A-flat for Billy Strayhorn

Lana Crowe sings the praises of jazz composer and arranger Billy Strayhorn

“He’s very seldom seen in public appearances, but he’s always heard.” Duke Ellington introduces his writing partner Billy Strayhorn during one of Strayhorn’s last public appearances, shortly before his untimely death from esophageal cancer aged only 51. A composer and arranger responsible for a number of jazz standards, and most famous for his collaboration with seminal band leader Duke Ellington, Strayhorn only posthumously received due recognition for his contribution to American jazz of the 1940s and 1950s. His masterful compositions, such as ‘Chelsea Bridge’, ‘Lotus Blossom’ and ‘Lush Life’, have been performed by a range of artists, from Ella Fitzgerald to Lady Gaga. ‘Take the ‘A’ Train’, the signature tune of Ellington’s orchestra, is perhaps his best-known composition.

Duke Ellington Billy Strayhorn
Duke Ellington (left) with his writing partner Billy Strayhorn

Born in Ohio in 1915, Billy Strayhorn spent time in New Jersey and North Carolina before moving to Pittsburgh, where his study of music really began. Strayhorn was not especially interested in jazz until hearing the Ellington orchestra in 1934: after watching another Ellington performance in Pittsburgh four years later, Strayhorn ventured backstage to show Ellington examples of his work. Duke recounted: “The little boy started playing and he sang a couple of lyrics and, man, I was up on my feet!” Duke invited Strayhorn to see him in New York: the following month, Strayhorn took up the offer and before long was a regular presence, moving into the Ellington home soon after. At only 5’3”, the band had a protective fondness over ‘Sweetpea’, nicknamed as such after Popeye’s adopted son (in what I can’t resist thinking of as a metaphor for Strayhorn’s relationship with Duke).

Strayhorn, always endearingly awkward during his rare appearances on stage, finds his comfort zone behind the piano in this performance of ‘Take the ‘A’ Train’. In moments like these, Strayhorn’s working relationship with the band reveals itself: he was left in charge of playing on and arranging for may small group recordings and often rehearsed the orchestra. This performance is also an opportunity to see tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves, who apparently suffered from narcolepsy, fast asleep on the bandstand. Though incidental, the image of the sleeping Gonsalves and the timid Strayhorn that adds a different, more intimate dimension to Ellington’s polished and professional image.

Duke Ellington Billy Strayhorn 2
“The little boy started playing and he sang a couple of lyrics and, man, I was up on my feet!”: Ellington on the beginning of his 20-year collaboration with Strayhorn

In James Lincoln Collier’s biography of Ellington, he characterises Strayhorn as a leisurely intellectual who was skilled and humble but lacked ambition, and harboured a devotion to Duke that dominated his working life. In his autobiography, Duke makes the extent of his attachment to Strayhorn clear: “Billy Strayhorn was my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head, my brain waves in his head, and his in mine.” According to pianist Mary Lou Williams, Strayhorn “loved Duke. And everything he wrote he just gave to him […] He was nice enough to write a tune and give it to Duke.”

The story behind Strayhorn’s jazz standard ‘Chelsea Bridge’ is one that particularly intrigues me. Strayhorn was inspired after seeing a painting of, in fact, Battersea Bridge, thought to likely be by either Turner or Whistler.  I listened to Ben Webster’s timeless version of the piece whilst viewing Whistler’s ‘Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Chelsea’ (c. 1871) in the Tate Britain earlier this year: the music animates the painting, and re-purposes it to create, collectively, a new multi-media work that’s more than the sum of its parts. Strayhorn biographer David Hajdu observed that the composition “vividly evokes the waters below”, and suggests that its indebted to Claude Debussy. Perhaps this holistic approach to music is part of what endeared Duke to Strayhorn: synaesthetic Duke’s compositions thrive on their ability to conjure image, tone and dialogue. 

Nocturne: Blue and Silver - Chelsea 1871 by James Abbott McNeill Whistler 1834-1903
James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s ‘Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Chelsea’ (c. 1871) may have inspired ‘Chelsea Bridge’

Strayhorn’s work is always evocative, if nothing else. An interest in music’s capacity to suggest and express seeps through his compositions. He was known to have a keen interest in French impressionist composers. Though Duke was a highly literary man, it is clear that Strayhorn had a big influence on his literary suites, particularly Such Sweet Thunder (based on Shakespeare’s works) and Suite Thursday (inspired by two John Steinbeck novels). Strayhorn penned ‘Up and Down, Up and Down’ specifically for Such Sweet Thunder. It is a playful recreation of Act 3 Scene 2 of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which Oberon and Titania, the fairy king and queen, enchant the four young lovers who have naively ventured into their forest. The soloists are paired, mimicking the important couplings of the play, with Clark Terry on flugelhorn ‘cast’ as Puck. It’s playful and, like many other pieces in the suite, compellingly interprets the tone of scenes and characters in a way that many find difficult when faced with Shakespeare’s heady dramatic verse. One can’t help but smile when, at the end of the piece, Terry squeaks out Puck’s enduring words: “Lord, what fools these mortals be!” Where the title track of Such Sweet Thunder can be interpreted as a self-portrait of Duke, ‘Up and Down’ is undoubtedly the equivalent of Strayhorn.

Billy Strayhorn had an irreplaceable impact on Duke’s compositions and the orchestra’s performance for more than 20 years of his revered career.  According to Collier, Strayhorn “consciously brought to Ellington’s attention devices that people assumed Ellington had known about for years”, contributing both technical knowledge and an open-minded artistic influence. The images of Duke at Strayhorn’s funeral are touching beyond belief: the giant of jazz, always placid and witty, is a broken man.  At the time of his death, Strayhorn’s contribution to the Ellington cannon was not widely acknowledged. A gay icon, an accomplished composer and arranger, and refreshingly shy of public life, Strayhorn deserves a great deal of retrospective admiration for capacitating the most iconic bandleader in jazz history.

One thought on “A-flat for Billy Strayhorn

  1. And after Billy Strayhorn’s death the Duke produced the beautiful memorial album ‘And His Mother Called Him Bill’ . Much thanks for this focus on Strayhorn. I have had a lifetime love of the uniquely beautiful creations that came from the Strayhorn – Ellington collaboration and your article serves as a wonderful resource.

    Liked by 1 person

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