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Considering the spare melody and lyrics of “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” the immediate success was due, in no small way, to the vocal by Ivie Anderson, who introduced it with the Duke Ellington Band in February, 1932.
Ellington’s recording went onto the charts for six weeks, peaking at number six. In September, 1932, the Mills Brothers covered it and saw their rendition rise to number seven. It was the right combination of talent at the right time that made the song immediately popular.
There are many stories about the origin of the song’s title. Depending on whom you believe, it was a favorite saying of James “Bubber” Miley, who played the trumpet with Ellington’s band in the 1920’s. Yet another account has Cootie Williams (Miley’s replacement) insisting it was his catch phrase. Still another has Irving Mills taking credit for using the phrase in a sentence while telling Ellington that the customers weren’t dancing to the band’s music. In actual fact, any number of people may have been using the phrase when Ellington wrote the song.
The term itself, “swing,” has been used in a number of ways. Today, the most common use among jazz musicians relates to subtle changes in the timing of the melody, which promote a “swing feeling.” That is to say that the melody notes are played ahead of the beat, across the beat, or behind the beat, allowing the performer to express a more relaxed, rhythmic, or even driving feeling.
Another, more specific use of the term refers to the style of music played by big band dance orchestras of the 1930’s and 1940’s. But in the 1920’s, and before, musicians usually used the term “swing” as a synonym for “jazz.”
Regardless of the definition, there is little argument that Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean A Thing…” is the song that brought the word “swing” into general use. The song is further credited with predicting the swing era, giving the swing era its name, and providing one more reason to call Duke Ellington a prophet.