1. It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)
Performed by the Duke Ellington Orchestra in 1932
Performed in 1932 by the Duke Ellington Orchestra, featuring the singer Ivie Anderson, "It Don't Mean a Thing" became a theme song of the Swing Era. And the observation in its title defined an important aspect of jazz music (and perhaps even of life) itself. Pay attention to the playfulness of Anderson's voice as it obeys the song's credo, swinging against a background of brasses and improvising solo reeds. Operating in the limited compass of the three-minute song, Ellington serves alike the dance hall, the juke box, and the concert hall. References to Ellington abound in African American literature.


2. (What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue
Performed by Louis Armstrong in 1929
Written for the 1929 Broadway review Hot Chocolates, this song first served as a vehicle of semi-comical remorse by a dark-brown-skinned female character who regretted that all the boys seemed to prefer light-skinned girls. Trumpeter and vocalist Louis Armstrong works his magic on the song, editing and elevating it to the level of a racial protest piece and generalized plaint against life's unearned bruising aspects—its ability to leave all of us black and blue. In Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, the protagonist discovers that the history of a people may be discerned within this mighty song. How interesting that by insisting on "Black and Blue," Invisible Man invokes a song that was originally designed as a black woman's song and that originally evoked laughter.


3. Parker's Mood
Performed by King Pleasure in 1953. p. 68
Charlie "Bird" Parker (1920-1955) was the alto saxophonist whose technical brilliance and soulful quickness in the bebop jazz idiom made him one of the two or three most influential leaders of the revolutionary/evolutionary musical movement. "Parker's Mood," the saxophonist's slow blues ballad, recorded in 1948, shows his much-imitated way of shaping a musical phrase and of modernizing the classic musical form. In this 1953 performance, we hear singer-lyricist King Pleasure's transmutation of the Parker instrumental into a vocal song: the melodies and phrasings are Parker's; the lyrics, King Pleasure's. Parker, by the way, was not pleased by the setting of traditional blues lyrics ("Going to Kansas City / Sorry that I can't take you") alongside lines that predict his death—which occurred on March 12, 1955, fifteen months after this recording.