At the time there was a music strike after ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) raised its broadcast licensing fees. Many bandleaders like Ellington could no longer afford to play their own songs live on radio. To get around this change in the regulations, Ellington (who was in ASCAP) turned to his son Mercer Ellington and composer Billy Strayhorn, who were both signed to BMI (Broadcast Music,Inc.), and tasked them to come up with a new band book of songs and arrangements that wouldn't be as expensive to play.
The song was almost lost to history. According to the website Jazz Standards:
“Take the ‘A’ Train,” however, was almost relegated to the wastebasket. In Stuart Nicholson’s Reminiscing in Tempo-A Portrait of Duke Ellington, Mercer Ellington describes how he retrieved “Take the ‘A’ Train” from the garbage. Strayhorn had thrown it there claiming it was an old thing and too much like Fletcher Henderson.
In The World of Duke Ellington by Stanley Dance, Strayhorn claims the title is about choosing the ‘A’ train over the ‘D’ train. He said he kept hearing about Harlem bound housewives who took the ‘D’ train and ended up in the Bronx, as it only went as far as 145th Street before turning off. If you want to go to Sugar Hill, you need to take the ‘A’ train! Another account has the title “Take the ‘A’ Train” evolving out of directions Ellington gave Strayhorn on how to get to Ellington’s Harlem apartment by subway.
However the song came to be, it was a certified hit and re-entered the charts in 1943, 2 years after its first appearance, this time hitting #19 for another week.
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A Jazz Great
Fans of the song are undoubtedly familiar with the trumpet solo performed by Ray Nance. It is frowned upon in jazz, which prides itself as an improvisational style of music, to repeat an ad-libbed solo. However, Nance's solo is the definitive one and Ellington said that no trumpet player can play the song without borrowing from what Nance offered. Nance was also an accomplished violinist. He invented a new way to play "Take the A Train," using the violin and accompanied on piano by Dr. Billy Taylor in 1967. The two men performed the normally uptempo song as a slow funeral march. The occasion was the memorial service for Strayhorn and so much was the song intertwined with both Strayhorn and Ellington, it was performed at Ellington's memorial, too, seven years later.The song was featured in the 1943 movie Reveille with Beverly. As was the case with many of the musicals of the era, the Ellington segments stood alone in case the movie had to be cut to accommodate the south, where people would boycott movies that featured Black performers. Watch:
My favourite version of "Take the 'A' Train" pairs Ellington & Orchestra with Ella Fitzgerald. It's sublime. Just take a listen.
A good song can take anything thrown at it. "Take the 'A' Train" has been covered by numerous artists over the years. Here are just a few examples of the dozens out there, finishing up with one of the Duke Ellington Orchestra's greatest performances of the tune.