Thursday, February 02, 2023

'A Flowing But Strongly Compelling Rhythm'

That anthem of a musical era, “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” was first recorded by Duke Ellington and his orchestra for the Brunswick label on this date, February 2, in 1932. It must have come as a jolt of joyousness to Americans enduring the nadir of the Great Depression. 

Ellington had hired the singer Ivie Anderson just months earlier and the song was her first recording. In his biography of Ellington, Terry Teachout writes of Anderson that “she had a low pointed voice with crystalline diction and a cutting nasal edge” and possessed “an infallible sense of swing.” Terry says Anderson’s performance on “It Don’t Mean a Thing” “secured her reputation as the best singer ever to work with Duke Ellington.” Al Hibbler, anyone? She remained with Ellington until 1942. The solos are by alto player Johnny Hodges and trombonist Joe “Tricky Sam” Nanton. Clive James writes:


“Ellington gave his superbly self-trained horses enough time—just enough time and no more—to perform every trick they knew, but they had to do it inside the corral. The result would have sounded like confinement if the rhythmic pulse, the swing, had not made it sound like freedom. As Nabokov said of Pushkin’s tetrametric stanza, it was an acoustical paradise.”


In 2017, X.J. Kennedy titled his latest poetry collection That Swing (Johns Hopkins University Press), and Ellington’s song title serves as the book’s epigraph. I wrote in my review:


“Aficionados will recognize the allusion to Duke Ellington’s barn-burner from 1931, a year or two before swing — the word, the music — became all the rage. The Oxford English Dictionary cites Ellington’s title and defines swing in words appropriate to Kennedy’s practice as a poet: ‘a flowing but strongly compelling rhythm.’”


[Hear Ella Fitzgerald perform “It Don’t Mean a Thing” with Ellington on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1965. When Ellington soloes he throws in a taste of “Satin Doll.”]

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