Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Billy Strayhorn: Singular Unsung Genius by John Edward Hasse

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“They were like two aspects of a single complex self. Where Duke Ellington was immodest, priapic and thumpingly egocentric, his longtime writing and arranging partner, Billy Strayhorn, was shy, gay and self-effacing. It's now very difficult, given the closeness of their relationship and their inevitable tendency to draw on aspects of the other's style and method, to separate which elements of an

'Ellington-Strayhorn' composition belong to each; but there is no doubt that Swee' Pea, as Ellington called him, made an immense impact on his boss's music. Even if he had done no more than write 'Lush Life' and 'Take The "A" Train', Strayhorn would still have been guaranteed a place in jazz history.

The ground-rules have shifted a little since the publication of David Hajdu's 1997 biography of Strayhorn, a book which intends no disrespect to the genius of Duke Ellington but which relocates some significant emphases and suggests that Strayhorn may have had a greater part in creating the Ellington sound than is usually acknowledged. Indeed, it may be that association with Ellington significantly redirected aspects of Strayhorn's own talent; whether to his benefit or loss remains ambiguous.”
- Richard Cook and Brian Morton, The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.

The following piece by John Edward Hasse appeared in the May 30, 2017 edition of The Wall Street Journal and it, too, helps redress the general lack of awareness of Billy’s immense contribution to the Ellington compositional oeuvre.

“Duke Ellington led the greatest jazz orchestra for 50 years, and for 27 of them Billy Strayhorn was his indispensable musical partner. Strayhorn composed its exuberant theme song, “Take the ‘A’ Train,” co-authored the perennial “Satin Doll,” and wrote more than 100 other works. Theirs was a different-drummer collaboration, one of the most unusual in musical history. Now, on the 50th anniversary of his death, it’s time to give Billy his due.

They worked together in three ways. Some pieces, like “A Flower is a Lovesome Thing,” were wholly written by Strayhorn. As if handing arias to his favorite soprano, Strayhorn wrote a number of ballads to feature Ellington’s star alto saxophonist, Johnny Hodges, including the haunting “Passion Flower” and the ravishing “Isfahan.”

Sometimes working over the phone, the two composers wrote pieces such as “C Jam Blues.”

And in suites such as “Such Sweet Thunder” and “Far East Suite,” the individual movements had separate authors. The collaborative composing of Strayhorn with Ellington is extremely rare, if not downright unprecedented in orchestral music.
So crucial was Strayhorn to the building of Ellington’s repertoire that many of the original compositions are yin-yangs, the result of two contrasting creative forces coming together. Unlike Ellington, Strayhorn was well-trained in European classical music and brought his own sensibility and style, as in his impressionistic tone poem, “ Chelsea Bridge ” (1941). Ellington’s sound was rooted more deeply in the African-American vernacular of ragtime and blues—for example in his well-disguised minor-key blues, “Ko-Ko” (1940).

Yet, even 50 years after his passing, Strayhorn’s name is, I would guess, not even one-tenth as familiar as Ellington’s to people other than jazz aficionados.
In their personal lives, the two were opposites. While the handsome, charismatic, 6-foot-1-inch Ellington moved through life with dash and theatricality, charming women and manipulating people, the cherubic Strayhorn was 16 years younger, 10 inches shorter, soft-spoken, modest and gay. Despite these differences, they formed an exceedingly close musical relationship that ended only with Strayhorn’s death, at age 51.

That relationship was complicated. Strayhorn seemed to need a father figure—that was the domineering Ellington who loved and accepted him and provided a home base for his enormous creativity. But Strayhorn wanted credit for his creativity and eventually grew angry with Ellington’s stinginess with attribution. At a crucial dinner in 1956, Billy demanded equal billing—and Duke agreed.

Why was Strayhorn a shadow figure in the Ellington story for so long? Ellington, with his large ego and controlling personality, was, at best, careless at assigning composer credit and royalties to Strayhorn. Shy and retiring, Strayhorn avoided the limelight. Ellington’s late-career publicist Joe Morgen was antigay and diligently kept Strayhorn’s name out of the press. Prejudice prevailed. Some record producers preferred the simplicity of a single name on an album.

A lack of primary sources had long hindered scholarly assessment. But in the 1990s, the Smithsonian Institution began cataloging and making available the Duke Ellington Collection, a treasure newly acquired from Duke’s son, Mercer, of some hundred thousand pages of unpublished scores and parts written by Ellington and Strayhorn and a few other collaborators. This sparked an Ellington renaissance, opened up access to Strayhorn’s handwritten manuscripts, and enabled authoritative insight into the contrast in their styles and who wrote what.

In 1990-93, when I was writing my biography of Ellington, the basic research on Strayhorn hadn’t been done. Since then, three works have appeared that have considerably raised his critical standing: David Hajdu’s pioneering “Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn” (1996), Walter van de Leur’s scholarly “Something to Live For: The Music of Billy Strayhorn” (2002), and Robert Levi’s revealing PBS documentary “Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life” (2007).

And work on Strayhorn goes on. The Strayhorn family repository of original manuscripts has helped unveil heretofore unknown compositions. In the year 2000 alone, Strayhorn Songs copyrighted 200 newly discovered titles.

Beyond his output for Ellington, Strayhorn moved in other intriguing orbits. Before joining Ellington, Strayhorn composed classical-sounding pieces and a successful musical revue, “Fantastic Rhythm.” In the 1940s, he became the soul mate of singer Lena Horne and worked with her in the civil-rights movement of the 1960s. And he composed a number of pieces totally independent of Ellington, most notably the arresting, world-weary ballad “Lush Life”—one of America’s premier popular songs—written when he was a teenager.

Ellington deeply loved, admired and depended on Strayhorn. Three months after his passing, the Ellington orchestra began recording a sorrowful, sometimes angry, tribute album made up almost entirely of Strayhorn compositions, “…And His Mother Called Him Bill”—one of the band’s finest works. It’s well worth a listen. Let’s finally give Billy his due.”

— Mr. Hasse is Curator of American Music at the Smithsonian and author of “Beyond Category: The Life and Genius of Duke Ellington.”


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