“Take the A Train” is a jazz standard that was originally written by Billy Strayhorn, and was made famous by the Duke Ellington Orchestra in the 1940s. It is an incredibly influential piece in American music and is still performed by musicians today. This post analyzes the practical and artistic decisions made by performers of this song over the past seven decades, looking for reflections of the supply of money in the jazz industry.
By the early 1930s, America was in the throes of the Great Depression. Industry of all types in the country suffered huge losses, and the music industry was no exception. Radio emerged as a more cost-effective form of music dissemination than records for the common man. While jazz big bands were popular, the cost of recording such large ensembles was prohibitive even for the most successful bands. By the dawn of the Second World War, the forced wartime entertainment tax and new broadcast standards further reduced profits for groups like the Duke Ellington Orchestra. This lack of funds in the business required pieces to be written with more pared-down arrangements. Duke Ellington’s original 1941 recording of “Take the A Train” is significantly less ‘full’ than previous hit songs like the East Saint Louis Toodle-Oo.
Soon after World War II, however, America experienced an economic boom. With teenagers consuming records and dance music, money flooded into the music industry. Ella Fitzgerald’s version of the song (1952) features a large band, better recording equipment, and a more danceable rhythm. To me the recording, with singing and a more standardized AABA structure, seems very intentionally geared towards commercial success. It seems representative of commercial success and mass appeal, and remains one of the singer’s biggest hits.
By the 1970s, jazz no longer dominated the radio waves or charts. Performances were intended far more for a listening audience than a dancing one. With the Civil Rights movement still in full swing, American society had begun to ascribe some artistic value to traditionally African-American art forms. Interest in the genre was of a decidedly more academic nature than the 1950, with jazz curriculums being introduced at universities and colleges. Reflections of this can be seen in Sun Ra’s 1976 recording of “Take the A Train”, with its esoteric arrangement and complex chord substitutions. The piece seems to be aimed at listeners knowledgeable both in the roots of jazz and music theory. The money involved in its production is from a niche audience with academic interests. This trend has continued to the present day. Wynton Marsialis’ version of “Take the A Train” (2013), performed at the Lincoln Center as part of a formal academic institution, treats the piece with the sort of reverence reserved for classical music. The organization, Jazz at The Lincoln Center, is funded more by donations and memberships than ticket sales.
A study of the amount and sources of money in the jazz industry seems very relevant in the context of the history of African-American music. Recordings of any jazz standard over the last several decades illustrate not only the slow process of the legitimization of the study of African-American culture, but also explanations of trends within one of the most influential American musical forms. Study of Ellington’s post-war performance of the song (Prestige, 1946), Charles Mingus’ angry version during the Civil Rights movement, and George Benson’s modern, smooth electronic version could add more weight to this argument. Much has been written about both society’s influence on jazz and vice-versa, but it is equally important to look at the money behind the music to glean the true attitudes of society towards the genre.
- “Take the A-Train”, Duke Ellington (Bluebird, 1941 performance)
- “Take the A-Train”, Duke Ellington, Joya Sherrill (Prestige, 1946 performance)
- “Take the A-Train” Ella Fitzgerald (1957)
- “Take the A-Train” Oscar Peterson(1952)
- “Take the A-Train” Charles Mingus – Pre-Bird (1960)
- “Take the A-Train” Sarah Vaughan(1967)
- “Take the A-Train” Sun Ra (Live at Montreux, 1976)
- “Take the A-Train” Joe Henderson (1992)
- “Take the A-Train” George Benson (2002)
- “Take the A-Train” Wynton Marsialis (Jazz at the Lincoln Center 2013)
- Tyle, Chris. “Jazz History in Standard Time.”Jazz Standards. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Sept. 2015. <http://www.jazzstandards.com/history/>
- “About.”About. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Sept. 2015. <http://www.jazz.org/about/>.