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95 Lotus Blossoms For Billy Strayhorn

Dec2010Jan2011_pg43Everyone has heard the name Duke Ellington, even those uninitiated to the world of jazz. Far fewer are familiar with the name Billy Strayhorn, Duke Ellington’s right-hand man and collaborator for almost three decades. There are those who would argue that Strayhorn’s compositions and arrangements for the Duke Ellington Orchestra are every bit as important as Ellington’s massive contributions. Many are familiar with Ellington staples Lush Life, Something To Live For, Lotus Blossom, Day Dream, and the definitive Ellington signature piece, “Take The ‘A’’Train, —all are Strayhorn compositions.

On Nov 29, 2010, Billy Strayhorn would have been 95 years old.

William Thomas Billy Strayhorn was born in Dayton, Ohio, and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He studied classical music as a child, and actually wrote the song Lush Life” while still in his teens. It is now recognized as one of the greatest, most sophisticated jazz songs ever written—one of the most recorded standards in the jazz canon. Frank Sinatra and one of his chief lyricists, Sammy Cahn, often said that “Lush Life” was one of their favourite songs. It is one of the few standards Sinatra never successfully recorded. He attempted a version, arranged by Nelson Riddle, and conducted by Felix Slatkin, during the Sings For Only The Lonely sessions (arguably his greatest album) in 1958, but it was never completed.

Dec2010Jan2011_pg45At 22, Strayhorn met Ellington in 1938—December 1, 1938 to be exact—while the Ellington Orchestra was touring through Pittsburgh. They were introduced in a dressing room by a mutual acquaintance between afternoon matinee and evening show, on the pretense that Strayhorn would audition some original numbers at the piano. Instead, while Ellington rested on the couch, Strayhorn played for him “Sophisticated Lady,” Ellington’’s own composition, playing it exactly in Ellington’’s style. Then Strayhorn purportedly played the same song again, in a higher key, in a hipper, more “’out there’ arrangement. By the time he had finished, the Duke was standing behind Strayhorn, eyes transfixed on Strayhorn’s fingers as they played, yelling to his assistants to grab the rest of the band immediately. Ellington was struck there and then by Strayhorn’s talent and personality; the young man was hired on the spot.

Even more impressively, Strayhorn composed Take The ‘A’ Train as his first commission for the Ellington Orchestra, out of the subway directions Ellington gave him to get to the Duke’s home in New York City. Strayhorn had the composition ready on arrival to the Big Apple, although the famous arrangement for the song was not debuted until 1941.

Strayhorn thrived as an out, proud, gay black American in New York and Parisian society, in an age of great oppression and racism—the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. His queerness was reputedly indisputable, yet his talent as a songwriter and orchestra arranger ensured he was not only tolerated, but embraced and beloved by the musicians who worked with him, and by the jazz intelligentsia that surrounded him. To his close friends and musician family, Strayhorn was affectionately dubbed Sweet Pea.

Strayhorn was shy to many, and gregarious only to those in his inner circle. He was best buddies with Lena Horne, mentoring her musically, and was a well-acquainted friend of and civil rights advocate for Rev Martin Luther King Jr.

The Duke Ellington Orchestra was a huge, international success for almost half a century. During the peak 28 years Strayhorn worked with Ellington, he chose not seek the spotlight. The perception was that his inarguable gayness would not be acceptable to a universal audience. Indicative of the time, and sadly the most probable reason why Strayhorn is not more well-known, is the fact that—in how the Strayhorn and Ellington’s peculiar working partnership was arranged—straight man Ellington would take the public stage bows at the piano, while Strayhorn remained on the sidelines, off-stage, crafting songs, involved at recording sessions, arranging parts for the orchestra, and a host of other duties.

Perhaps Strayhorn’’s finest work was his collaboration with Ellington on 1957’s Such Sweet Thunder, an instrumental suite inspired by the works of Shakespeare, commissioned by Ontario’s Stratford Theatre Festival. It contains what may be Strayhorn’’s most unabashedly romantic composition, “The Star-Crossed Lovers.” It is an unequivocal masterpiece of orchestral jazz music.

A heavy smoker and drinker, Strayhorn died of cancer of the esophagus at age 51. A few years after, Ellington acknowledged Strayhorn’’s importance in his autobiography published in 1973, stating “Billy Strayhorn was my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head, my brain waves in his head, and his in mine.” There was a deep love and affection for each other that resonated in the music they created together.

There are three essential books that cover Strayhorn’’s work, life and career: David Hajdu‘s Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn (North Point Press) from 1996; Walter van de Leur‘s Something to Live For: The Music of Billy Strayhorn (Oxford University Press) from 2002, and of course Duke Ellington’s memoirs, Music Is My Mistress (Da Capo Press) from 1973.

In the first book, Hajdu delves deep into the jazz era in which Strayhorn lived, correcting decades of shoddy journalism with exhaustive research. In the second book, van de Leur digs even deeper, exploring and providing analytical and chronological context to Strayhorn’s composing process, as a pianist and as an arranger. The book also details his massive 28-year contribution to the Duke Ellington Orchestra, remarkably separating and distinguishing Strayhorn’s work from Ellington’s by establishing who wrote what, by delineating and defining each composer’s musical style. Not an easy task. The third book, Ellington’s memoirs, places Strayhorn within the milieu of Ellingtonia from the unique perspective and voice of, if not the greatest figure of 20th century jazz, then certainly among the finest bandleaders and composers the world has ever known, a musical visionary unparalleled in terms of influence.

To date, there have been no serious attempts to bring the story of Billy Strayhorn to the big screen, although through the years, the names Will Smith, Wesley Snipes, and Don Cheadle have been bandied about for the role of Billy. As well, although there are literally hundreds if not thousands of recordings of Strayhorn songs available by other artists, including recordings made by the Duke Ellington Orchestra, there are unfortunately very few recordings currently available domestically by the composer himself. Verve’’s 1962 release, Johnny Hodges, Soloist, With Billy Strayhorn and the Orchestra is one recording still available, where one can hear Strayhorn arrangements away from the Ellington Orchestra, although many of the players on this album—including Johnny Hodges himself—were Ellington band mainstays.

It would be “something to live for” if a new cross-label compilation of Strayhorn’s work—sampling his tremendously productive work as a composer, arranger, collaborator and pianist—could be lovingly assembled, annotated and released domestically. “Sweet Pea” deserves that kind of singular treatment, and jazz lovers deserve access to this important material, work that changed the face of music forever.

This is an expanded version, originally published in edited form in IN Toronto Magazine, December 2010 issue.