“What good is melody?
What good is music if it ain’t possessin’ something sweet?”
So, what is that sweet thing?
“It ain’t the melody, it ain’t the music.
There’s something else that makes the tune complete.”
What is that something else?
“It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.”
Thus wrote Duke Ellington and his manager/lyricist Irving Mills in 1931 when It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing) first burst on the jazz scene.
It’s that swing thing!
Master Chorus Eastside is rehearsing a choral arrangement of this number for our Great American Songbook concert, and we are really enjoying that swing thing! A Russian piano teacher once told me that Americans played jazz and jazz-based numbers differently than anyone else. It’s in our blood, she said. And that’s very evident in the verve that MCE is bringing to our concert preparation.
What is swing? It’s a bit hard to define, but it’s a syncopated lilt that makes the listener want to dance. Paired eighth notes are played unequally, driven by an underlying triplet feel, with the first eighth note as the longer of the two. When I see the directive “swing” at the beginning of a piece, I know to upshift into triplets, let my inner dancer loose, enjoy the syncopation...and not be too rigid about the whole thing!
It was big band jazz that made swing wildly popular, and the swing era held sway in American dance halls and theaters from about 1935 until the end of World War II. Big bands intertwined New Orleans Dixie Land and Kansas City jazz styles, along with Latin American dance impulses, into an irresistibly lilting dance beat. And Duke Ellington was among the best of the best, both as a band leader and as a composer.
Among the many works, large and small, that he wrote, It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing) stands at the top, and helped spark the first stirrings of the swing phenomenon. It may be the first number to use the word “swing” in its title, and it certainly helped to introduce the concept to the general public. Ellington credited the title phrase as the doctrine of his former trumpeter, Bubber Miley, who died of tuberculosis the same year the song was birthed.
Here’s the famous 1932 recording by Ellington’s band.
Classical conductor and jazz historian Gunther Schuller called It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing) “legendary,” and in 2008 it was voted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. Schuller also predicted that Duke Ellington would come to be recognized as one of the great masters of American music—of all styles!
Ellington was truly one of a kind, and it is MCE’s privilege to bring this number, as well as all of the songs in The Great American Songbook, to life.
Dr. Linda Gingrich
Artistic director and Conductor
Master Chorus Eastside