At the height of African American men’s enlistment in Vietnam and in the year Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, pianist and composer Billy Strayhorn received a posthumous 1968 Grammy award with Duke Ellington, for their thirty-year collaboration producing some of America’s greatest songs. Their firm positioning as masters within American music superseded race; the jazz scene has long been a robust subculture representative of racial harmony. Long a favorite of music industry veterans and jazz lovers worldwide, Billy “Sweet Pea” Strayhorn (November 29, 1915 – May 31, 1967) did not live long enough to see his endless work, activism and miraculous gifts culminate to a coveted Grammy awarding. But he and his legacy have moved to more recognition and centering in American music in the last two decades.
Until recently, Strayhorn was best known as the indispensable sidekick and intellectual muse to Duke Ellington. He humbly and courageously lived in shadow of “The Duke” in his lifetime and much of his afterlife. The gospel-influenced and classically-trained pianist and composer is in renaissance of interest and celebration thanks to the establishment of Billy Strayhorn Songs in 1997. The family-owned company’s efforts include marking the centennial of his birth in 2015. The Bill Strayhorn Foundation, Inc. is committed to deepening appreciation for jazz music in general, starting with Strayhorn. And now longtime fans and new discoverers can also enjoy Strayhorn: An Illustrated Life, a fine biographical coffee table book available from Bolden Books/Agate Publishing in Chicago.
As a college student at University of Chicago in the late 1990s during the era of Love Jones fever, my haunts were Hyde Park Records and Dr. Wax on 53rd Street. I am a compulsive reader who would strain for the fine print on vinyl I explored for hours before I selected a few albums I could afford. When the name Billy Strayhorn continually appeared on some of my favorite all-nighter tunes, I investigated him in the campus library (before the days of Google). News articles and jazz theorists gave me a hint of the dire need in which Billy Strayhorn Songs generated. Since then, an astounding cross-section of historical recovery projects– published research, video and a documentary, journalism profiles, and books– assure far less people will have to just bump into Strayhorn’s name to find it out.
Strayhorn: An Illustrated Life is a mesmerizing compilation of essays, commentary, clippings and contributions from those who knew Billy Strayhorn best. A highlight of the book is touching photos of Strayhorn’s early life, handwritten scores and sheets, and intimate candids taken throughout his career. Strayhorn’s artistic sociology outgrew from regular camaraderie with everyone from icons like Lena Horne to political giants like Thurgood Marshall, his founding of the Copasetics performance ensemble to memorialize Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, and collaborators such as Maya Angelou who recorded his lyrics as poetry. Martin Luther King, Jr. officiated the baptism of Strayhorn’s godson Warren Arthur Logan, the only child of arts philanthropists and cultural activists Dr. Arthur and Marian Logan. The number of legends quoted in commemoration of Strayhorn’s life parallels the energetic, boisterous and giving character he was celebrated as.
According to enlightening and versatile “liner notes” commentary included throughout the book, University of Amsterdam jazz professor and tireless Strayhorn scholar Walter van de Leur credits Strayhorn’s musical genius for Satin Doll‘s famous melody. Apparently, its titling is in dedication to Strayhorn’s mother, who loved satin dolls. van de Leur also tackles the controversial and persistent error that Duke Ellington wrote his own signature dance ballad “Take the A Train,” his career’s biggest moneymaker. van de Leur demystifies fault of this error as Ellington’s, asserting that Ellington always gave Strayhorn credit (lack of an original score furled the famous confusion). Other commentators include songstresses Diane Reeves, Nancy Wilson and Lena Horne.
Horne’s enduring friendship with Strayhorn was a creative dependency on him akin to Ellington’s reliance on Strayhorn to bring out his musical genius–which the book relays more than once as a sometimes tense relationship, like any lifelong marriage’s ebbs and flows. However, Strayhorn and Horne lolled steadily as constant congenial companions. Even their surnames were a match. Strayhorn’s level of former obscurity is such that his name is left off of Horne’s American PBS Masters biography as a connected artist, although the book describes their meeting and relationship thus:
“In 1941, Billy spent a year in California. Aside from meeting many well-known stars, one very special relationship developed that would last the rest of his life. He was given the enormous task of being a chapter-one for the lovely Ms. Lena Horne. They became soulmates almost instantly and were just about inseparable. Ms. Horne describes it this way in David Hajdu’s biography: “For me it was as if my other self came up and spoke to me–we were that much in sync.”” -from Strayhorn, page 47
Sheet music and recording studio ephemera interlace Strayhorn, with at least seven of its pages devoted to 1939’s beloved “Take the A Train.” As musical partners and music industry teammates, Ellington’s and Strayhorn’s devotion to one another is as famed for its tenacious output as for its classy joy to see. It is quite possible Ellington would have been unable to ascend to Sinatraesque cult following in America without such an enduring and consistent confidante as Strayhorn. Like Strayhorn with Horne, the duo’s friendship resembled a romance. Strayhorn was openly gay, to leave Horne in oft-expressed heartbreak they never married and Ellington with a wingman for his legendary ladies man status.
The publisher’s Q & A with Strayhorn’s niece, the book’s co-editor A. Alyce Claerbaut, reminds us even Lady Gaga records Strayhorn’s compositions (she solos the now-signature Strayhorn song “Lush Life” as part of her 2015 jazz standards album with Tony Bennett, Cheek to Cheek). Claerbaut acknowledges “Uncle Billy” was “distressed at not being credited for many of his compositions” but “history is easy to write and hard to correct.” Everything from homophobia within The Duke’s tightest circles to discrepancies within Ellington’s Tempo Music led to Strayhorn’s near erasure from proper credit as writer, arranger and composer of many songs I myself thought Ellington invented.
While the book presents a comprehensive portrait of Strayhorn’s life and influence in his time, its value extends past documenting his years on Earth. Working musicians and scholars should know Strayhorn’s road to more respected status and guaranteed profit for his life’s work was a trying one. His nephew Gregory A. Morris’s Afterword charts the complicated task of serving as executor of the estate for “Uncle Billy.” Morris’s designation predated the current national conversation on gay marriage rights and legal partnership entitlements; as Strayhorn partnered long-term but never married a wife or had children, the responsibility to steer copyrights and use of Strayhorn’s songbook landed in Morris’s hands. The task was especially complicated because Strayhorn, sadly, passed away in the first twenty-eight-year term of the copyrights held by particular publishers.
Morris needed to challenge automatic renewal of the term for more power on future publishing of Strayhorn’s prolific catalog. He was successful, entering into a more beneficial copublishing agreement with Dreamworks. With divine interventions including Strayhorn’s Lush Life biographer David Hadju and Professor Walter van de Leur, whose musicology dissertation was published from research helping the family copyright seventy songs, Strayhorn’s business affairs were in order just in time for a classic jazz frenzy among new generations eager to know the man often credited alongside Duke Ellington.
In the book’s Foreword, self-professed Strayhorn devotee and lifelong distant learner Ramsey Lewis quotes Ellington’s recognition of Sweet Pea as “my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in back of my head, my brainwaves in his head and his in mine.” The book’s introduction names him “an unsung hero” at the outset. Strayhorn: An Illustrated Life has set a precedent on how to sing this American composer’s praises from now on, to make up for all the lost time history turned the volume up on his songs but down on his name.
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