A Guide To Help You Play Better Jazz Piano
History and overview:
“Take The ‘A’ Train” is one of the 4-5 top tunes that every jazz musician needs to know. Fortunately, it’s pretty easy to learn!
The tune was composed by Billy Strayhorn in 1939, and became the Duke Ellington Orchestra’s theme song. It’s mostly performed as an instrumental, although a lyric was written and you’ll sometimes hear vocalists sing it. It’s worth noting, though, that when trumpeter Ray Nance sang it with Ellington’s band, he make up his own, speech-like melody.
The title refers to New York City subway directions that Duke gave Strayhorn on how to get uptown to Ellington’s apartment building in Harlem.
(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.)
Billy Strayhorn: The Peaceful Side Of Jazz
Dave Brubeck: Live In 1966 (video)
Sun Ra: Montreux 1976 (video)
Musical ideas and jazz piano practice tips:
“Take The ‘A’ Train” is written in the standard AABA 32-bar song form, which was typical of the Swing Era. If you’re just starting to learn it, begin by analyzing the chord progression. It starts with the tonic (CMaj7) chord, and then moves to D7b5. This is a colorful sound, since the D7 chord contains an F# and isn’t in the key of C. So how to view it? Well, traditional classical harmony would consider it a “secondary dominant,” meaning that it functions as the V chord in the key of G (V/V). In more practical terms, I think that most players view it as more of a “major II” chord. The b5, by the way, comes from the melody. Play it under the melody, and you can decide for yourself whether or not you want to use it while soloing.
I remember playing “Take The ‘A’ Train” as a solo piano feature at a music festival a few years ago. I started by getting a mental image of an old-fashioned steam train in my mind, and “heard” the wheels chug-chug-chugging along. I then translated that sound to the piano, playing a boogie woogie pattern with my left hand, and bringing in right hand voicings that evoked the sound of a train whistle, like Ellington did with his orchestration on “Daybreak Express.” I then went into the melody and my solo, keeping some of this initial feeling throughout my performance.
After I finished, a much older jazz pianist, whom I respected, came up to me and said, “That was great! You really breathed new life into a tune that we’ve all played thousands of times.”
I was flattered, and his remark reinforced my belief that there’s no such thing as an “overplayed” tune. There’s a fresh way to play anything. When my jazz piano teacher, Billy Taylor played “Take The ‘A’ Train” at Strayhorn’s funeral, he played it as a ballad. Taylor demonstrated this for me at the piano, and it sounded wonderful!
Enjoy the journey, and “let the music flow!”
Further links and resources:
The Best Way To Use The Real Book
Duke Ellington: Music Is My Mistress
Ellington’s autobiography is unmatched for its vivid descriptions of the early New York City jazz scene.
Take The ‘A’ Train: “Let’s Jam Together” video playalong
How To Learn Jazz Piano
A podcast to help you learn jazz piano more effectively
Mastering The Real Book: A 10-week Skype Intensive for Jazz Pianists
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