It Don't Mean A Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)

Recorded April 3, 1961
Track Time 3:31
Written by Duke Ellington and Irving Mills
Recorded in New York City
Accompanied by Duke Ellington, piano, Trummy Young, trombone, Barney Bigard, clarinet, Mort Herbert, bass, Danny Barcelona, drums
Released on the Roulette LP "The Great Reunion"
Currently on CD: "Louis Armstrong & Duke Ellington: The Complete Sessions"
Available on Itunes? Yes

Full disclosure: the wife and I watch American Idol. There, I said it. She enjoys pop music, 80s rock and all the rest of that ilk. I don't. But I do like a good competition and I can tell a good vocal from a bad one so I always get into it to see who does well and who falls on their face. Have I ever bought an album from a past Idol winner? Never even considered it. But we do watch it every week. I know, I know, it will take a lifetime to earn back your respect...

Anyway, this week was "Rat Pack Week," their way of saying "Standards Weeks." There was zero connection to the actual Rat Pack (the guest mentor was Jamie Foxx!?) but I thought the five kids did pretty good with their ballads. Yes, all five sang ballads, even though there was a big, fat band sitting right behind them. I told my wife I was disappointed with the lack of swingers and she rightly said, "Maybe they can't swing."

Well, last night, they opened with a group sing-a-long on "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" (which host Ryan Seacrest introduced as "I Don't Mean a Thing," a beautiful Freudian slip). Suffice to say, it didn't mean a thing. Duke wrote such a hip tune but it's always the unhip who grab those "Doo wahs" and drown them with cruise ship cheese (I could smell their toothpaste through the television screen).

Anyway, after my little Ellington tribute yesterday, I figured I had to do an impromptu part two this morning. Here are the two masters themselves, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, giving a master's class in swinging on their joint version of "It Don't Mean a Thing" from 1961:

Now that's what I'm talking about. There's not a lot for me to analyze as it's just a pretty straightforward, swinging jam. But listen to Armstrong's freedom in the introduction. Ellington does a simple descending minor vamp for four bars before Pops swoops in and absolutely floats for about 25-bars. THen it's time for the vocal, Pops still battling that cold that had him sounding a little deeper than usual. His reading of the verse sounds like a sermon, as he half-speaks it in a righteous manner. When he gets to the vocal, he wisely avoids the "Doo wah's," handing the ball over to trombonist Trummy Yong and clarinetist Barney Bigard for short, four-bar statements during his first chorus.

But in his second chorus, stand back! Armstrong completely rephrases the melody and instead of singing the "Doo wah's," he goes for himself with some dazzling flights of scat fancy (Scat Fancy? I've heard of Cat Fancy magazine... I would definitely read something named Scat Fancy). I remember playing this for my then 12-year-old nephew and he was boggled by the fluidity of Armstrong's scatting. "How does he do that?" It's an art form, as silly as it sounds (literally). Sometimes on Idol, someone will break out a scat passage that gets the crowd cheering...and gets me squirming. Not as easy as it sounds, my friends....

After the vocal, Pops implores the trombonist to "Take it, Trummy," who listens well to instructions and engages in some trading with Bigard. Bigard came back to the All Stars for this 1960-1961 run with a little more juice in his tank; when he left in 1955, he was so out of gas that every time he traded with Trummy on Satch Plays Fats, drummer Barrett Deems had to switch to quiet cymbal patterns to make sure he didn't wake the clarinetist. But on the Ellington date, he held his own and the rhythm section responded by pushing him hard. He still goes for a few laughs and he's definitely not Edmond Hall, but he sounds better than he did in the mid-50s.

Ellington's bridge should be stamped "100% Pure Dukish." I love piano players who are instantly recognizable after just one chord and Duke more than fits that description. Trummy and Barney shout their way through the last eight bars before Pops swoops in for a terrific solo, carrying on the relaxed mood of his introduction. He keeps the melody in the forefront, but manages to create plenty of interesting variations around it. His improvisations have such a logic to them, it just makes me shake my head. The bridge is very nice, too, though the one high note sounds a tad bit strained (naturally, he had a cold and wasn't exactly well rested, but he still turned in some fantastic blowing over the course of those two days in April). A neat touch occurs at the end as Armstrong just goes for himself over a simple four-bar vamp. I love it because, though he doesn't shoot out the lights, every single note he plays just swings, swings, swings, and as the song title implies, that means everything.

S'all for now. I'll be back in a few days with a nice, long, look at "The Gypsy." Til then!


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