Choo Choo Boogaloo: Jazz For Trains

Locomotives churning across America's vast open landscape provided plenty of fuel for jazz composers in the early 20th century. Railroads symbolized freedom, escape and opportunity for countless musicians, many of whom lived a vagabond lifestyle, always in pursuit of the next gig.

During the Great Migration, millions of African-Americans packed their belongings and moved north by train in hopes of finding work. So it's only natural that train travel has historically occupied many black artists' imagination, perhaps most vividly in painter Jacob Lawrence's Migration Series, pieces of which can be seen at The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.

Over the years, hundreds of blues, folk and jazz songs have been dedicated to the allegory of the locomotive. Here are some of my favorites.

Get to know jazz, five songs at a time, with more Take Five lists.

Copyright 2014 WBGO-FM. To see more, visit

More Photos

Choo Choo Ch'Boogie

When Louis Jordan got off the train from Atlanta to New York City in January 1946, record producer Milt Gabler handed him a simple composition written by a hillbilly guitarist. "Leave the chords in the blues vein, and let's see what we can do with it," Jordan said. "Choo Choo Ch'Boogie" became a huge hit among black and white audiences. This multimillion-selling single captured America's sense of optimism after WWII, and Jordan rode the song all the way to the top of the R&B pop charts for 18 weeks.

Night Train

If you didn't know "Night Train" was lifted from another train song — Duke Ellington's "Happy Go Lucky Local" — then you might mistake it for a sultry stripper number. Many thought highly of this song's sexiness or of Forrest's "robust, big tone," as trumpeter Clark Terry once called it. The saxophonist's most popular hit haunted him until his death; he would only play it by request. Luckily, the song lived on in the movies (Back to the Future) and in modern adaptations by James Brown and Public Enemy.

Last Train From Overbrook

No other song in James Moody's career represented redemption more than "Last Train From Overbrook." From a past Take Five, you can hear how the song evolved over the years. Unlike the big-band version recorded a decade earlier, this "was one of those rocking steam-piston jobs," according to the drummer Alan Dawson. This version gained velocity. And the quartet setting, with pianist Barry Harris and bassist Bob Cranshaw, permitted greater freedom in the solos. Here, we continue to honor the saxophonist, who died last December.

The Train

Bobby McFerrin's recent Grammy-nominated album, VOCAbularies, featured an orchestra of singers: a "voicestra," as he likes to call it. However, on this earlier recording, McFerrin creates a "voicestra" all by himself thanks to the magic of overdubbing. After eight or more intricate voicings are dramatically layered on top of each other, it's easy to lose count. But it all jells remarkably, giving the composition a sense of static and perpetual motion at the same time — exactly what a divine groove should do.

Take The 'A' Train

I wonder what composer Billy Strayhorn would have thought of James Carter's version of Duke Ellington's beloved anthem, "Take the 'A' Train." Carter blows as if he's riding the train Unstoppable, and — not to spoil the plot of Carter's sublime performance — the train definitely almost goes off track. His exhilarating and relentless solo shows he had something to prove when the prodigal saxophonist hit the scene almost two decades ago. Here, he's joined by his fellow Detroit natives Jaribu Shahid (bass), Tani Tabbal (drums) and Craig Taborn (piano).

Per the record label's request, this song is not available for streaming.

Most Popular