Five Tips for Singing Ellington

From time to time, I teach a class at the Nashville Jazz Workshop, Vocal Literature: The Music of Duke Ellington. Students of all ages study and perform songs from Duke Ellington’s repertoire, like “Take the A Train,” Sophisticated Lady,” “In a Mellow Tone,” and, always a favorite, “It Don’t Mean a Thing If (It Ain’t Got That Swing).” After teaching this course many times, I’ve gathered a few essential tips for performing the Duke’s tunes.

1. Learn the correct melodies. Make sure the versions you listen to are correct by comparing them to the sheet music.

2. Elllington’s intervals are tricky (he loved tri-tone intervals in his melodies), so a little bit of ear training can go a long way toward nailing those intervals.

3. If you’re an accompanist, know the intros and endings to as many Ellington tunes as possible. The essential ones for knowing both intros and endings would be “Satin Doll” and “Take the A Train.” Also pay attention to the melody notes that sometimes change the actual chords listed in the charts. For instance a C7 might very well be a C7#11 because the melody note is the #4 or #11.

4. If you sing “Caravan,” make sure you know the alternate bridge with the lyric. Same chord changes, but different melodies. The Sher Real Book has both bridges for reference.

5. It’s always good to know “shout” choruses to several of Ellington’s tunes. WHY? Because it IS part of the tune and demonstrates your complete knowledge of the real recordings. You can find examples in “Take the A Train,” “Perdido,” and “In A Mellow Tone.”LoriHandsKeybd-200

Ellington said, “There are two kinds of music. Good music, and the other kind.” He also said, “If it sounds good and feels good, then it IS good!” Hopefully these tips will help you make it sound good, make it feel good, and make it swing.


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