|Duke Ellington and Ray Nance|
When Duke Ellington wrote It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing) in 1931, he created an anthem for the swing era. Swing music, as did other American styles, developed organically and rather magically from the musical culture of the time.
Ellington was one of the most successful African American musicians of the 1930s and ‘40s. The title of his famous “swing” tune came from a credo that his trumpeter Bubber Miley touted often. Lyricist Irving Mills immortalized the saying by making it the song title. Ellington said that in his time “swing” was simply “Harlem for rhythm.” The use of “that swing” in the title of Ellington’s new tune was a first and unwittingly named the new music that would define the great swing era. At first the winds and brass were featured with the vocals in this tune and hence in the style. Singer Ivie Anderson sang the hit for Ellington in 1932 with trombonist Joe Nanton and saxophonist Johnny Hodges taking the solos. Soon after, Ellington created another arrangement for band member and saxophone legend Ben Webster. Things changed however in 1940 when the Duke hired Ray Nance.
Born Willis Raymond Nance (Chicago 1913), Ray was such an all-round great musician – playing solo trumpet, composing, arranging, singing and dancing - that his band mates nicknamed him “floorshow”! He was also one of the greatest jazz violinists in history. After taking a well-known signature trumpet solo in Duke Ellington’s famous Take the A Train in 1941 and some excellent violin solos in the hit C Jam Blues the following year, Ellington asked Ray Nance to create a new arrangement of his It Don’t Mean a Thing. Nance “ran the floor” again leaving many to claim that his adaptation was the definitive version of the song. This arrangement released by Ellington in 1943 not only featured Nance’s attractive band writing style, but also his vocals on the lead and his masterful swing violin soloing as well. Nance is also credited with changing the original “doo-ahs” that Anderson sang in 1932, to the “doo-wahs” that more closely emulated a horn section sound. My arrangement quotes some of Nance’s original violin work as well as some of his band writing that naturally suits the violin.