Billy Strayhorn: Jazz's invisible man gets his due
By CHARLES J. GANS
PressNEW YORK -- As a jazz composer and arranger, Billy
Strayhorn could turn straw into gold. Wanting to impress
Duke Ellington on his first visit to New York City in 1939, the
23-year-old Strayhorn dashed off a song based on the subway directions to
the bandleader's home that began: "Take the A Train to get to Harlem."
When "Take the 'A' Train" -- with its infectious,
hard-swinging beat -- was recorded two years later, it became a
best-seller and the Ellington band's new theme song. The swing classic
remains one of the world's most popular jazz tunes. Yet, though Strayhorn
wrote the words and music, even today at concerts and on records the song
is often mistakenly credited to Ellington.
The same case of
mistaken identity holds true for other Strayhorn tunes such as the
standards "Chelsea Bridge" and "Lotus Blossom" popularized by the
Ellington orchestra. "Satin Doll" -- one of many tunes on which Strayhorn
and Ellington shared the composing credits -- was originally conceived as
an ode to Strayhorn's mother, using his pet name for her.
During his nearly 30-year association with Ellington, Strayhorn was
jazz's invisible man, living in the giant shadow cast by the Duke.
Although a highly regarded pianist in his own right -- whether filling in
for Ellington with the orchestra or taking part in the 1940s Harlem jam
sessions where bebop was born -- Strayhorn made only a handful of
recordings under his own name.
Why couldn't Strayhorn enjoy
the fame and fortune his talents should have earned him? Being a triple
minority -- black, gay and open about his homosexuality in an intolerant
society -- meant he could not be a public figure as a bandleader or
composer, as author David Hajdu suggests in the recently published "Lush
Life," the first biography of Strayhorn.
entered into a mutually beneficial relationship with Ellington, writing
music for the greatest jazz band in the land even though he didn't always
receive the credits or royalties that were his due. Under the Duke's
benevolent dictatorship, Strayhorn worked without a contract or regular
salary, but the bandleader covered his considerable living expenses.
"His story is one of breathtaking heroism," said Hajdu,
interviewed at his office at Entertainment Weekly, where he works as
general editor. "The pressures were on him to disguise his homosexuality
but he refused to do that.
"In a culture that's obsessed
with celebrity, fame and fortune, to sacrifice all that, in order to be
true to your sexual identity in the 1940s -- that's incredible. He chose
to be invisible, to work in Ellington's shadow ... in order to be the
artist and the man that he was."
Now -- nearly 30 years
after his death in 1967 at age 51 from esophageal cancer, caused largely
by his excessive smoking and drinking -- Strayhorn is finally coming out
of the shadows to be recognized as a jazz legend in his own right. Rarely
has a jazz biography had the impact of Hajdu's book, which has rekindled
interest in Strayhorn's music.
"It was just inevitable that
people would recognize Strayhorn's genius," said Hajdu, who is also vice
president of the Duke Ellington Society.
"He dealt with
colors of the emotional spectrum that were different than most other jazz
composers dealt with. ... There is aching and yearning in his music; his
love songs are about unrequited love.
"You feel an
emotional rawness and a vulnerability in his music that is rare in jazz,
where so much of the music is very assertive and aggressively masculine."
Though virtually unknown to the general music public,
Strayhorn always enjoyed the respect of his fellow musicians. Frank
Sinatra unsuccessfully tried to hire him away as an arranger. Miles Davis
and Gil Evans credited Strayhorn's innovative orchestrations as a major
influence on their "Birth of the Cool" recordings of 1948-50 that produced
the "cool jazz" movement.
"All I ever did (was) try to do
what Billy Strayhorn did," Evans told Hajdu in a 1984 interview. That
remark set the writer off on what became an 11-year quest, involving more
than 400 interviews and considerable detective work that took him from
Pittsburgh, Strayhorn's working-class birthplace, to Paris, the city of
"It was originally the music that drew me, and
then shortly after that the mystery of the man that I wanted to unravel,"
What Hajdu did was separate the man from the
myths. Within jazz circles, there were Strayhorn devotees who dismissed
Ellington as a poseur, with Strayhorn the behind-the-scenes genius. There
were also those who insisted that Strayhorn was merely Ellington's
faithful Sancho Panza, molded by the Duke in his own image to fulfill the
What Hajdu discovered is that neither
of the prevailing myths held up under close scrutiny. Before he even left
Pittsburgh, the prodigy had written a first version of his classic ballad
"Lush Life"; a classically inspired "Concerto for Piano and Percussion";
and a Gershwinesque musical "Fantastic Rhythm" that played throughout
western Pennsylvania for several years with a cast that included the
then-unknown pianist Erroll Garner and vocalist Billy Eckstine.
Strayhorn also wrote dozens of compositions outside the Ellington
orbit -- most of them never recorded -- for theatrical projects and for
the Copasetics, a society of tap dancers whose yearly revues were a major
Harlem social event.
But it is with Ellington whom
Strayhorn is forever linked.
According to Hajdu, Strayhorn
brought new elements to the Ellington band -- including a stronger
connection to Western classical music, particularly the impressionists
like Debussy and Ravel.
Three months after Strayhorn died
on May 31, 1967, Ellington recorded his own tribute album, "... And His
Mother Called Him Bill." Over the years, there have been other albums
featuring Strayhorn music, most notably by pianists Marian McPartland and
Cedar Walton, and trumpeter Art Farmer. Joe Henderson's Grammy-winning
"Lush Life: The Music of Billy Strayhorn" (Verve) topped the Billboard
jazz chart in 1992 and revived the tenor saxophonist's career.
Hajdu's book has spurred a burst of Strayhorn-mania with reissues and
new recordings of both standards and previously undiscovered pieces.
He spent hours interviewing Lena Horne about her close
relationship to Strayhorn. In the book, she affectionately likened
Strayhorn to "an owl" because of his big horn-rimmed glasses, describing
him as "brilliant but gentle and loving ... the only man I really loved."
These reminiscences encouraged the then 76-year-old singer
to come out of semi-retirement in 1993 at a Strayhorn tribute at New York
City's JVC Jazz Festival. Later that year, Horne recorded the mostly
Strayhorn album, "We'll Be Together Again" (Blue Note) -- her first studio
recording in almost a decade.
As an accompaniment to
Hajdu's book, Verve released "Lush Life: The Billy Strayhorn Songbook," a
compilation album featuring 15 tracks recorded between 1950 and 1991 by
various artists. The selections include the fatalistic "Lush Life," sung
by Sarah Vaughan; the romantic "After All," a duet by pianist Oscar
Peterson and bassist Ray Brown; the uptempo "Johnny Come Lately,"
interpreted by a pre-avant-garde Cecil Taylor on piano, and the mournful
lament "Chelsea Bridge," featuring tenor saxophonist Ben Webster,
Strayhorn's former Ellington bandmate -- and one of two tracks featuring
the composer playing background piano.
Many of the same
tunes are covered on "The Peaceful Side of Billy Strayhorn," released by
Blue Note in October. This reissue of a 1961 Paris session marks one of
the rare recordings of Strayhorn interpreting his own tunes. The result is
an introspective, almost melancholy session with piano solos and duets
with bass, occasionally augmented by a string quartet.
Strayhorn's music is not some historical relic, it's something that
contemporary musicians can put their personal stamp on -- as the lyrical
pianist Fred Hersch does on "Passion Flower" (Nonesuch).
"As a writer of really good jazz vehicles that are fun to play, that
are open to interpretation, and that are durable -- Strayhorn is right up
there among the greats," said Hersch, one of the few openly gay jazz
musicians on the contemporary scene.
"I just felt like it
was a good match -- and it's not just the fact that he was gay. It's the
fact that he kind of started in classical music like I did, the fact that
he loves singers and I also work a lot with vocalists, and that we both
wrote jazz vehicles as well as songs."
includes hundreds of compositions which the Ellington band never recorded,
but now some of these gems are being mined. The recently released
"Portrait of a Silk Thread: Newly Discovered Works of Billy Strayhorn"
(Kokopelli) has eight Strayhorn world premieres among its 12 tracks.
But these recordings have barely tapped the Strayhorn
Although Strayhorn is only now getting his due
as one of the most important jazz composers and arrangers, there is one
person who never doubted his enduring legacy.
Strayhorn ... the biggest human being who ever lived, a man with the
greatest courage, the most majestic artistic stature, a highly skilled
musician whose impeccable taste commanded the respect of all musicians and
the admiration of all listeners," said Ellington, in his eulogy at his
"The legacy he leaves ... willnever be
less than the ultimate on the highest plateau of culture. ... God bless