Wednesday, February 4, 2009

"Take The A Train" - Duke Ellington, 1939 (swing jazz)

In 1939, pianist Billy Strayhorn wrote a song that would soon become the national anthem of the New York City subway transit system. The tune became the signature number for Duke Ellington and his orchestra, as well as the official song of New York City.

The title of the song refers to the A line of New York's subway train service. At the time of the song's conception, this line ran from Brooklyn, up into Harlem, and then northern Manhattan where it used the express rails.

Although traditionally played as an instrumental, 'Take The A Train' does have lyrics. Since most jazz pieces are centered more around instrumentalists, the lyrics are minimal. The following also only represents one version of what can be sung. As is typical of the genre, lyrics and even the instrumental parts often change from performance to performance and musician to musician.

You must take the A Train
To go to Sugar Hill way up in Harlem

If you miss the A Train
You'll find you've missed the quickest way to Harlem

Hurry, get on, now, it's coming
Listen to those rails a-thrumming (All Aboard!)

Get on the A Train
Soon you will be on Sugar Hill in Harlem

So, why are we taking the A Train, why are we going to Harlem, and why are we in such a hurry to get there?...

Happy Black History Month!

We're not just going to Harlem, today, we're going to Sugar Hill. Sugar Hill in Harlem, New York was the mythic hub of the Harlem Renaissance which took place between the two World Wars. Sugar Hill was the ritziest, fanciest African-American neighborhood in the whole United States. It wasn't just the place where Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn lived. No...Sugar Hill was "the good life."

During the early 20th century, Harlem was "en vogue". For many decades prior to the 1920's and 1930's, African-Americans from all over the country dreamed of living here. There were stately homes and apartments to live in, and the entire area had its own uptown, high-society quality about it, which is what gave way to the name 'Sugar Hill'. The 'Sugar' part refers to money and the sweet life.

As for the 'Hill', the Sugar Hill neighborhood is actually part of the Hamilton Heights, and sits on a bluff above the Harlem Plain. More specifically, it extends westward from Edgecomb to Amsterdam Avenues. The southern boundary is typically placed at W. 145th St. The heart of Sugar Hill, however, is found between 144th and 155th streets.

The area attracted many African-Americans who would later become famous; their fame and notoriety would aid in the advancement of colored people and open many doors for future generations. In these few short blocks lived:

~Civil rights activists - W.E.B. Du Bois, Walter White, Roy Wilkins, and the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Sr.
~Literary authors - Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, and Zora Neale Hurston
~Musicians - Cab Calloway and Paul Robeson
~Politicians - Thurgood Marshall

As the term suggests, the Harlem Renaissance was the rebirth of discovery, learning, and expansion for people of color, and Sugar Hill was the heart of it all. This new movement sparked change in urban centers from far and wide. This upswing taught intellectuals and artists alike to find new ways to explore the historical experiences of black America and black life in the urban North. Virtually no subject was left unexplored. This revolution took place across the cultural spectrum, appealing not only to performance artists (dance, literature, drama, visual art, music) but also to students of social thought (philosophy and sociology).

Some might say that this Harlem Renaissance was part of the original spark that caused the Civil Rights Movement. Following so closely on the coattails of the single greatest issue of the Civil War, the Harlem Renaissance allowed black Americans to focus on their past, as well as develop for themselves a unique identity for their future - a culture within a culture. This rebirth brought the people close to their roots, but also fostered the emergence of a new culture within America, hence the term "African-American". The residents of Sugar Hill would be a beacon to the rest of black America that the old European racist, paternalistic way was no longer acceptable. However, the Harlem Renaissance was not a time of hostility and violence. Instead, it urged dignity, creativity, and exploration of the intellect to help begin to transform us into a diverse but equal society.

During this time, history records what is called "The Great Migration". This term describes the result of the war effort's need for unskilled industrial labor on America's small black communities. During this time, hundreds of thousands African-Americans moved into more urban areas (like Chicago, Philadelphia, Cleveland, New York) seeking employment. The result was the sudden expansion of the black communities. With this sudden cultural explosion within America's big cities there came a greater market for what the black culture had to offer. It wasn't long before the black and white cultures began to intermingle, share, and trade. For example, the music of the South came north with the migrants, and soon the "black music" was ALSO being played by white musicians in night clubs and hot spots all around town (and the black musicians would play right along side WITH the white musicians and learn from each other). In fact, many white artists and patrons even offered African-Americans access to mainstream publishers and art venues.

So, now that we know a little more about what was waiting for us at the end of the line, we can see that that's why it was imperative that we Take The A Train (remember those Manhattan tracks are an express!) and get off at Sugar Hill, Harlem, New York! We just had to!! =D

"Take The A Train" - Duke Ellington, 1962

Here is an earlier recording of Duke Ellington's piano trio version

~Informatio track-ed down from places like:

1 comment:

Obaid Ullah Muhammad said...

Thanks for the info. I am taking African American classes at UIC and this article helped me a lot regarding the Take the A train.