Jazz and Trains: A Connected History

It is no secret that Jazz musicians, particularly in the first half of the 20th century, had a fascination with trains. Piece after piece has train whistle imitations and train references in its title. Where did this interconnectedness between Jazz and trains come from?

Constructing Railroads in the United States

American music has a long-standing connection to trains that reaches back before the advent of Jazz in the late 1910s.

Railroad construction in the United States began in the late 1820s, the first railway to charter freight and passengers being the Baltimore and Ohio constructed in 1827. By the 1870s, there was already a vast network of railroads spanning the country, allowing for unprecedented travel of goods and people.

One of the reasons that railroads were able to be constructed so rapidly was the use of slave labor. Southern railroad companies began buying slaves in the early 1840s and used enslaved labor almost exclusively to construction their lines. Thousands of enslaved African Americans were working on Southern railroads by 1850. In spite of the immense hardship of this labor, trains became a “symbol of hope and transformation” for enslaved people and their descendants (Davis, p. 82).

Pullman Porters and the Great Migration

Shortly after the Civil War, businessman George M. Pullman hired thousands of African American men to work on his luxury railroad sleeping cars. While these men were often severely overworked and underpaid, porters were paid more than many other Black workers at the time.

In 1925, Pullman porters established the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, a union to represent Black workers because the American Railway Union refused to include them. They were trailblazers, securing the first-ever agreement between a union of Black workers and a major U.S. company, successfully bargaining for a more reasonable work schedule and better wages. This accomplishment was monumental and lead to further economic mobility for Pullman porters and their families.

The Great Migration was crucial to the development of American music and every facet of society. From 1916 to 1970, more than 6 million African Americans moved from the rural South to the cities of the North, Midwest, and West. They sought better economic opportunities and an escape from the segregation of the Jim Crow South. In moving, they brought their music, cuisine, and customs with them. This newfound means of travel allowed for a broader and more rapid exchange of ideas.

Trains in Early Black American Music

The Crush Collision March, Scott Joplin

This piece was written to commemorate the train crash in “Crush, TX.” The train crash was a marketing scheme for the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad Company. They built a fake town and named it Crush after the railway agent William Crush who planned the event. Two soon-to-be retired trains were commissioned to crash into each other, head-on. About 40,000 people showed up for the spectacle, including Scott Joplin. Two people died and many were injured, but spectators still rushed toward the collision to find a piece of the exploded trains as a souvenir.

More on the Crush Collision.

Linin’ Track, Lead Belly

Huddie Ledbetter (c. 1888–1949), better known as Lead Belly, performs Linin’ Track. He was legendary for picking a 1,000 lbs of cotton a day, and lining the railroad tracks.

Famous Jazz Pieces Incorporating Trains

Daybreak Express, Duke Ellington

Ellington uses his orchestra to emulate the sounds of a speeding train.

Chattanooga Choo Choo, Glenn Miller

In his WBUR interview, Rob Kapilow breaks down the music and lyrics behind Chattanooga Choo Choo. Regarding the lyrics:

“The lyrics immediately give you a feeling of what the Civil Rights situation was at the time. I mean, it’s amazing how lyrics embed American history within them. You know, ‘pardon me, boy, is that the chattanooga choo choo?’ Then they go, ‘yes, yes, track 29.’ ‘Boy, you can give me a shine.’ I mean, in just those few lines yo get the whole situation of the south in the 1940s with luxury train travel in which white passengers are served by Black pullman porters and Black shoeshine boys, which was almost the only regular employment that you could get at the time. And in just those few lines, you get the world of Plessy versus Ferguson, of separate but equal, of segregated luxury train travel.”

– Rob Kapilow

Further Learning

This is an area of American history that I am just beginning to explore. I was inspired to learn more after reading Gunther Schuller’s Early Jazz, in which a passing reference to train whistle imitation sparked my curiosity dig deeper.

Here are a few more resources to explore:

Choo Choo Boogaloo: 5 Jazz for Trains, A Blog Supreme

Railroads in the African American Experience, book

Rising from the Rails: Pullman Porters and the Making of the Black Middle Class, The Syncopated Times

The Train in Jazz & Blues podcast, from the The Joys of Jazz

Summer Reading List 2020

Music is My Mistress,
Duke Ellington

The celebrated memoir in the words of Duke himself. Ellington’s flowery and sophisticated use of language draws a direct parallel to his music. This is a delightful read containing stories of travels around the world and colorful depictions of the many characters in Duke’s band over the years.

The Everyday Language of White Racism,
Jane H. Hill

This book explores racist language from the perspective of a linguist. Dr. Hill illustrates some of the ways our language can uphold racist beliefs. I found this to be a very insightful read from a point of view I have not encountered before.

Early Jazz: Its Roots and Musical Development,
Gunther Schuller

Early Jazz was among the first books of its kind, delving into the complicated origins of Jazz. While some of the language and evaluations in the book are dated, the book is well-researched and contains numerous transcriptions of historic solos and arrangements.

All About Love,
bell hooks

bell hooks shares powerful explorations on the topic of love, its power and why we may lack it in many aspects of our lives. These essays are moving and are a catalyst for self-reflection. In reading the book, I came across several moments that were profound to me. I shared one of these during #wisdomwednesday a few weeks ago:

Louis Armstrong & Paul Whiteman: Two Kings of Jazz,
Joshua Berrett (in progress)

Louis Armstrong – as a musician and person – has served as a vital source of inspiration in my life. While Paul Whiteman’s music is not as familiar to me, I have begun exploring it because of Gunther Schuller’s deep interest in Whiteman’s music and contributions to Jazz. Back when libraries were still open, I was perplexed when I came across a book juxtaposing Armstrong and Whiteman’s careers. The book is an informative and page-turning read.

Praise for The New Groove

Thank you so much to Tristan Geary from Sound of Boston for writing a wonderful review of The New Groove! I am so appreciative of the time they took to read up on my music, background, and inspiration behind the project.

Here are a few of my favorite lines:

Spear’s alto playing is incredibly relaxed, melodies and improvised lines are delivered with poise and ease that makes them sound like overlapping conversation.

sounds like a pocket-sized Duke Ellington big band

This track is loaded with blues articulations but Spear never over-blows, and each line is sparkling, clear, virtuosic but also singable.

The New Groove is still available for purchase on Bandcamp and for streaming on most major services (SpotifyiTunes, and YouTube Music, and others).

Sheet music for The New Groove is also available on my Bandcamp merch store and The New Groove Songbook is 20% off with the code new_groove_songbook through Friday.

Encountering Gunther: Reminiscing in Tempo

This post explores two of my favorite artists – Gunther Schuller and Duke Ellington. After reading Gunther’s A Life in Pursuit of Music and Beauty, it is evident that he has a deep admiration for Duke’s incalculable contributions to jazz. I share Gunther’s infatuation with Ellington’s music, and have since I was a kid first discovering jazz.

While I cannot say I know every single piece Duke wrote, I am very familiar with quite a few. My personal interests tend to lie at the opposite ends of his career – the early three-minute recordings with the Washingtonians and Duke’s illustrious extended works toward the end of his life. The interesting thing is that these two “extremes” are actually rather connected. Duke’s early works were the foundation from which he grew. While the recordings of the pieces may have not exceeded three minutes, his live arrangements would. Additionally, even in this early period, Duke was pushing the boundaries of compositional form in the jazz idiom.

Duke Ellington’s first major extended piece on record is Creole Rhapsody (1931). With a duration of more than six minutes, the piece took two sides of a record, meaning the record needed to be flipped in the middle of the piece. This did not make an ideal listening experience and was a tough sell to record producers. In his memoir Music is My Mistress, Duke recalls the following:

“… I went out and wrote Creole Rhapsody, and I did so much music for it that we had to cut it up and do two versions. One came out on Brunswick and the other, longer one, on Victor. Irving [Mills] almost blew his connection at both companies for recording a number that was not only more than three minutes long, but took both side of the record.

Music is My Mistress, p. 82
Duke Ellington’s Creole Rhapsody (1931)

The next extended work of Ellington’s that I was aware of was Black, Brown And Beige (1943), which was premiered at his Carnegie Hall debut that year. It is another masterwork and showcases Duke’s expanding imagination.

Duke Ellington’s Black, Brown And Beige (1943) live at Carnegie Hall

For a composer as prolific as Duke Ellington, the 12 years between Creole Rhapsody and Black, Brown And Beige are universes apart. What was Duke writing in between?

Gunther pointed me toward the answer in his memoir. He mentioned a Duke Ellington piece I had never heard of before (a rarity) – Reminiscing in Tempo (1935). It was surprising to read about this groundbreaking piece that, after many years of being a devout Ellington fan and earning a degree in jazz composition, I never encountered before. Perhaps this is a testament to how vast Ellington’s compositional output was.

Duke Ellington composed Reminiscing in Tempo while he was on the road with his band. He was contemplating the untimely loss of his mother earlier that year.

Duke Ellington’s Reminiscing in Tempo

In the context of A Life in Pursuit of Music and Beauty, Gunther mentions Reminiscing in Tempo because he programmed the piece in his legendary 1957 Brandeis concert. He did this to recognize the piece as a “forerunner of extended compositions in jazz.” Reminiscing in Tempo was in good company on the concert; new works by Charles Mingus, George Russell, Jimmy Giuffre, John Lewis, Milton Babbitt, and Gunther himself were premiered.

The Birth of the Third Stream (1957), recordings from part of the Brandeis Third Stream festival

Upon reading Gunther’s memoir, I took a listen to Reminiscing in Tempo. I was amazed by what I heard. At 13 minutes, it was substantially longer than Creole Rhapsody. More impressively, the development of the piece is so logical with a very natural flow. Even more astounding, Duke was able to convince his record label to release this piece, which took up four sides! Duke writes:

I reflected, and I wrote music, and it came out as Reminiscing in Tempo, which eventually ran to four record sides, two more than Creole Rhapsody. This meant that Irving Mills had twice as much trouble with the record companies, who threatened to throw us out of the catalog! That was unimportant to me, because I had written my statement. Hearing it constituted my total reward, and in it was a detailed account of my aloneness after losing my mother…”

Music is My Mistress, p. 86

Gunther dedicated a substantial amount of space in his seminal text The Swing Era (1989) to Reminiscing in Tempo. He eloquently explains what makes this piece so important. I have attempted to summarize his key points:

  1. Ellington is pushing against the current conventions of swing/dance music of his time. Reminiscing is intended for listening rather than dancing. The piece is lengthy and through-composed rather than having a short repeating form.
  2. Reminiscing solidified Ellingtons skill of writing to the strengths of his players. It is often said that Ellington’s true instrument was his band, rather than the piano. (Duke disagreed with this, based on his memoir Music is my Mistress. Perhaps a blog for another day?) He knew how to utilize each player’s unique timbre to achieve his sonic goals. For instance, he gives the lead alto part to Toby Hardwick or Johnny Hodges to achieve different sounds.
  3. Duke left no room for improvised solos. However, he did have fully composed solo written to showcase that specific players’ strengths.

Like many masterworks, Reminiscing in Tempo was not always received positively at the time of its creation. In his scathing Downbeat Magazine review, John Hammond scoffed at Reminiscing for its “pretentiousness” and claimed the piece was void of “true jazz spirit.” I would have never imagined words like that describing Duke Ellington’s work. I did not know if I should laugh or cry!

I am thankful that Gunther’s memoir brought this piece to my attention. I have enjoyed listening to it, learning about it, and now sharing this with others.


Ellington, Edward Kennedy. Music is My Mistress. Garden City, Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1973.

Schuller, Gunther. A Life in Pursuit of Music and Beauty. Rochester, University of Rochester Press, 2011.

Schuller, Gunther. The Swing Era. New York, Oxford University Press, 1989.

Learn more about my Encountering Gunther blog series.

Freddy Martin: My New Hometown Hero

One of my life’s passions is studying jazz history, as well as interplay of jazz’s evolution with that of American culture. I am trying to use my blog as a space for my musings rather than filling up everyone’s Facebook feeds. I hope you find this content interesting and that it shows another side of my musicianship, that of the researcher.

I am always thrilled to discover artists from my hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. Cleveland has a rich history of producing great jazz musicians, so it was no surprise for me to come across yet another interesting character, saxophonist and bandleader Freddy Martin. While Martin allegedly did not consider himself to be a jazz musician, he was influential in the swing era and inspired some of the greatest jazz saxophonists of all time. Johnny Hodges, Duke Ellington’s long-time lead alto player (and my favorite saxophonist) gave Martin the nickname “Mr. Silvertone,” in admiration of his sweet sound. Legendary tenor player Chu Berry once cited Martin as his favorite saxophonist.

Upon first listening to Freddy Martin, the sweet tone for which he was praised was so evident. I am nostalgic for (if that is even possible, since I was not alive during this time) a return to the “sweet” sound of the swing era. The warm, lyrical quality of his playing is refreshing in comparison to the straight tone and busy playing in vogue now.

Another interesting aspect of Freddy Martin’s band is the repertoire, which included several classical pieces adapted to a dance band style. The most famous of these is “Tonight We Love,” adapted from Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-Flat Minor, Op. 23. Compare the two side-by-side.

The original Tchaikovsky

The Freddy Martin Rendition
(from the movie Mayor of 44th Street, the only video I have been able to find of Martin performing “live.”)

I was surprised to see hear this cross-genre work happening at such an early date (the film was released in 1942, so the arrangement was likely written even earlier than that). I often associate this type of experimentation with the Third Stream movement, spearheaded by Gunther Schuller (who founded the jazz studies department at New England Conservatory, where I will begin studying in a few short weeks). I also think of Duke Ellington and his adaptations of classical works for jazz orchestra (Peer Gynt Suite, and perhaps most famously, Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite).

Ironically, Freddy Martin released his own rendition of the Nutcracker Suite (arranged by Ray Austin), 18 years before the infamous Ellington/Strayhorn arrangements! Check out these takes on the March.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1892)

Freddy Martin (1942)

Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn (1960)

This leaves me with so many questions! Was Ellington aware of the Martin recording? Was Martin’s embrace of classical repertoire an inspiration to Ellington, as Martin’s saxophone playing was an inspiration to Hodges? Did Martin and Schuller ever have any dialogue? Hopefully, with some more digging around, I can unearth some more answers.

Freddy Martin Obituary, New York Times
Freddy Martin, Encyclopedia.com
Freddie Martin, Solid!