clarinet), Otto Hardwick (alto sax, bass sax), Ben Webster (tenor sax), Harry Carney (clarinet, alto sax, baritone sax), Duke Ellington (piano), Fred Guy (guitar), Jimmy Blanton (bass), Sonny Greer (drums), and Billy Strayhorn (piano, replacing Ellington on “After All.”)

That 1941 recording of “Take the ‘A’ Train” may be considered definitive. Duke Ellington plays solo piano for the four bar introduction and then the A-A-B-A form is repeated three times. The first time the saxophones lead with support from the trumpets and trombones, then Ray Nance (on muted trumpet) leads, and after a four-bar transition and corresponding change of key, the saxophones and Nance (on open trumpet) take turns improvising on the theme, finally closing with fading repetitions of the last eight bars. A step-by-step analysis of the song may be found at this link. The original Feb 15, 1941, Victor 27380 recording can be heard on the 3-CD set, Duke Ellington, Blanton-Webster Band, released in 1990 on RCA 5659.

Ray Nance’s trumpet solo would become the best known of his career. In his article, “Braggin’ in Brass,” composer, conductor, and Julliard Professor David Berger comments,

Nance’s solo on ‘Take The ‘A’ Train’ was so integral to the composition that he repeated it nightly verbatim. When he left in 1965, Cootie Williams continued playing [Nance’s] solo.


More on Ray Nance at JazzBiographies.com

More information on this tune...

James Lincoln Collier
Duke Ellington
Oxford University Press, USA
Hardcover: 352 pages

(Ellington biographer Collier devotes two pages to the song’s history and offers a musical analysis.)
See the Reading and Research links on this page for additional references.

- Jeremy Wilson

Recommendations for This Tune
Click on any CD for more details at Amazon.com
Duke Ellington
Never No Lament the Blanton-Webster Band

This is the ingenious original version, featuring Billy Strayhorn’s wonderful writing and Ray Nance’s famous trumpet solo.
Duke Ellington
Piano in the Background
Original recording 1960
Ellington’s playful and frequently surprising piano is actually in the foreground for much of this 1960 re-arrangement.
Clifford Brown
Study In Brown
1990 Polygram 14646
Original recording 1955
Clifford Brown’s quintet with Max Roach is at the height of its powers on his hard-swinging performance. Harold Land’s tenor saxophone is also prominent.
Clark Terry
Duke With A Difference
1991 Original Jazz Classics 229
Original recording 1957
Terry’s uplifting tone and rhythmic sense are a perfect fit for this song. This relaxed performance also features solos by two other notable Ellingtonians, tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves and trombonist Britt Woodman.
Kenny Burrell
Ellington Is Forever, Vol. 2
Original recording 1975
This is a swinging version with an all-star band led by Burrell, whom Duke Ellington called his favorite jazz guitarist.
Oscar Peterson
Oscar Peterson Plays the Duke Ellington Song Book
Polygram Records
Original recordings 1952 and 1959
This album features two delightful versions of “A Train” with two different trios, both featuring Ray Brown on bass. The 1952 version has Barney Kessel on guitar, while the 1959 version documents the trio with Ed Thigpen on drums.
Sun Ra
Solo Piano Recital: Teatro la Fenice Venizia
2003 Golden Years of New 21
Original recording 1977
Sun Ra takes a playful romp through “A Train” that transforms over the course of four minutes from bluesy swing to avant-garde chaos.

- Noah Baerman

Betty Roché
Take the "A" Train
1995, Bethlehem Jazz
Original recording, 1956
After stints with the Duke Ellington and Earl Hines bands, Roche made it on her own with this bop version of the Strayhorn classic.
Joe Henderson
Lush Life: The Music of Billy Strayhorn
1992 Polygram 11779

Henderson’s Grammy-winning CD pays tribute to the music of Billy Strayhorn with a quintet including Wynton Marsalis (trumpet), Stephen Scott (piano), Christian McBride (bass), and Gregory Hutchinson (drums). The tenor saxophonist plays “Take the A Train”’ in duet with Hutchinson.
Mark Murphy
Kerouac, Then and Now
1994, Muse 5359
Original recording, 1986
In one of Murphy’s finest and most original CD’s, he prefaces his swinging rendition of “Take the A Train”’ with a vocalese tribute to one of its masters, Eddie Jefferson.

- Sandra Burlingame

Stuff Smith
Cat on a Hot Fiddle
2004, Verve
Original recording, 1959
Violinist Stuff Smith is his usual playful self as he rips through a searing rendition of the Ellington tune.
Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown
Gate Swings
1997 Verve #537617

Blues guitarist Brown celebrates 50 years of performance by paying tribute to a composer that inspired him in the beginning. Brown’s delicate phrasing tempers the large sound of the big band backing him.

- Ben Maycock

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