Over 80 years ago, a young composer wrote Take The A Train, one of the classic jazz standards, kind of as a joke. The lyrics were based on scribbled directions around New York City:
You must take the A Train
If you want to go to Sugar Hill way up in Harlem
If you miss the A Train
You’ll find you’ve missed the quickest way to Harlem
But in the 21st century, is the A Train still the quickest way to get to Harlem?
It’s December 1938, and Billy Strayhorn was a 20-year-old composer from Pittsburg, working as a pharmacy assistant. His compositions went largely unheard – he’d occasionally play for pharmacy customers that he delivered to, so long as they had a piano.
Little did young Strayhorn know, he was about to become the right-hand man of the legendary bandleader, Duke Ellington.
Ellington might be the most important jazz composer in history, writing over a thousand songs and creating one of the best orchestras in 20th century America (including the classical orchestras!).
The song Take The A Train would end up becoming the band’s signature tune, and it’s still a popular jazz standard today.
The story goes that Strayhorn was taken backstage at an Ellington show in Pittsburgh. After hearing Strayhorn play, Ellington invited Billy to his home in Harlem, writing the directions on a piece of paper. Central to those directions was to take the A Train.
Strayhorn wrote Take The A Train before meeting Ellington a month later, to prove that he could write a song about anything. Weird flex, but okay.
Right place at the right time
That could have been the end of the line for Take The A Train, if it weren’t for the 1940 dispute between radio stations and the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, or ASCAP. ASCAP then, as today, represented American songwriters and publishers, and had been significantly increasing the cost of radio licenses. That caused radio stations to boycott songs by ASCAP members.
The dispute meant Ellington couldn’t play his songs on the radio, as he was a member of ASCAP. But Billy ‘Convenient Loophole’ Strayhorn wasn’t. So Strayhorn, along with Ellington’s son Mercer, got busy writing a brand new catalog for the band.
Even then, Strayhorn thought Take The A Train was too old to be played – it was Ellington that reportedly saved it from the trash. It’s a good thing he did, as Take The A Train is still one of the best known jazz songs among both musicians and audiences.
The A Train is one of New York’s oldest subway lines, although it’s not quite the worst. A rigorous 60 second google suggests the C Train is considered inner-circle-of-hell territory. The A Train shares a track with the C though, so let’s call it the suburbs of hell.
When it opened in 1932, the A Train ran the length of Manhattan, from 207th street station to Chambers Street. Several extensions took the line through Brooklyn, then south to Far Rockaway.
The most important extension was in 1936 to Rockaway Avenue Station, because it connected Bedford-Stuyvesant to Harlem. Bed-Stuy would soon join Harlem as home to a large number of New York’s African American residents, making the A Train super important to black New Yorkers.
Now Take The A Train is a bop, but that cultural significance definitely played a part in its success.
Taking the A Train in 1939
Duke Ellington lived at 935 St. Nicholas Avenue, in a building now called Ellington House. It’s close to the original location of The Cotton Club, at 142nd Street and Lenox Avenue, where Ellington made his name in the early 1930s.
Of course in 1939 the Cotton Club was actually in the theatre district, and a year or so later it would be shut forever.
For Billy Strayhorn to get New York 1939, he would’ve travelled from Pittsburgh to New York City on the New York Central System. That would drop him at Grand Central Station. But here’s where things get tricky – the A Train doesn’t go to Grand Central Station!
So, Strayhorn would have had to walk or take the 7 from Grand Central to 42nd street station, then take the A Train to 155th street, the closest station to Ellington’s home.
But today, the A Train only stops at 155th street at night. By day it goes to 145th street – at the southern edge of Sugar Hill – but you’d need to catch the C to get to 155th street.
Is the A Train the quickest way to Harlem?
So to answer our initial question – is the A Train still “The quickest way to get to harlem”
If it’s after 10pm, yes.
If you can walk from 145th street, yes.
But to get to Ellington house in the day – nope! In that case, the quickest way is to take the C Train.
But as we’ve mentioned, the C Train is a bottomless pit of eternal damnation – so maybe get off a stop early and walk?