Train Songs No.5: ‘Take the A Train’ by Duke Ellington
This train song takes us back to 1943 and a rendition of a signature Duke Ellington/Billie Strayhorn number, taken from the movie Reveille with Beverly.
The spinning record in the centre of the screen merges with footage of an oncoming locomotive over some ominous, Hitchcockian brass figures, and then we are on board an express train and the full Ellington band are there too, all polished brass and immaculate white suits. Duke flirts shamelessly with the camera, his right hand hopping as he strikes each chord in the intro of the orchestra’s signature tune. After a roll on the drums and a brass flourish, the curtain at the back of the carriage flicks aside and Betty Roché sashays in, singing the verse.
Hurry hurry hurry, take the A Train
To get to Sugar Hill way up in Harlem…
The A Train, of course, is the longest subway in New York, running all the way from Harlem out to furthest Queens. Langston Hughes wrote about Sugar Hill in The New Republic in a piece called Down Under in Harlem in 1944. “If you are white and are reading this vignette, don’t take it for granted that all Harlem is a slum. It isn’t. There are big apartment houses up on the hill, Sugar Hill, and up by City College — nice high-rent-houses with elevators and doormen, where Canada Lee lives, and W. C. Handy, and the George S. Schuylers, and the Walter Whites, where colored families send their babies to private kindergartens and their youngsters to Ethical Culture School.” Duke was living the sweet life on the hill in the 1940s, as well as appearing in Hollywood movies and fronting the hottest band on the road. So this really was a place that life could start over — the A Train truly could get you to where you were going in a hurry.
But wait a minute — this is no subway train; we aren’t on our way to Harlem — it seems even jazz royalty can’t take us that far uptown in a mainstream Hollywood movie in 1943. Instead, the projected landscape slipping past between the slats of the window blinds is that of some anonymous, mid-west prairie, the train changed from a means of escape to a forum of sanitised entertainment. But even the magic of cinema can’t extinguish Harlem entirely. The rhythm of the A Train is in the tune’s DNA; beneath all the slickness and the showbiz clowning there’s the precise elegance of the Duke’s solo and, just after he’s finished, the rasping breath of Ben Webster’s saxophone over the brass, a hot wind blowing in from a wild night somewhere else.
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