In its annual jazz critics poll, Downbeat magazine always has a category that it calls "Talent Deserving of Wider Recognition [TDWR]." The winners are accomplished, often brilliant musicians, who are flying under the radar.
Billy Strayhorn never won a TDWR award, but, over forty years after his death, he still deserves one.
Photographer Unknown: Billy Strayhorn, n.d. [Duke Ellington Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.]
I realize that's a pretty strong claim. After all, during his long association with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, Strayhorn was widely admired as one of the finest composers and arrangers in jazz. His songs -- "Lush Life," "Chelsea Bridge," "Day Dream," "Something to Live For," and many more -- were daringly complex, musically and emotionally, but they never sounded forced or artificial. His composition "Take the 'A' Train" became the Ellington Orchestra's theme song, its greatest hit, and, as David Hajdu puts it, "a leitmotif" of the entire swing era.
Strayhorn's collaboration with Ellington (who is to jazz composers as Shakespeare is to playwrights) on everything from popular songs to extended orchestral works was so important that in his memoir, Music is My Mistress, Ellington called him "my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head, my brainwaves in his head, and his in mine."
Billy Strayhorn and the Duke Ellington Orchestra, ca. 1965, "Take the 'A' Train," which National Public Radio calls "one of the greatest jazz anthems of all time."
Given all that, it's reasonable for you to wonder why in the world Strayhorn deserves wider recognition. It's because he was, in fact, much more than Ellington's arms, eyes, and brainwaves.
In the last 15 years or so, there's been a flowering of writing and scholarship devoted to Strayhorn. The two most important studies have been Hajdu's compelling Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn, and musicologist Walter van de Leur's rigorous examination, Something to Live For: The Music of Billy Strayhorn. Both books demonstrate that he composed much more music (enduringly beautiful music) than most people imagined -- songs, extended jazz works, concert music, film scores, and Broadway shows.
The extent of his achievement wasn't recognized for two reasons: some of his output was incorrectly credited to Ellington, and, more importantly, he willing lived in Ellington's shadow.
Billy Strayhorn, playing his own composition, "Chelsea Bridge." Recorded in Paris, May 1961.
Hajdu argues convincingly that Strayhorn generally (although not always) accepted the anonymity and misattributions as the price that he had to pay to live as an openly gay man in mid-twentieth-century America. His determination not to hide his sexuality was a rare choice, in the nation as a whole and within the macho, homophobic sub-culture of jazz.
Ellington, however, was an exception to the rule. Fully aware that Strayhorn was gay, he nevertheless offered him both acceptance and support. A closeted jazz musician who knew Strayhorn well told Hajdu that "For those of us who were both black and homosexual in that time, acceptance was of paramount importance, absolutely paramount importance. Duke Ellington afforded Billy Strayhorn that acceptance. That was something that cannot be undervalued or under-appreciated. To Billy, that was gold."
Working in Ellington's shadow, Hajdu concludes, gave Strayhorn the two things he wanted the most, "a high-profile outlet for his artistry, as well as... emotional support."
Although Strayhorn and Ellington worked together closely, for many years, sharing a musical and spiritual bond, they were not simply collaborators. They were two distinct musical giants. Van de Leur's intense scrutiny of autograph scores in the Ellington and Strayhorn archives has shown that...
...Strayhorn created a separate musical entity within the realm of Ellingtonia, employing an original and sophisticated musical vocabulary that drew from a different hormonic, rhythmic, and melodic source. His compositions opened new vistas... as he infused developmental techniques typically associated with European art music into an African-American idiom.
William Thomas "Billy" Strayhorn, born in Dayton, Ohio, on this day in 1915.
* * *
Any number of fine CDs and downloads of Strayhorn's music are available. I'd start with Lush Life, an album session that Strayhorn himself led a couple of years before his death, in 1967, and the Ellington Orchestra's moving elegy His Mother Called Him Bill. Fred Hersch's Passion Flower and Joe Henderson's Lush Life: Music of Billy Strayhorn are more recent loving tributes from masterful musicians. My current favorite is Don Braden and Mark Rapp's The Strayhorn Project, which I reviewed here.
You can hear Hajdu, Robert Levi, and Alyce Claerbout talk about Strayhorn's music and his complicated relationship with Ellington on a segment of NPR's Talk of the Nation: Billy Strayhorn: Jazz Composer Gets His Due.
PS, 3 December 2010: Over the last few days, I've spent a lot of time listening to Passion Flower, the Fred Hersch CD that I mentioned above. It's been nice to be reminded how beautiful his interpretation of Strayhorn's music truly is.
PPS, 8 December 2010: Still listening to Strays. This evening's entertainment has been a terrific CD by the Dutch Jazz Orchestra -- Portrait of a Silk Thread: Newly Discovered Works of Billy Strayhorn. As the title suggests, these pieces were rarely, if ever, heard during his lifetime. According to the liner notes by Walter van de Leur (the same guy that I mentioned above), Strayhorn wrote so much that it was "more than the Ellington Orchestra could handle, especially since Duke himself composed incessantly. Choices had to be made and thus many pieces fell by the wayside...." Fortunately, the scores were preserved, waiting for van de Leur to discover them in various archives. The music on the CD is astonishingly beautiful, with the understated complexity and sophistication that was Strayhorn's hallmark. I first heard this recording when it was released about 15 years ago. I liked then, but I'm really loving it now.