A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano

Ron Drotos

History and overview:
“It Don’t Mean A Thing” is one of Duke Ellington’s earlier hits, dating from 1931. (His band was formed in the 1920s and lasted all the way into the early 1970s!)
The tune is a lively, uptempo swinger that’s features a catchy melody and some fun rhythms at the end of each ‘A’ section.” If you want to play a swing era tune that will get your audience tapping their feet, give this tune a try.

Recommended videos/recordings:
(for international readers who may not have access to these YouTube links, I’ve indicated the original album names wherever possible so you can listen to them on music streaming services, etc.)

Duke Ellington

Ella Fitzgerald & Duke Ellington: Ella and Duke at The Cóte D’ A’zur

This is one of the most exciting live jazz albums of all time. (They also perform a great version of “Mack The Knife” that keeps building and building and building…)

The Modern Jazz Quartet: Live In Paris, Vol. 2

Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
“It Don’t Mean A Thing” is one of those perfect tunes that simply “feels right.” It swings. The two halves of the A Section provide contrast in just the right way and balance each other. The bridge goes where it should go. The whole song is perfectly constructed, and it’s hard to imagine a time when it didn’t exist.

But yes, the song didn’t exist until the year 1932, when Duke Ellington composed it. This was right at the beginning of the Swing Era and the word “swing” was still new and exciting to the general public. Ellington’s title was every bit as perfect as his music.

Musically, the A Section begins with a chromatically descending bass line while the melody rises and then falls (“wave construction,” just like Mozart used in his melodies.) Then, measures 5-8 serve to “ground” the music with the repeating Bb in the melody and the rhythmic syncopation as the chords move toward resolution. In just 8 bars, Ellington has already taken us on a whole journey (“there and back again,” to quote The Hobbit). The bridge is simply two sets of ii/V/Is, in Eb and in F.

“It Don’t Mean A Thing” is a highly versatile tune. You can play it in many different tempos and styles. In you’re left hand, you can play walking bass, stride, or you can “comp” with chord voicings. If you want to “bring down the house” and wow your audience, prepare an exciting stride piano arrangement of the song. You may even get a standing ovation!

Enjoy the journey, and “let the music flow!”

Further links and resources:
It Don’t Mean A Thing: Wikipedia

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