© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
For nearly everyone interested in jazz, the names Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn are, if not synonymous, at least inextricably connected. But the connection is not as close, though it is unique, as might be assumed.
This connection is a corporation, really a co-operation, that has, except when the members are working singly, produced some of the finest music and offered one of the greatest orchestras available in Jazz, in, for that matter, American music.
But for most, even for those closely associated with Jazz, the relationship has not been clear. Who did, does, will do, what? Or, more precisely, how does Strayhorn fit into the Ellington dukedom?
In June, 1962, Down Beat's associate editor Bill Coss spent an afternoon talking with Strayhorn in his apartment. The conversation ranged from the particular to the general and the inconsequential. Strayhorn, as charming as Ellington, never was at a loss for words. The following is a transcription of the pertinent parts of the conversation and it contains perhaps the best description I’ve ever come across of how the musical relationship between Strayhorn and Ellington actually worked.
Coss: How did you and Ellington first get together?
Strayhorn: By the time my family got to Pittsburgh, I had a piano teacher, and I was playing classics in the high-school orchestra. Each year in the school, each class would put on some kind of show. Different groups would get together and present sketches. I wrote the music and lyrics for our sketch and played too. It was successful enough so that one of the guys suggested doing a whole show. So I did. It was called Fantastic Rhythm. I was out of high school by then, and we put it on independently. We made $55.
At that time, I was working in a drugstore. I started out as a delivery boy, and, when I would deliver packages, people would ask me to "sit down and play us one of your songs."
It's funny — I never thought about a musical career. I just kind of drifted along in music. But people kept telling me that I should do something with it. By the1 time I had graduated to being a clerk in the drugstore, people really began to badger me about being a professional musician.
Then, one time Duke Ellington came to Pittsburgh, and a friend got me an appointment with him. I went to see him and played some of my songs for him. He told me he liked my music and he'd like to have me join the band, but he'd have to go back to New York and find out how he could add me to the organization. You see, I wasn't specifically anything. I could play piano, of course, and I could write songs. But I wasn't an arranger. I couldn't really do anything in the band. So he went off, and I went back to the drugstore.
Several months went by; I didn't hear anything, but people kept badgering me.
Finally, I wrote his office asking them where the band was going to be in three weeks. They wrote back that the band would be in Philadelphia.
At the time I had a friend, an arranger, by the name of Bill Esch. At the time he was doing some arrangements for Ina Ray Hutton. He was a fine arranger, and I learned a good deal from him.
Anyway, right then he had to go to New York to do some things for Ina Ray, so he suggested that we go together. He had relatives in Brooklyn, and I had an aunt and uncle in Newark, so we figured at least we would have a place to stay.
By the time I got to Newark, Duke was playing there at the Adams Theater. I went backstage. I was frightened, but Duke was very gracious. He said he had just called his office to find my address. He was about to send for me.
The very first thing he did was to hand me two pieces and tell me to arrange them. They were both for Johnny Hodges: Like a Ship in the Night and Savoy Strut, I think. I couldn't really arrange, but that didn't make any difference to him. He inspires you with confidence. That's the only way I can explain how I managed to do those arrangements. They both turned out quite well. He took them just the way they were.
From then on, Duke did very little of the arranging for the small groups. Oh, he did a little, but he turned almost all of them over to me. You could say I had inherited a phase of Duke's organization.
Then he took the band to Europe only a month after I joined the band in 1939. I stayed home and wrote a few things like Day Dream. When he came back, the band went to the Ritz Carlton Roof in Boston. Ivie Anderson had joined the band, and he asked me to do some new material for her.
After that, I inherited all the writing for vocalists, though not for those vocalese things he wrote for Kay Davis. I think what really clinched the vocal chores for me was when Herb Jeffries came with the band. He was singing in a high tenor range, and I asked him whether he liked singing up there. He said he didn't, so I wrote some things for him that pulled his voice down to the natural baritone he became after Flamingo.
Coss: How do you and Duke work together? Do you have a particular manner of doing an arrangement or a composition? How do you decide who will do the arranging?
Strayhorn: It depends. There's no set way. Actually, it boils down to what the requirements of the music might be. Sometimes we both do the arranging on either his or my composition because maybe one of us can't think of the right treatment for it and the other one can. Sometimes neither of us can.
Sometimes we work over the telephone. If he's out on the road somewhere, he'll call me up and say, "I have a thing here," and, if he's at a piano, he'll play it and say, "Send me something." I do, and eventually we get it to work out when we get together.
That's surprising, you know, because we actually write very differently. It's hard to put into words . . . The difference is made up of so many technical things. He uses different approaches — the way he voices the brass section, the saxophone section. He does those things differently than I do. That's as much as I can say. I'm sure that's as clear as mud.
Still, I'm sure the fact we're both looking for a certain character, a certain way of presenting a composition, makes us write to the whole, toward the same feeling. That's why it comes together — for that reason.
The same thing goes for the way we play piano. I play very differently than Edward. You take Drawing Room Blues. We both played and recorded it at a concert. Then I didn't hear it for about a year. I must admit I had to listen a few times myself to tell which was which. But that's strange in itself, because we don't really play alike. I reflect more my early influences, Teddy Wilson and Art Tatum, whereas Ellington isn't in that kind of thing at all.
It's probably like the writing. It isn't that we play alike; it's just that what we're doing, the whole thing, comes together, because we both know what we're aiming for — a kind of wholeness. You know, if you really analyze our playing, you could immediately tell the difference, because he has a different touch, just to begin with. Still, I have imitated him. Not consciously, really. It's just that, say at a rehearsal or something, he'll tell me to play, and I'll do something, knowing this is what he would do in this particular place. It would fit, and it sounds like him, just as if I were imitating him. . . .
I can give you a good example of something we did over the phone. We were supposed to be playing the Great South Bay Jazz Festival about three years ago. Duke had promised a new composition to the people who ran it. He was on the road someplace. So he called me up and told me he had written some parts of a suite. This was maybe two or three days before he was due back in New York, and that very day he was supposed to be at the festival.
He told me some of the things he was thinking of. We discussed the keys and the relationships of the parts, things like that. And he said write this and that.
The day of the festival, I brought my part of the suite out to the festival grounds. There was no place and no time to rehearse it, but I told Duke that it shouldn't be hard for the guys to sight-read. So they stood around backstage and read their parts, without playing, you understand.
Then they played it. My part was inserted in the middle. You remember I hadn't heard any of it. I was sitting in the audience with some other people who knew what had happened, and, when they got to my part, then went into Ellington's part, we burst out laughing. I looked up on the stage and Ellington was laughing too. Without really knowing, I had written a theme that was a kind of development of a similar theme he had written. So when he played my portion and went into his, it was as though we had really worked together — or one person had done it. It was an uncanny feeling, like witchcraft, like looking into someone else's mind.
Coss: How about the larger pieces — what's the extent of your work on them?
Strayhorn: I've had very little to do with any, of them. I've worked on a couple of the suites, like Perfume Suite and this one. I've forgotten the name of it. That day, it was called Great South Bay Festival Suite.
The larger things like Harlem or Black, Brown, and Beige I had very little to do with other than maybe discussing them with him. That's because the larger works are such a personal expression of him. He knows what he wants. It wouldn't make any sense for me to be involved there.
Coss: You have differentiated between arranging and writing. That can be confusing. As you know, writing can simply be a matter of a melody line; the majority of the work could be the arranger's.
Strayhorn: Not in our case because we do it both ways. We both naturally orchestrate as we write. Still, sometimes you're just involved with a tune. You sit at the piano and write what represents a lead sheet.
It all depends on how the tune comes. Sometimes you get the idea of the tune and the instrument that should play it at the same time. It might happen that you know Johnny Hodges or Harry Carney or Lawrence Brown needs a piece. Or you think of a piece that needs Johnny or Harry or Lawrence to make it sound wonderful. Then you sit down and write it.
After it's done, Duke and I decide who's going to orchestrate — arrange — it. Sometimes we both do it, and he uses whatever version is best.
We have many versions of the same thing. You remember Warm Valley? It was less than three minutes long. But we wrote reams and reams and reams of music on that, and he threw it all out except what you hear. He didn't use any of mine. Now, that's arranging. The tune was written, but we had to find the right way to present it.
I have a general rule about all that. Rimski-Korsakov is the one who said it: all parts should lie easily under the fingers. That's my first rule: to write something a guy can play. Otherwise, it will never be as natural, or as wonderful, as something that does lie easily under his fingers.
We approach everything for what it is. It all depends on what you're doing. You have the instruments. You have to find the right thing — not too little, not too much. It's like getting the right color. That's it! Color is what it is, and you know when you get it. Also, you use whatever part or parts of the orchestra you need to get it.
For example, you have to deal with individual characteristics. Like, Shorty Baker, who has a certain trumpet sound. If you're writing for a brass section and you want his sound, you give him the lead part. The rest follow him. Or if you want Johnny Hodges' color or Russell Procope's color in the reeds, you write the lead parts for either of them.
For a soloist, you just have to look at the whole thing, just like looking at a suit. Will this fit him? Will he be happy with this? If it's right for him, you don't have to tell him how to play it. He just plays it, and it comes out him, the way he wants. If you have to tell him too much how to play it, it isn't right for him.
Here's a good example of writing for characteristic soloists. Duke wrote Mr. Gentle and Mr. Cool. He started off thinking of two people: Shorty Baker (Gentle) and Ray Nance (Cool). The tune wrote itself from his conception of these two people.
We write that way much of the time. Sometimes it doesn't happen right away. A new guy will come on the band. You have to become acquainted with him, observe him. Then you write something.
In Ellington's band a man more or less owns his solos until he leaves. Sometimes we shift solos, but usually they're too individual to shift. You never replace a man; you get another man. When you have a new man, you write him a new thing. It's certainly one of the reasons why the music is so distinctive. It's based on characteristics.
For example, when Johnny was out of the band, we played very few of his solo pieces — well, the blues-type things and Warm Valley, but Paul Gonsalves played that solo. You see we wouldn't give it to another alto to play. We changed the instrument; otherwise, except for things you have to play, we just avoided those songs. Otherwise, you'd spoil the song itself. It was written for him — maybe even about him.
Coss: So many people suggest a question which, I suppose, is the kind you expect when someone gets into a position as important as is Duke's. What it comes down to is that Duke doesn't really write much. What he does is listen to his soloists, take things they play, and fashion them into songs. Thus, the songs belong to the soloists, you do the arrangements, and Duke takes the credit.
Strayhorn: They used to say that about Irving Berlin too.
But how do you explain the constant flow of songs? Guys come in and out of the band, but the songs keep getting written, and you can always tell an Ellington song.
Anyway, something like a solo, perhaps only a few notes, is hardly a composition. It may be the inspiration, but what do they say about 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration? Composing is work.
So this guy says you and he wrote it, but he thinks he wrote it. He thinks you just put it down on paper. But what you did was put it down on paper, harmonized it, straightened out the bad phrases, and added things to it, so you could hear the finished product. Now, really, who wrote it?
It was ever thus.
But the proof is that these people don't go somewhere else and write beautiful music. You don't hear anything else from them. You do from Ellington.
Coss: How about those people who say Duke should stay home? They say, look, he's getting older, he has enough money coming in; why does he waste all his energy on the road when he could be at home writing?
Strayhorn: He says his main reason for having a band is so he can hear his own music. He says there's nothing else like it, and he's right. There's nothing like writing something in the morning and hearing it in the afternoon.
How else can you do it? Working with a studio band isn't the same thing. You have to be out there in the world. Otherwise you can't feel the heat and the blood. And from that comes music, comes feeling. If he sat at home, it would be retreating.
He'll never do it. He'd be the most unhappy man in the world. The other is such a stimulus.
On the road, you find out what is going on in the world. You're au courant musically and otherwise. It keeps you alert and alive. That's why people in this business stay young. Just because they are so alive — so much seeing things going on all over the world.
Coss: Duke is often criticized for playing the same music over and over.
Strayhorn: What else can you expect? Even though that's not a fair criticism, some part of it has to be true merely because he is the talent he is.
Have you any idea how many requests he gets? After he's through playing all of them, the concert or the dance is all over, and he's hardly started with other requests .... That's why he does the medley that some writers criticize.
Actually, there's a great deal of new music all the time. The thing I'm concerned about is that some of that will get to be requested. Then what will happen? What it really comes down to is that there is never enough time to hear an excess of talent.”
Down Beat Magazine
June 7, 1962