Dec 25, 2016

That "A Train" Lick, Part 1 - Harold Arlen, Irving Berlin, Billy Strayhorn, and Tiny Grimes

My friend Adam called my attention to the Irving Berlin song "I'm Putting All My Eggs In One Basket" (1936), which contains a phrase that strongly resembles one in the A section of Billy Strayhorn's "Take The 'A' Train" (1939). Adam wondered where that lick might have originally come from.

Here's the lick from "Eggs":



Berlin wrote "Eggs" for the Fred Astaire movie "Follow the Fleet":





I'm sure you already know the "A Train" lick:


Duke Ellington's classic 1941 recording:




I didn't have a good answer for Adam about the origin of the lick, but I did recall another tune with a similar lick, "Tiny's Tempo." Guitarist Tiny Grimes recorded this one in 1946, with Charlie Parker as a sideman:






This week I've been re-reading Alec Wilder's landmark book, American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900-1950(1972). If you are at all interested in jazz standards, you owe it to yourself to read it. It's extensively researched, authoritative, and amusingly opinionated. Wilder's opinions are pretty well-informed - he was himself a successful composer, both classical and popular, and personally knew some of the composers he wrote about.

In his Harold Arlen chapter, Wilder mentions an early Arlen tune, "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea" (1931), calling this phrase "a marvelous riff which I must believe was written before the lyric":


That's the piano part, from the published sheet music, copied from Wilder's book. "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea" was written for a 1931 Cotton Club show, "Rhyth-mania." Arlen was familiar, and comfortable, with the jazz world. He was adept at incorporating blues licks and blues harmonies into his compositions - I've always enjoyed that aspect of Arlen's work. Note the Ab in bar 2, a moment of a b3 blue note. As Wilder notes, Arlen was pretty advanced for his time.




Here are the dates of the songs mentioned:

"Between the Devil" - 1931
"Eggs" - 1936
"A Train" - 1939
"Tiny's Tempo" - 1946

Harry Warren's Shuffle Off to Buffalo (1933) has a related lick - a simpler version, without the initial reach to the higher note, but with the chromatic movement from the fifth to the fourth, followed by a reach up, to the second and the tonic. As in the first 3 tunes above, the lick comes at the end of the musical phrase.

"Between the Devil" is the earliest instance that I can find of any lick resembling this one. I have to wonder if it was a part of the jazz vocabulary of the day, even before Arlen wrote the song.

If any blog readers can think of an earlier example, please leave a comment at the end of this post!

Update 12/27/16:

Here's a similar sequence from 1929. I was just reading Wilder's chapter on Hoagy Carmichael. I'm not sure if this counts, as the melodic sequence is placed differently, both harmonically and in its placement in the measure, but I'd be remiss not to mention it:


About this musical example, Wilder comments, "If ever there was an instrumental phrase, as if improvised at that..."

Update 12/30/16: Click here for That A Train Lick, Part 2 - Jimmie Rodgers!

As a side note, this post led me to check out Tiny Grimes' biography. Tiny played with Art Tatum in the early 1940s, recorded four tunes with Charlie Parker in 1946, and later recorded with Johnny Hodges, Coleman Hawkins, Illinois Jacquet, Pepper Adams, Roy Eldridge, and Earl Hines. Tiny Grimes is also regarded as a contributor to the origins of rock and roll:




Trivia: According to Wikipedia,
In the late 1940s, he had a hit on a jazzed-up version of "Loch Lomond", with the band billed as Tiny "Mac" Grimes and the Rocking Highlanders and appearing in kilts. This group included top tenor saxman Red Prysock and singer Screaming Jay Hawkins.
Screaming Jay (remembered for his 1956 hit, I Put a Spell On You) was featured on vocals, sax, and keyboards with the Rocking Highlanders. Jay doesn't sing on the "Loch Lomond" track, but if you want to check it out, "Loch Lomond" is from 8:00 to 11:05 in the first recording below. The saxophones get an interesting bagpipe effect in the intro:






Here's one last one - Tiny Grimes with Art Tatum and Slam Stewart:





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