It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing

The Duke Ellington Orchestra will present a profusion of timeless classics in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa.

It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing  (photo credit: Courtesy)
It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The Duke may no longer be with us, but his music lives on, especially when there’s a 15-piece band doing the round of the world keeping the Ellington flame burning brightly. We will be able to dig the Duke’s groove for ourselves when the Duke Ellington Orchestra swings by here between April 3 and May 2 for concerts in Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem.
Duke Ellington is acknowledged as one of the great composers of the 20th century, and not just in the jazz domain. Tunes like “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing” and “Take the A Train” have become beloved standards that have been recorded and performed thousands of times.
Other timeless classics by Ellington include “Caravan,” “Mood Indigo” and “Satin Doll,” but the pianist/bandleader/composer also stepped across the jazz divide and ventured into contemporary classical and other areas. In 1960 he produced an emotive arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite and culled textures and rhythms from other cultural climes in, for instance Far East Suite , as well as delving into ecclesiastical work on his Sacred Concerts , which he recorded in the late 1960s and early ‘70s. During a career that spanned more than half a century, Ellington wrote more than 1,000 works and is attributed with having elevated jazz to the status of a highly respected art form.
Tommy James has no problem with that eclectic approach at all.
“I also grew up with all kinds of stuff,” says the sexagenarian pianist who also serves as music director and arranger of the Duke Ellington Orchestra. “I listened to rock and pop and Motown stuff and also classical music from the end of the 19th and early 20th century – things by Ravel, but also Tchaikovsky, although he was from an earlier period.”
James got an early introduction to the Ellington genius. “My father had some Duke Ellington records. The first song I can vividly remember hearing is ‘It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing,’ the version with the three girls [the Boswell Sisters’ 1932 recording], where they sing a canon [harmony format],” he recalls. “It is like I heard it yesterday. It is still so fresh in my mind, but we’re talking about 55 years ago for me.”
It may have been love at first listen, but it took James a while to fathom the Duke’s work. “I was really knocked out by the music, but I didn’t understand the genius of the orchestration and all the colors he had in there. I got it now. It’s been a real journey with Duke’s music,” he says.
“I was just talking about that with the other cats [members of the band] the other day, about how the music you hear when you’re young stays with you for the rest of your life,” says James. “Some of those cats have such strong memories of where and when they first heard this or that music, and I’m talking about down to the time of day and what they were doing when the music came on. That’s really powerful.”
Music was front and center in his life when James was growing up. “I remember listening to music and having the records spread out all over the living room floor. My friends and I would stay in listening to record after record until my mom would come and kick us out and tell us we needed to get out of the house a bit,” he recounts.
James feels that today’s youngsters could do with spending more time grooving to music. “You don’t get that much of that these days. I always say, to a blind person it doesn’t matter what you’re wearing. You’ve just got to hear the music so you can grow up with it and take it with you.”
Technology, says James, encroaches on that formative musical experience. “These days, with computers and all that, it’s confusing for the kids – is it a musical thing or is it a visual thing? It’s like a weird hybrid of the senses.”
James imbibed his own musical cocktail and later put much of it into onstage practice. “I played pop music and R&B and other stuff which, in some sort of way, all goes back to jazz. I don’t really consider myself a jazz musician; that’s a label that someone else gave me. You give me some music to play and, if I can cut it on a technical level, I’ll play it.”
One presumes Ellington would not have had a problem with that approach. He once said, “There are two kinds of music – good music and the other kind.”
Says James, “He never said the words ‘bad music.’ It makes me mad when people misquote Ellington. He never talked about bad music.”
James’s fascination with Ellington continues to this day, over half a century since he heard his dad’s copy of the Boswell Sisters’ close harmony rendition of “It Don’t Mean A Thing....” and he says he never gets tired of hearing the same tunes over and over.
“I don’t have a favorite Ellington number. I get into different things as time goes by. Right now I’m into this thing called ‘The Balcony Serenade’ from The Perfume Suite ’ [by longtime Ellington cohort composer, arranger and pianist Billy Strayhorn]. That’s really great cool saxophone writing. But I always find something new in Ellington’s music, even if I hear the same thing a thousand times.”
Ellington’s music has always had the power to move people and to get them out on the dance floor. He started out playing swing style jazz and dance music, and even though his oeuvre branched out into ever more complex areas, James believes that Ellington never strayed far from his musical roots.
“Man, you can always hear the swing in his work, and he really just wanted people to get up and dance. That’s what it’s really all about.”
The Duke Ellington Orchestra will perform on April 30 at 8 p.m. at Beit Hahayal in Tel Aviv. On May 1 at 8 p.m. at the Rapaport Center in Haifa. And on May 2 at 8 p.m. at the Jerusalem Theater. For tickets: 072- 275-3221; *3221; (04) 862-9959