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"Prelude to a Kiss" is a 1938 ballad composed by Duke Ellington, with lyrics by Irving Gordon and Irving Mills.[1]


Background and CompositionEdit

This composition is in the key of D-flat major, but makes extensive use of the secondary dominant chords, secondary ii–V–I progressions, diatonic circle of fifths, and evaded cadences.[2] The song is extremely chromatic and complex, employing sophisticated mathematics that were rare at this time in jazz:[3] Ellington's rising semitones (G-G#-A-A#-B) at the end of the bridge mirror the opening of both A sections (B-A#-A-G#-G).

By the late 1930s, swing music was at the height of its popularity. Using his fame and artistic freedom, Ellington became more ambitious and experimental, writing "Prelude to a Kiss", which abandoned the Tin Pan Alley style hooks and dance tempo for melodic lines and harmonies found more often in classical music.[4] Ellington originally recorded this piece as an instrumental in August 1938, before returning to the studio a few weeks later to record it as a vocal number, using lyrics by Irving Gordon and Irving Mills, and sung by a young and relatively unknown vocalist Mary McHugh.[5] Popular records in 1938 were by Ellington and by Johnny Hodges & His Orchestra.[6]


Outside of jazz musicians and historians, "Prelude to a Kiss" remains one of the lesser known Ellington songs. Prominent jazz historian, Gunther Schuller, described "Prelude to a Kiss" as "One of Ellington's finest ballads, although too sophisticated in its weaving melody and chromatic harmonies to gain wide public acceptance."[7]

Film usageEdit

The film Prelude to a Kiss (1992) (based on Craig Lucas' eponymous 1988 play), derived its title from the Duke Ellington/Irving Gordon/Irving Mills tune and was performed by Deborah Harry during the opening credits.

Notable recordingsEdit


  1. ^ "Prelude to a Kiss". Jazz Standards. Retrieved 8 June 2009. 
  2. ^ Hellmer, Jeffrey. Jazz Theory and Practice. Alfred Music. p. 107. ISBN 9780882847221. 
  3. ^ Green, Edward (2015). The Cambridge Companion to Duke Ellington. Cambridge Companions to Music. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521881197. 
  4. ^ Gioia, Ted (July 2012). The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780199937394. 
  5. ^ Green, Edward (2015). The Cambridge Companion to Duke Ellington. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521881197. 
  6. ^ Whitburn, Joel (1986). Joel Whitburn's Pop Memories 1890-1954. Wisconsin, USA: Record Research Inc. p. 569. ISBN 0-89820-083-0. 
  7. ^ Schuller, Gunther (December 1991). The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz, 1930-1945. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195071405. 
  8. ^ "". Retrieved March 2, 2018. 
  9. ^ "". Retrieved March 2, 2018. 

See alsoEdit