“Take the A Train” Duke Ellington

Duke Ellington’s signature song, “Take the A Train” was written by Billy Strayhorn. It was quite difficult for me to assign a form to this piece and identify various sections, because one of the main elements of Jazz is improvisation. So, I naturally found myself trying to fit it into the forms we have already discussed in class (ex. Sonata form). Overall, if I had to assign a structure to the piece I would say A-B-A.

The song begins with a very festive opening, starts with playful descending melodies scales played by the piano (0:00 – 00:05), followed by the celebratory sound of trumpets 0:06 – 0:11. The entire song maintains an upbeat tempo, due to the drums and the bass that continuously play in the background. The Introduction, or A section, spans from 0:00 to 1:40. Within this timeframe I identified two different musical themes or distinct sounds, which reminded me of the primary and secondary themes of sonata form. The primary one from 0:05 to 0:51 and the secondary one is 0:52 to 1:38.

At 1:39, a shift is marked by a number of trumpets joining in and an increase in dynamic, which signaled section B. From 1:48 to 2:15 there is a development of the piece during which elements from section A returns. At 2:16 there is another shift in the music marked by the instruments coming together once again, which initially creates a somewhat dissonant chord which is resolved at the instruments end on the same note. At 2:18 we get a return of the A section, however it is not necessarily a “true” return since it’s not identical to the beginning of the piece. Here the trumpets are  similar to the beginning, but there seems to have been a slight change in key, shifting from a higher major (0:18 – 0:22) to a lower major key (0:29 – 0:3). We also hear a quick return of the playful piano introduction, but only for a spilt second (0:45– 0:46) as a short reminder of the first A section.

Although I was very excited for this unit, I was a bit disappointed that none of the songs we are studying contain a vocal piece. In Jazz, the vocal style is very unique because it also functions using improvisation and contains many unique improvisation techniques, such as scat singing and bebop. Jazz singers were also unique because of the distinctive raspy, sultry quality of their singing.

302 thoughts on ““Take the A Train” Duke Ellington

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    This insightful commentary on Duke Ellington’s “Take the A Train” highlights the challenges of analyzing jazz through the lens of classical music forms. The observation of its A-B-A structure, despite jazz’s inherent improvisation, offers a clear framework to understand the song’s dynamic shifts and thematic variations. It’s interesting how the piece melds structured elements with spontaneous expression, a hallmark of jazz that makes it both complex and captivating. The absence of vocals in the study, while disappointing, underscores the rich instrumental focus in jazz that characterizes Ellington’s work. This reflection not only deepens appreciation for the genre but also sparks curiosity about how vocals could further enrich the understanding of jazz’s expressive range.

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    Sherri-Chanelle B. offers a compelling analysis of Duke Ellington’s iconic “Take the A Train,” skillfully navigating its complex structure and improvisational essence. Identifying the A-B-A form within a genre that thrives on spontaneity showcases a deep appreciation and understanding of jazz. The detailed breakdown of each section, noting changes in melody, dynamics, and key, provides readers with a clear map to appreciate the intricacies of this celebrated piece. While expressing a wish for vocal elements in the study, Sherri-Chanelle highlights the unique qualities of jazz singing, adding another layer to the rich tapestry of jazz music appreciation.
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