Take the A Train

Billy Strayhorn’s famous arrangement for the Duke Ellington orchestra, its signature piece, almost never saw the light of day because Strayhorn had discarded it initially. Today it is one of the staple jazz standards along with Gershwin’s Summertime or Miles Davis’ and reminds us of the New York of our predecessors, in the era when the A Train was brand new. This piece strikes a particular chord in me because our jazz ensemble performed it in high school.

Most jazz is described as disorganized but it’s simply a further iteration of the avant-garde emotional freedom Schoenberg was aiming for. Jazz was played over the radio and thus had to be aesthetically pleasing to most people, but it remains a form of pure art because aside from the head, which determines the tonality and the rhythm, the performers are free to take the original wherever their imagination pleases, and each artist or even each performance by the same artist is going to be unique. Miles Davis was unapologetically dissonant and he is very widely known and heralded as one of the greatest jazz artists of all time. Jazz hits a sweet spot where the intrigue and brazenness of dissonance is kept in check by the familiarity of the head.

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