The Best of What's Around: Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn and "Take the A Train"
How Billy Strayhorn's timeless jazz composition became a cornerstone of Duke Ellington's repertoire and launched his music publishing company.
NB: This account includes two videos. Each is very short. You will enjoy both of them, but please watch at least one.
Duke Ellington’s Artistic and Business Crises
From 1939 to 1941, jazz legend Duke Ellington faced artistic and business crises. Ellington’s orchestra was extremely popular on radio, on tour, and as the house band at Harlem’s fabled Cotton Club. The orchestra’s 1939 tour of Europe was a success. Unfortunately, a licensing dispute developed between ASCAP (the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers) and radio broadcasters. ASCAP is a clearinghouse; it collects and distributes royalties payable to holders of music-related copyrights. The dispute prevented the music of ASCAP members, including Ellington, from being played on radio.
The ASCAP problem meant that Ellington needed an entire new “book,” or repertoire, for his band. Ellington turned to his son, Mercer (1919-1996), and to his piano man, writer and arranger, Billy Strayhorn (1915-1967.) Unlike Ellington, neither Mercer nor Strayhorn was a member of ASCAP and they were not bound by ASCAP’s constraints. Ellington had hired Strayhorn (then only 24) in 1938 after Strayhorn played a version of the band’s hit “Sophisticated Ladies” for Ellington after a show. In 1941, Strayhorn would prove to be extremely valuable to Ellington.
Ellington also had business problems. He did not own the copyrights to his music, a condition typical of musicians then and now.  Irving Mills, Ellington’s manager from 1926 to 1939, controlled the copyrights. The problem was compounded because the compositions for which Ellington took writing credit were often developed in a group environment. Some asserted that Ellington was a “compiler,” not a composer. Strayhorn came to Ellington’s defense, saying:
So this guy says you and he wrote it, but he thinks he wrote it. He thinks you just put it down on paper. But what you did was put it down on paper, harmonized it, straightened out the bad phrases, and added things to it, so you could hear the finished product. Now, really, who wrote it? . . . But the proof is that these people don’t go somewhere else and write beautiful music. You don’t hear anything else from them. You do from Ellington.
Ellington’s highest priority was keeping his orchestra together. It toured incessantly to generate the money necessary to keep it going. The orchestra was Ellington’s instrument—the outlet for his enormous musical creativity. In a short period of time, he needed to make major changes to his music and to how his intellectual property rights were managed.
Strayhorn to the Rescue: “Take the A Train”
Strayhorn, though quiet and reserved in demeanor, was extremely talented. His compositions include “Lush Life,” “Satin Doll,” “Chelsea Bridge,” “Day Dream,” “Johnny Come Lately,” “Rain Check” “Clementine” and “Lotus Blossom.” He collaborated with Ellington on “Deep South Suite” (1947), the “Shakespearean Suite” or “Such Sweet Thunder” (1957), an arrangement of the “Nutcracker Suite” (1960) and the “Peer Gynt Suite,” (1962.) His “Jump for Joy,” (1950) and “My People,” (1963) suites had the struggles and triumphs of African-Americans in the United States as their themes.
The long Ellington-Strayhorn collaboration has been written about extensively. Strayhorn was essential to Ellington for decades. In his autobiography, Music is My Mistress, Ellington refers to Strayhorn as “…my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head, my brainwaves are in his head and his in mine.”  Here is Ellington on their collaboration:
Oh, Billy Strayhorn is my writing and arranging companion. I may be somewhere, like in Los Angeles, and he’s in New York, and I get to the 17th bar of a number and I decide, well, I think rather than sit here and struggle with this, I’ll call Strays and I’ll call him and say, “Look, I’m in E flat someplace, and the mood is this and you know, this man is supposed to be walking up the road and he reaches a certain intersection and I can’t decide whether he should turn left, right, go straight ahead or make a U-turn.” And he says, “Oh, yes, I know what you mean,” you know? And “Well, I think you could do that better than I could”—that’s his first response, you know? And all the time, he’s thinking about how he can outdo me, you know? And then, and very often without any more than that, we come up with practically the same thing.
Strayhorn and Mercer Ellington spent hours together going over the orchestra’s scores to learn how to write music in Ellington’s style. Initially, Strayhorn had little confidence in “Take the A Train.” In one account, Mercer Ellington recalls retrieving the score to “Take the A Train” from the trash because Strayhorn and thrown it out. Strayhorn thought that the song sounded too much like an arrangement by band leader Fletcher Henderson.
Here is the Ellington orchestra playing “Take the A Train” in a 1943 movie, Reveille With Beverly. A morale-building movie with plenty of Hollywood effects—the orchestra is on a train that is nothing like a New York City subway train—this version includes a vocal by Betty Roche and a solo by tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves:
Strayhorn did not play in Ellington’s orchestra and he rarely attended its performances. Here is a 1964 performance of “Take the A Train” that opens with Ellington’s affectionate introduction of Strayhorn. It features a bass solo and scat vocal by Ernie Shepard:
In some accounts, Strayhorn describes the title as about choosing the A train over the D train which only went to 145th Street in New York. To reach Ellington’s home in the Sugar Hill section of Harlem it was necessary to take the A train. Other versions describe the title as evolving out of directions that Ellington gave Strayhorn, a Pittsburgh native, on how to get to his house.
How the A Train Runs
“Take the A Train” ultimately kicked off more than 1,000 broadcasts and concerts and became the Ellington band’s signature composition. The song begins with a piano vamp, or short sequence of repeated chords, before the orchestra kicks in at full power with a horn-driven tempo that unmistakably recalls a speeding train.
The song is not a prime example of Strayhorn's compositional style. Walter van de Leur of the Department of Musicology of the University of Amsterdam said that, "its string of choruses, ample solo space against background riffs, and unison saxophone lines with snappy brass answers" align it with standard big-band conventions of the time, but also notes that its harmonies and rhythms anticipate the modernistic turns of bebop.
Expert instrumentalist and ACPS band teacher Richard Seracino describes “Take the A Train” as not particularly challenging to play. He said, “There’s nothing technically challenging…No range challenges or fast sections.” Seracino said, “there are lots of train-like stabs all through the arrangement” that contribute to the train effect. A “stab” is a short heavy accent on a uniform note or chord. Seracino sees “Take the A Train” this way:
A Train is a pretty standard tune. It's in A-A-B-A form. No real crazy chords, with one exception. And this is what makes the tune. The second chord of the song is a dominant chord with a flat 5. This has a unique sound to it. It allows the soloist to use a whole tone scale. It's just what the name implies, a scale constructed of all whole tones D-E-F#-G#--Bb-C-D (7 notes instead of 8). Interestingly, that chord (D-F#-G#-C) sounds a lot like a train horn. Other than that, it's pretty standard jazz stuff. The A section ends with a typical 2-5-1 progression (the most common chord progression in jazz). The B section goes up a fourth and ends in a 2-5-1 that brings you back to the A section.
The sound of the Ellington band of this period is often described as “tight,” or as Seracino describes it, “super tight.” It is hard to find a universally-accepted definition of musical “tightness.” It may be enough to think of it as the cohesive sound quality that results from thousands of hours of practicing and performing by some of the best jazz musicians of the era.
Ray Nance’s Trumpet Solo in “Take the A Train”
The original trumpet soloist, Ray Nance, on “Take the A Train” was one of the Ellington band’s most formidable musicians. Jazz critic Gary Giddins describes Nance’s solo as, “superbly assured and witty, yet delicate and intensely personal. It was the kind of solo that…soon became as renowned as the written material, and it established Nance as an Ellington star.”  When other trumpet players, notably, Cootie Williams, took over they played Nance’s solo almost note-for note.
Ellington Establishes Tempo Music
By 1940, Ellington had been leading and composing for an orchestra for 20 years. His recording contract with RCA gave him great latitude, but Ellington went in a different direction. He fired Irving Mills and started his own music publishing firm, Tempo Music, to control his music copyrights. Tempo Music distributed the music of the Ellington orchestra and small band sessions led by other musicians. Giddins says:
Strayhorn’s piece (“Take the A Train”) was an immediate hit and soon became the band’s theme and inevitable set opener. Along with “Flamingo,” it made Tempo Music a going concern.
Listening to Duke Ellington at His Best: The Blanton-Webster Band
Those interested in hearing Ellington’s orchestra at its peak might follow the recommendation of The New York Times Essential Library—Jazz: A Critic’s Guide to the 100 Most Important Recordings by Ben Ratliff (Times Books, New York 2002.) Ratliff singles out a recording, The Blanton-Webster Band (RCA Bluebird/BMG) (so named because of the contributions of Jimmy Blanton and Ben Webster, two of Ellington’s stalwarts. ) Ratliff says:
Ellington hit a hot streak, regularly turning out benchmark classics at every recording session; The Blanton-Webster Band collects them all.
Information on purchasing The Blanton-Webster Band is available
So, if spirits are down and a lift is needed, we should do as Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn suggest in their timeless composition: Let’s “Take the A Train.”
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1. About Alexandria’s distinguished intellectual property counsel advises that musicians can assert intellectual property rights—copyright protection—in two ways for the same musical work. Musicians, or their assignees, can assert copyright protection for compositions (writing music and lyrics) and for music performances. In 2020, Bob Dylan sold his composition rights, or songwriting catalog, to Universal Music Group for over $300 million. About a year later he sold his performance rights, which included his master recordings, to Sony Music Entertainment for an amount reported to be between $150 and $200 million.
2. Some accounts suggest that Ellington took advantage of Strayhorn by claiming intellectual property rights in compositions that should have belonged to Strayhorn. Two things are inconvertibly true. First, Strayhorn’s life as an openly gay African-American musician was complicated. Second, Ellington had a deep regard for Strayhorn and his talents. In 1967, Ellington, devastated by Strayhorn's death, eulogized him in touching terms:
He spoke English perfectly and French very well, but condescension did not enter into his mind. He demanded freedom of expression and lived in what we consider the most important and moral of freedoms: freedom from hate, unconditionally; freedom from self-pity (even throughout all the pain and bad news); freedom from fear of possibly doing something that might help another more than it might himself; and freedom from the kind of pride that could make a man feel he was better than his brother or neighbor.
3. Jazz—A History of America’s Popular Music by Geoffrey C. Ward, (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2002) p. 287.
4. Visions of Jazz—The First Century by Garry Giddins (Oxford University Press, New York, 1998) p. 236.
5. Ibid, p.235.
Really enjoyed this article and I learned a lot! Thank you!
And, thank you for reading About Alexandria. I knew "Take the A Train" generally, but not much more. It was fun to learn what the song meant to Ellington and Strayhorn.