NPR and PBS seem to be as tired of clichéd Black History Month tributes as I am. Not only did we have the Percy Julian features last week, but there was also a lot of coverage for the Billy Strayhorn documentary “Lush Life”.
Morning Edition, News & Notes, and Talk of the Nation had segments on Strayhorn. The pages are worth exploring as you listen to the audio – there’s some really great stuff there, including streaming songs.
In 1938, at the age of 23, Billy Strayhorn met the 39-year-old Duke Ellington, who was performing in Pittsburgh’s Crawford Grill. An impromptu backstage audition showcased Strayhorn’s stunning talent at the piano, and Ellington contemplated hiring him on the spot—although, at the time, there was no real job to fill. A few months later, Strayhorn was writing arrangements for Ellington’s orchestral music and living relatively openly as a gay man, a rare feat for an African American man during that time.
During the next 29 years, Strayhorn made an inestimable contribution to American songwriting and culture—all while working without a contract. His presence allowed Ellington to increase his workload and expand his artistic palette. Strayhorn worked as a composer and collaborator, and also served as Ellington’s “guarantor,” assuring that the Ellington Orchestra’s music was top notch.
Ellington’s hiring of Strayhorn launched an impressively productive recording period, regarded by many critics as the most significant and creative phase of Ellington’s career. And, from the early 1940s on, Strayhorn’s training in classical and long-form music became central and indispensable to the orchestra. Together, the collaborators began to write longer, more complex suites and, in 1943, they performed the first of these works, “Black, Brown and Beige,” an unprecedented 43-minute jazz work, in Carnegie Hall. Most assume that Ellington was responsible for these long-form innovations, but Strayhorn was, at the very least, co-composer of many of these ambitious new works. Recently discovered Strayhorn compositions reveal much about his role, as he kept pushing both himself and Ellington in ambitious new directions.
Ellington did publicly note the importance of Strayhorn’s talent. He liked to joke onstage, “Strayhorn does a lot of the work but I get to take the bows!” This formulation was rather nearer to the truth than many suspected. Certainly, Strayhorn was considerably more than a humorous aside or a musical footnote. Not only was he the sole composer of Ellington’s signature piece, “Take the ‘A’ Train,” but he also wrote other defining works, including “Passion Flower,” “Lush Life,” and “Chelsea Bridge,” and co-wrote “Satin Doll” and “Such Sweet Thunder.”
In the early 1950s, tired of his secondary role, Strayhorn left Ellington to pursue his own interests. Even after rejoining Ellington several years later, Strayhorn concluded that his musical contributions were still not sufficiently acknowledged in public.
A man of passionate beliefs, Strayhorn became a committed civil rights advocate and was a close friend of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In 1963, he arranged and conducted the Ellington Orchestra in “King Fought the Battle of ‘Bam” for the historical revue My People, dedicated to Dr. King.
Although Billy Strayhorn’s distinguished songs, arrangements and virtuosity at the piano gave him status among musicians, few others realized what he had achieved for Ellington as his tireless co-writer and arranger. Fewer still appreciated that this generous, deferential man had created some of the most important and enduring American music of the 20th century.
It should also be noted that Strayhorn was an out gay man during a time when being black was hard enough and being black and closeted was definitely hard enough. Yet he chose not to be. Seems he was remarkable for more reasons than one.