It Don't Mean a Thing (If it Ain't Got that Swing)

Album: Hot Summer Dance (1932)
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  • When Duke Ellington's "It Don't Mean a Thing (If it Ain't Got that Swing)" was released on the Brunswick Records label on February 2, 1932, it was not the beginning of the Swing Era - Jazz fans would not see that for another three years. What the song did do was introduce the word "swing" into the popular lexicon, although Ellington was not really trying to do that. He said that "swing" was simply "Harlem for rhythm."

    The song was written in the summer of 1931. Ellington and his band had been on the road for the better part of the year and got a much needed break when they played four weeks in a row at the Lincoln Tavern in suburban Chicago. The Chicagoans in the band had a chance to see their wives and everyone else was able to stay in one place, at least for a little while. Still, they were back on the road again when the shows at the Lincoln Tavern ended and it was months before Ellington was able to get into a recording studio.
  • Ellington was not completely sold on the idea of featuring vocalists in his work. He hired Ivie Anderson for the first time for "It Don't Mean a Thing," but it was far from the last time that Anderson would appear on an Ellington record. In fact, she was one of the few singers to travel with the band. It was asthma (which eventually took her life) that forced her retirement from the stage. Arguably, the popularity of the 1932 release of the song had as much to do with Anderson as it did with Ellington. Anderson's performance of the opening lines, "It don't mean a thing, if it ain't got that swing, doo-ah, doo-ah, doo-ah, doo-ah, doo-ah, doo-ah, doo-ah, doo-ah, doo-ah," is crisp yet at the same time, relaxed. The awe she initially felt at performing with the legendary Ellington is not apparent here.

    There were other arrangements for "It Don't Mean a Thing." In fact, Anderson's was not the first. The initial arrangement was for Johnny Hodges, a legend in his own right on the alto sax. After Anderson was no longer able to perform, Ellington reworked the song for saxophonist Ben Webster and after that, the multi-talented Ray Nance had two arrangements. Ellington was known for his ability to write for specific band members, allowing their unique talents and strengths to shine through.
  • This song lifted Ellington out of the category of simply "bandleader" to composer. Critic Spike Hughes called him a prophet. However, Ellington was not a fan of trying to read too much into a song. In an interview with members of the British jazz band, the Humphrey Lyttelton Band, Ellington said of attempts to overanalyze, "If you take a beautiful flower and enjoy it, you can just look at it and smell it… but when you start pulling the petals off and then you get down to the veins and the stem and all that sort of thing, and by the time you've gotten through that you say, 'Well, gee. This is a beautiful flower.' [Or] it was."
  • There have been countless interpretations of this American classic. Some of the more popular renditions are by Lionel Hampton, Chuck Brown, Mel Tormé, Diane Schuur, Louis Armstrong and Tony Bennett.

    Joe Jackson did a new take on the song for his 2012 Duke Ellington tribute album Duke. Ellington recorded the song with the Dutch trio Zuco 103 at their studio in Amsterdam, and had Iggy Pop add vocals. Jackson told us: "One of the most important things was getting over that question of am I allowed to do this, is it okay for me to do this? And I think I learned that at some point it just occurred to me no matter what I did, it wasn't going to hurt Duke Ellington. I mean, he's immortal. Even if I make the worst Duke Ellington tribute ever made, it's not going to affect his reputation. So I thought, well, if I'm going to do this, I should really take it as far as I possibly can away from the original verses. Because I felt that was what I had to bring to this project."
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