Billy Strayhorn: Jazz's invisible man gets his due

Associated Press
NEW 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.
Instead, 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 his dreams.
"It was originally the music that drew me, and then shortly after that the mystery of the man that I wanted to unravel," said Hajdu.
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 bandleader's vision.
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.
But 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."
Strayhorn's legacy 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 mother lode.
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.
"Billy 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 friend's funeral.
"The legacy he leaves ... willnever be less than the ultimate on the highest plateau of culture. ... God bless Billy Strayhorn."