Take the “A” Train, composed by Billy Strayhorn in 1939 and first recorded in 1941, was the signature tune of the Duke Ellington Orchestra. The title refers to the then recently opened A subway line that ran from Brooklyn to Northern Manhattan.
The chord progression of Take the “A” Train is loosely based on another song called Exactly Like You (1930).
The standard is in the key of C major and has an AABA structure. The Duke Ellington version modulates to Eb in the second chorus.
Take the “A” Train starts with two bars of C major (on bar 5 in the sheet music below, after the 4-bar intro), before going to two bars of D7#11 (the #11 is in the melody), which functions as a II7.
For improvisation, use the D Lydian dominant scale over the D7, the fourth mode of the A melodic minor scale, which is closely related to C major.
It is said that the first two melody notes over the D7 sound like a train horn…
The ending of the arrangement is very recognizable and is known as the “Take the A Train” ending.
- Duke Ellington – Hollywood (1941)
- Dave Brubeck – Jazz Goes to College (1954)
- Ella Fitzgerald – Ella in Hollywood (1961)
- Kenny Burrell – Ellington is Forever Volume 2 (1975)
- Joe Henderson – Lush Life – The Music of Billy Strayhorn (1991)
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