Celebrating Billy Strayhorn, an overlooked master, at 100 with a new festival
(From Chicago Tribune)
He was one of the greatest jazz composers America has produced, but he remains overshadowed by his brilliant employer, Duke Ellington.
He penned scores that are revered around the world, but masterpieces such as "Lush Life" and "Take the 'A' Train" are far more famous than the man who wrote them.
He showed courage in coming out as a gay man in an era when few artists of his stature did, but he paid dearly for that heroic stance.
Fortunately, as Billy Strayhorn's Nov. 29 centennial approaches, the world slowly is beginning to acknowledge his importance as man and musician, with Chicago to take on a prominent role in celebrating his achievements.
A citywide Billy Strayhorn Festival will run Sept. 4 through Nov. 21 in clubs, concert halls, community centers and other venues. And a new book, "Strayhorn: An Illustrated Life" (published by Evanston-based Agate Bolden), will pair historic images with commentary from Ramsey Lewis, Nancy Wilson, Dianne Reeves and other major jazz figures.
Coordinated by the Auditorium Theatre — which presented a sprawling Miles Davis Festival in 2011 — the Strayhorn celebration will feature performances of his work in many forms, as well as panel discussions examining Strayhorn's place in music, culture and American society.
Though it's easy to understand why the Auditorium had put its resources behind a festival celebrating Davis, a global jazz icon with deep ties to Chicago, Strayhorn might seem like a surprising follow-up.
"The music is fantastic — that is without question," says Brett Batterson, executive director of the Auditorium Theatre, stating an incontrovertible truth.
"It just seemed like given the opportunity to raise the visibility of Billy, it was something we wanted to do. … To introduce him to people who may not have heard him. To honor him for his bravery in coming out, at a time when other people weren't doing that. And to salute his genius."
Batterson had a head start on conceiving such an event, for he knew Alyce Claerbaut, Strayhorn's niece and president of Billy Strayhorn Songs Inc. She lives in the Chicago area, has been advocating for her uncle's place in the jazz pantheon for decades and years ago told Batterson of a centennial that was years away. He didn't forget.
"He knows the legacy, and he wanted to make sure that Chicago was one of the major cities for this," says Claerbaut.
"Brett said, 'We had a model with Miles Davis, and we could probably do that with Billy Strayhorn.' He went out, wrote a grant (application), got funding."
Batterson secured support from the Chicago Community Trust, the festival's lead foundation supporter, with additional resources from the Joyce Foundation.
The $150,000 budget for the Strayhorn Festival is less than the $250,000 allotted for the Davis celebration, which presented 21 shows in 18 clubs (more than is scheduled as of now for the Strayhorn event).
But the tone of the Strayhorn celebration will be somewhat different from the Davis extravaganza, in part because the upcoming event will have an educational emphasis. Scholars, musicians and others will convene in various locations to examine Strayhorn's life and its impact on contemporary culture.
"The other piece of this (worth noting) — because of the Auditorium's educational mission — is Billy's choice to be an openly gay man at the time he chose to do it, (which) was a very brave decision," says Batterson.
"But it allowed for him to be taken advantage of."
Indeed, Strayhorn's openness about his sexuality meant that more than half a century ago, in a very different America, he could not bask in the spotlight and wide acclaim lavished upon his boss, Ellington. So Ellington, obviously a genius in his own right, benefited from the wizardry of music Strayhorn wrote for the Ellington organization, with Strayhorn enjoying few of the accolades.
"Duke ended up being somewhat complicit in the subordination of Strayhorn," Strayhorn biographer David Hajdu says in the 2007 documentary film "Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life."
"He didn't actively diminish Strayhorn, squeeze him out. But he allowed it. And I think it was a mistake. A big mistake made by a great man capable of better."
Or as composer-scholar Gunther Schuller put it in the film, Strayhorn became, "in the highest sense, a slave" to Ellington.
Strayhorn centennial celebrations, such as the upcoming Strayhorn Festival and the Strayhorn book, can serve as a posthumous corrective, belatedly giving Strayhorn his due as master composer and pioneer of equal rights. That the festival occurs in the wake of Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage in all 50 states makes the occasion all the more timely.
"He was very important to our society in many, many ways," says Claerbaut of her uncle who died in 1967 at age 51. "And a lot of that history has been underrated.
Among the festival's many events, two stand out: Jeff Lindberg's Chicago Jazz Orchestra performing newly commissioned arrangements of Strayhorn's music on Sept. 4 in Millennium Park during the Chicago Jazz Festival; and "Lush Life: The Music of Billy Strayhorn," featuring singers Darius de Haas and Joan Curto with pianist Alan Broadbent, the Joel Hall Dancers, orchestra and chorus in concert, at the Auditorium Theatre on Nov. 21.
What does Batterson hope will come of all this music, discussion and analysis?
"It's the social message, along with the entertainment value," says Batterson.
Few jazz figures combine those themes more poignantly than Strayhorn.
Following are highlights of the Billy Strayhorn Festival as it now stands, with events to be added. For details, visit auditoriumtheatre.org or phone 312-341-2310.
Chicago Jazz Orchestra. Jeff Lindberg's band kicks off the festival with new versions of Strayhorn repertoire; 8:30 p.m. Sept. 4 at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, near Randolph Drive and Michigan Avenue; free; go to chicagojazzfestival.us.
Mike Smith Quartet. Saxophonist Smith and pianist Baskin will collaborate on music of Strayhorn; starting at 9:30 p.m. Sept. 23 at Andy's Jazz Club, 11 E. Hubbard St.; $10; 312-642-6805 or andysjazzclub.com.
"The Life and Music of Billy Strayhorn." Northwestern University Professor E. Patrick Johnson collaborates with Kim Hunt, Johari Jabir and Cedric Brown in a discussion of Strayhorn's life, with musical performance and recordings. 4 p.m. Oct. 4 at Center on Halsted, 3656 N. Halsted St.; free; centeronhalsted.org.
"Jazz'n on the South Side" featuring Dee Alexander. The great Chicago singer performs music of Strayhorn. 7 p.m. Oct. 7 at Caribbean Cove, 8020 S. King Drive.
D'Erania. The saxophonist performs Oct. 30 at T&JJ's, 718 S. 5th Ave., Maywood.
"Strayhorn: an Illustrated Life" (Agate Bolden). The coffee table book includes a foreword by Ramsey Lewis and essays by authors David Hajdu, Walter van de Leur and film director Robert Levi; to be published Nov. 10; $35.
"Lush Life: The Music of Billy Strayhorn." The festival's grand finale will be a revue of Strayhorn's music featuring vocal soloists, dancers, chorus and orchestra. In addition, the Auditorium will present its first annual Eighth Wonder Award. 8 p.m. Nov. 21 at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress Parkway; $29-$68; tickets go on sale 10 a.m. Friday; 312-341-2300 or auditoriumtheatre.org.