Duke Ellington


Don’t Mean a Thing

Year of Recording: 1932

Other Performers: Ivie Anderson, Joe Nanton, and Johnny Hodges

General Characteristics of the historic Jazz Style

’s Historic jazz style was swing. Swing music wascommon in the 1930’s. It led to the coining of the term ‘Swingera’ (jazzinamerica.org, 2015). The swing style of music uses awide enclave of instruments. The style uses a lead section of brassinstruments such as trumpets anchored with a strong rhythm subsectionof drums and double bass. Other instruments used in swing includewoodwinds, saxophones, clarinets and trombones. In some scenarios,the use of stringed instruments such as guitars and violins isevident. The choice of the combination of musical instruments variesfrom one composition to another.

The tempo of swing music ranges from medium to fast. The maindistinguishing feature of swing music is the emphasis on a weakerpulse and the off- beat. In many stage settings, there is a soloistwho improvises the music to derive the swing rhythm. Swing music,mainly a product of big orchestras, was popular among young couplesbecause of its rhythm. From the technical perspective, the style thatrelates to Ellington’s music was referred to as swing. This was thereference because of the nature of the rhythm to be danceable and thetempo engaging. His style represents a combination of a young,enthusiastic audience and talented bands made swing music America’spopular tune between 1935 and 1946. ’s ‘Don’tMean a Thing’ is a composition based on Swing jazz historic style.In addition, it was the first song to include the ‘swing’ in itstitle.

Individual stylistic characteristics of

From a young age, was a pianist. Later on in hiscareer, he developed skills in composing music and leading a band. Heselected his band members based on their individuality. Most of theband members were jazz artists in their own capacity. used harmonies to blend the individual sounds of his band members(Brittanica.com, 2015). He also used the illuminated subtle moods bycombining different instruments to come up with unique sounds. A goodexample is the mood indigo sound that emanated from a combination ofa muted trumpet, a low register clarinet, and an un-muted trombone.

During his compositions, he included the individual talents of hisband members. For instance, his hit song ‘Don’t mean a Thing’was a composition from the lyrics of Irving Mills (Brittanica.com,2015). Most importantly, he made a series of compositions tohighlight the individual prowess of his soloists. His composition,‘Echoes of Harlem’ brought out the versatility of his band membercalled Williams, who had otherwise been invisible in the othercompositions. Others, such as ‘Concerto for Cootie’ and ‘Caravan’were aimed at bringing out the best in Juan Tizol, the trombonist.The pinnacle of his career was when he adopted fast- passed tempo. Healso ventured into other genres apart from jazz. He was intrigued atthe possibility of composing jazz in classical music. His ability tojuggle between different stylistic forms made him a force to reckonwith in the jazz industry.

Observations from listening to ‘Don’t Mean a Thing’

The song starts with a violin that sets the tempo to swing. DukeEllington joins in with the piano before a vocalist in the band openswith the ‘Don’t mean a thing’ line. Speedy, hard- hittingharmonies join in. There are about seven members of the band playingthe trumpet. They join in an appalling synchrony. The lyrics areminimal in this composition. In fact, there are only two lines in theentire song. The larger part of the song is full of instrumentalsthat create the ambiance of a swing dance. This timbre of the jazzand the musical aspect creates for the audience, a different feelingof excitement. The music is also brassy and rhythmic for the betterpart of it.

By watching the performance, and observing the band members from theperspective of the audience, it is possible to see the enthusiasm ofthe band members taking the swing. The swing is developed from themusic to the rhythm and the combination of the two creates a unitedpiece of entertainment. In a nutshell the composition was amasterpiece. It was therefore not surprising to learn that the songwas a hit for three straight years. In addition, many artists haveredone numerous versions of the song over the years.


The song brought to the limelight. Before then, he hadbeen struggling to maintain his band following dwindling crowds ofjazz fans in America. The composition was part of the new era of jazzcalled swing. Unlike before (in the 1920’s) this new genre wasfast- passed and had a tempo ranging from medium to high. Thecomposition also made popular in Europe. He was ableto revive his dying band after securing music trips to Europe. Thesong has a big significance in the history of jazz. As jazzhistorian, Gunther Schuller, classified it, ‘Don’t mean a thingis’ a new legendary. Even after the death of most of the bandmembers, artists are still doing different versions of the song. Thelatest version was collaboration between Tony Bennett and Lady Gagain 2014.


Brittanica.com. (2015). American musician. [Web].Retrieved from http://www.britannica.com/biography/Duke-Ellington

Jazzinamerica.org. (2015). Style sheets the swing era. [Web].Retrieved fromhttp://www.jazzinamerica.org/jazzresources/stylesheets/9