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Duke Ellington: It Don’t Mean a Thing if It Ain’t Got That Swing


Bring the subject of music to people whose prime of life happened during the 1930s to the ‘50s and he or she would immediately be reminded of the golden days of jazz. The names of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and countless other jazz musicians would be mentioned. The memories of the great times they had, dancing and swinging to the jazz tunes would light up their faces. But there was a period, especially during the early days of jazz when it was played solo, mainly as an expression of the pain and the hardships felt by the black community in the United States. The very fact that its proponents were from the black community was a drawback for this type of music from being popular. This was compounded by the fact that there were no accompanists who could bring rhythm into the music being played. In that sense, jazz was ‘listened to’ and not ‘responded to’ through swinging, dance, or any other form of expression. This was the way jazz was played during the early days of its evolution.

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This paper is an attempt at studying the paradigm shift that happened during the mid 1903s to the present-day status of jazz. This shift would eventually change the way jazz was perceived until then and would be universally accepted as music that originated from America. In the process, it will also make comparisons of jazz with music that is popular in the present age.

The concept of swing (and rhythm) in jazz music was first put forth by legendary jazz musician Benny Goodman. According to jazz historians, it was not out of inspiration that this concept of fusing jazz and swing came about. It was more out of frustration in not being able to popularize this form of music and also to earn a name for himself (and his band). This paradigm shift for jazz music happened in 1935 during a concert at the Palmoral Ballroom in Los Angeles. “Finally, at the Palmoral, Goodman told his band to “get as hot as you wish” in the last-ditch effort to engage the audience. They did and the audience went wild. Jazz officially shifted into a new age.” (How the jazz age became the swing era, From jazz to swing). This change from pure jazz to swing jazz entailed a change in the composition of the playing itself. From solo performances or small bands comprising of two to five persons, the transition resulted in swing jazz having approximately sixteen or more members. Instruments used also changed and now included trumpets, trombones, saxophones, clarinets, pianos, guitars, and drums.


The rhythmic movement of a clock pendulum would be a classic example of swing. Once the movement starts, pushed by hand (and later by the turn of the key) it keeps on swinging rhythmically, not stopping until the spring, made taught by the turn of the key becomes unwound once again. There are countless other examples of swing. The one that comes easily to mind is the swing in the park where boys and girls and even adults enjoyed playing the role of the pendulum, moving back and forth, pushed in this case by ones’ father, mother, uncle, aunt, cousin, or a friend. There is also a swing in the walk of a man or a woman, the movement much more in the case of the latter. There is a swing in the movement we make when we are happy; some call it to dance. There is a swing in the dance of a peacock when it wants to procreate. Procreation is something that is one of the basic tenets in nature and the survival of a species. But the question that comes to mind is that why should there be something external that needs to make something swing. It can be the turn of the key, the need to procreate, the expression of happiness and joy, the push to make a swing (in the playground) swing. Could it be that the swing is something that is closely associated with rhythms like the beat of a heart?


There is a rhythm in the beating of the heart. It goes lup-dup, lup dup, according to layman’s language used by physicians and doctors. A healthy person will have approximately 84 such rhythms a minute in a normal relaxed state. It is true that the tempo changes according to our moods and emotions, but the lup-dup is still there sometimes faster, sometimes slower than the 84 per minute beat of a typical heart rhythm. If the heart, so essential to life itself beats rhythmically, it is only natural that rhythm will influence the human mind in other spheres also. There is nothing closer associated with rhythm (other than the heartbeat) than music. Rhythm in music is usually represented in music through the sound of an accompanying drum. It has the ability to convert poetry into music. One of the definitions of music is “organization of sounds with some degree of rhythm, melody, and harmony.” (Music, M – O).

This indicates that music has more to do with sounds, rhythm, melody, and harmony. Though not acceptable by everyone, there is no mention of lyrics or meaning of words in this definition of music. This also shows that there can be music without words. But without rhythm, melody, and harmony there will be no music. Original jazz did not have real rhythm until Goodman’s (and his band’s) dramatic performance nearly three-quarters of a century back. Duke Ellington’s inclusion of the words “it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing” is purely a natural reaction to the fact that music has to have rhythm, melody, and harmony, reinforced by Goodman’s success in changing the face of jazz music forever.

Origin of jazz

Jazz probably has its origin when a cornet player called King Oliver began performing on steamboats during the 1900s. He was a person idealized by a person none other than Louis Armstrong, one of the greatest legends in the world of jazz. It was during this period that jazz was accepted as a form of music to be enjoyed, if not responded to. The 1920s saw the transition from playing solo to the accompaniment of other musicians. In other words, jazz became transformed into a band performance rather than individual performance. It was also a time when elements of other forms of music began to be incorporated into jazz as well. “In the 1920s the music of jazz began to migrate to a big band format combining elements of ragtime, black spirituals, blues, and European music” (The history of jazz music – Pre-swing era, The big band era and the rise in popularity of big band music, The history of jazz music – part 1, Improvisation was an integral part of jazz music when it was played solo. The player did not have to coordinate the notes and the tunes with any other person. But with the advent of bands, things began to change. The presence of more than one person presented practical difficulties with regard to improvisation. Soon, a person referred to as ‘arranger’ began to appear on the scene. His job was to assign pre-arranged or pre-written musical notes to different persons in the jazz band. The arranger mentioned here has similarities to the conductor so crucial to the success of the performance of a full-fledged classical orchestra. The arranger became a common fixture in jazz bands. The article above states that the practice of an arranged but easy-flowing style soon ensued. Major jazz bands of the day like Dorsey Brothers, Fletcher Henderson, Cab Calloway, Boswell Sisters, and Duke Ellington (and his band) began to follow this new style of jazz music presentation. There appears to be a contradiction as to the incorporation of swing into jazz here. This article states that this progression of jazz from solo to band and the presence of structured playing was the forerunner of swing in jazz. This is in contrast to what was mentioned earlier namely that the person (inadvertently) responsible for swing in jazz was Benny Goodman. Whatever may be the real reason, swing and rhythm became an integral part of jazz music.

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This state of affairs also reinforces the fact that a structured form of playing music is more amenable with swing and rhythm than improvisation. Improvisation is fine if rendered with a rhythm that can be identified by humans. Otherwise, it would be like asking a person to move according to the sound of thunder that follows lightning. The lighting indicates that it is time to move or in this case swing. But it would be impossible to swing or dance in tune with the sound of thunder. The sound of thunder is an improvisation of nature or a rhythm still not grasped by man. Ultimately, a structure in the playing of jazz music paved the way for swing and dance to become an integral part of the art form. This also had a profound effect on the increase in popularity of jazz music cutting across cultural and social barriers.

Duke Ellington

The first line a person sees as he or she enters the official website of this great musician is the words “You’ve got to find a way of saying it without saying it”. This is a typical statement from someone who is capable of expressing his emotions and thoughts without words or lyrics. Such a person can only be a painter or a musician. Duke Ellington was a musician and one of the pioneers and a trailblazer in jazz music.

Ellington’s real name was Edward Kennedy Ellington and was born on April 29, 1899, in Washington DC. A born musician, he could play the piano when he was seven and began composing music by the time he was fifteen. He (along with his band) has the rare distinction of being popular in his field by being able to stay in the limelight for nearly fifty years. This longevity is something that is quite rare in the world of music. The man was so talented that he was able to compose music for such varied settings as religion, ballets, and comic plays. The man’s personal greatness was evident from his attempts to allow each member of his band to share the limelight through his compositions. “Duke Ellington is one of the most influential figures in jazz, if not in all American music, and is widely considered as one of the twentieth century’s best known African American celebrities.”( About Duke Ellington, The official Duke Ellington Website). The Maestro as he was affectionately called by his fans and followers proved his greatness due to the following awards and recognitions he received during his illustrious career. He was awarded the President’s Gold Medal in 1966 by President Lyndon Johnson. He was awarded the Medal of Freedom in 1969 by President Richard Nixon. In his career spanning fifty years, he has received a total of thirteen Grammy Awards. He also received a special citation from the Pulitzer Prize jury. The French Government honored him with the Legion of Honor in 1973, a year before his death. He also has the distinction of having his image appear in a commemorative postage stamp in 1986. It is a fact that that very few people (let alone blacks) have been recognized due to his contributions to music in general and jazz in particular. Duke Ellington died in the year 1974.

Even though he was not directly responsible for changing the face of jazz music with respect to swing and rhythm, he played an integral role in popularizing this genre of music throughout the world.

It Don’t Mean a Thing:

These words are from the lyrics of a song he composed with another well-known musician called Ella Fitzgerald. To understand the full impact of this line, the full lyrics of the song need to be presented.

“What good is melody?
What good is music?
If it ain’t possessin’ something sweet
It ain’t the melody, it ain’t the music
There’s something else that makes the tune complete
It don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing
It don’t mean a thing all you got to do is sing. It makes no difference
If it’s sweet or hot
Just give that rhythm
Everything you’ve got
It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing”.

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(Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald, It Don’t mean a thing, Blues for peace).

It is obvious from these simple lines that he is not belittling literature, but only trying to define music on his own terms. He says that it is not the words alone, it is not the melody, it is not the sweetness, it is not the music, but swing and the rhythm that will complete the melody. As mentioned earlier words can make poetry not music. But music can be made without words. It needs harmony, melody, and music, but needs the swing and rhythm to be complete. Music, according to him needs all these elements to be complete.

A new dimension is given to those crucial words by Professor of Philosophy, Donald Keefer. A person might feel bad about a bold statement like “It doesn’t mean a thing” in any circumstance without fully explaining the background behind the statement. It is only natural that a person who loves music be shocked by the words that good melody and good music are useless without swing and rhythm. According to Keefer, the statement is an attack or even criticism against the so-called intellectuals. What Ellington means is that it may be okay for people with high intellect to graphs certain concepts with the power of their mind. But, for the common man, that concept has to connect to the heart and the body as well. “Whatever doesn’t work its magic through the body doesn’t count. There is deep Socratic wisdom here: a life without swing, is not worth living. Other philosophers come to mind. Rene Descartes might have very well said, “I Swing, therefore I am.” A Hegelian recognizes that History is nothing more than the realization of swing in time”. (Delivered to the American Society for Aesthetics, Eastern Division Meeting, Bard College, 1992, If it ain’t got that swing: Musical Performance Practices and the Possibility of Musical Meaning, Donald Keefer). There is also a critical reference to the inhuman stand of the white people against the colored people in the United States. The words are an indirect reference to the fact that unless physical needs are taken care of, there will be no appreciation for intellectual pursuits in society. The physical needs are shown as the swing which is pushed by the rhythm of better living conditions, equality, etc of the black population.


The statement which is the title of this paper is indicative of the physical needs that have to be satisfied before intellectual needs are satisfied. The physical needs are represented as rhythm and swing in music while melody and lyrics are shown as intellectual needs. A just and equitable society will require the satisfaction of both the physical and intellectual needs in a society in order to justify its claim as such.

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