Stories of Standards: "It Don't Mean a Thing" - Duke Ellington

Feb 2, 2018

Tune in to Jazz with Victor Cooper - weekdays from 6-9 a.m. MT - for Stories of Standards to hear our favorite versions of this song all week long starting Monday, February 5!

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Duke Ellington wrote the melody “It Don’t Mean a Thing” at Chicago’s Lincoln Tavern in August 1931 during intermissions. Irving Mills then wrote the lyrics and the first recording, featuring Ivie Anderson, was released February 2, 1932. This recording was added to the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2008. Ellington attributed the phrase “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing” to trumpeter Bubber Miley; Cootie Williams (Miley’s replacement) said it was his catch phrase; Mills said he originated the phrase when explaining to Ellington why customers weren’t dancing. Others may have been using the term at the time as well.

Duke Ellington (1899-1974) was a brilliant composer and pianist, who became one of the best known people in American jazz. He assembled orchestras of virtuoso musicians, wrote arrangements which highlighted their greatest skills and talents and kept them together for many years. He wrote over a thousand songs, three sacred concerts, toured many times in Europe, made hundreds of recordings and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1969 plus a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1999.

Irving Mills (1896-1985) led a widely varied life as music publisher, orchestra leader, agent, record company owner, lyricist and vocalist. In 1919 he created a music publishing business which signed previously unknown artists such as Hoagy Carmichael and Dorothy Field. He brought orchestras together, formed a booking company and created a recording company for them. He greatly influenced the careers of Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway, managed the Duke Ellington Orchestra from 1929 to 1939, sang on some recordings and wrote lyrics to several songs including “Mood Indigo” (1931), “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” (1932), “Sophisticated Lady” (1933), “Solitude” (1935), and “Caravan” (1937).

Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Duke Ellington, Rex Stewart, Cab Calloway, French guest (name unknown), Ivie Anderson, 1938. Photograph by Charles Peterson for LIFE magazine.